My father, Bill Murphy, was born in County Cork, Ireland in 1905. His father was a schoolteacher. His mother had already given birth to eleven children and my father was number twelve. A few years later she died giving birth to her thirteenth child. His stern father did not believe in protecting children from the harsh facts of life and my father’s first memory was of seeing his darling mother lying cold and dead in his parent’s bedroom. He was two years old.
When he was about eight he had a dog that he loved, a big old yellow mongrel that followed him home one day. Then an edict came from the County Cork municipal authorities. All dogs that were unlicensed had to be destroyed. My father knew his family could not afford the license fee so it was useless to even ask. He hid the dog until the final day. When he saw the official car coming up the street to give out summonses he grabbed the dog and ran to the river. Years later he laughed as he described the terrible scene, “Dozens of kids like meself, all there drowning their pets so the family wouldn’t get mad at them.” That was when I realized the Irish always laugh when their hearts are breaking.
He ran away to sea when he was seventeen and traveled the world in the Merchant Marines. He met my mother when he was home on leave in County Cork. She was eighteen and they met at a Halloween party. He was tall and handsome with red hair and full of jokes. She was pretty and slim with chestnut hair and a clever quip for all his teasing. Their courtship was full of laughter and two years later they married. He stayed at sea until their second child was born. Then he retired from the Merchant Marines and they moved to England and settled in Romford, a small town outside London.
When World War Two broke out London was being bombed and mother took the children (now three little girls) away to the country for safety. My father must have been very lonely and he got involved with a woman he met through friends. Doris was beautiful and extremely warm and affectionate and she adored my father. By the time my mother found out my father was having an affair they had decided they could not live without each other. At the break-up, they were hostile to my mother and left her with an empty house (they took the furniture) and four young children ages ranging from eight years old to six months.
I was too young to remember any of this and did not consciously meet my father until I was about seven. I was in boarding school and went to stay with him and Doris and their new baby boy for the Easter holiday. I loved Doris on sight and when she hugged and kissed me affectionately I was smitten forever. My father was more formal, nodding and smiling but with no physical contact. Then the first morning I woke up in their pretty little bungalow I heard him singing. And I knew then that my father was singing for me.
He had the most beautiful baritone voice I ever heard, then or since. He sang opera, Irish ballads, American standards. The house rang with the glory of this music. Doris would sometimes laugh and cover her ears but I never tired of hearing him. At night he and I would walk through the dark empty streets and he would sing. I danced along beside him, running to keep up with his long-legged strides. Entranced by his voice ringing boldly through the silence.
Every year he entered the competition for the Essex County Music Festival and won Best Baritone. I sat with Doris in the Festival Hall puffed with pride at my father’s glorious gift. He sang Mozart, Puccini, Gilbert and Sullivan and was clearly the audience favorite. He always chose to sing far away from the microphone – his voice strong and vibrant, filling the hall in no need of mechanical help.
After my mother took us to America, when I was thirteen, he dropped out of my life. I wrote him long letters that were never answered. Somehow they had decided to cut off that secret family from his past. Years passed with no word from him but I never gave up writing. I wrote of our difficult adjustment to our new life. Of my strange but friendly acceptance at a New York Public school. Of my oldest sister’s boyfriends. My younger brother’s troubles with delinquency. My mother’s marriage to a kind gentle man. My longing to see them, Dad and Doris and Billy. No response.
At the age of eighteen I decided to become an actress and started in Drama School. I wrote to Dear Dad and Doris that I was about to embark on this theatrical career. I wanted to be on Broadway, maybe in the movies. An actress of quality and dedication. And then he wrote me a letter. “I would advise you against going into the commercial world of the theatre,” he wrote. “It is a hard life and the rewards are not worth the suffering you will endure. There are a lot of talented people who try to make a foothold in that area and never amount to anything. It’s not worth the hardship so I advise against it. It’s no life for someone like yourself. You can do better.”
I had broken the ice. The following year I went to stay with them again. He no longer sang at Festivals and there was no Glee Club at the factory where he was a supervisor. I asked him to sing the old aria’s and he did, but with apologies for the loss of tone in his voice. Doris did not care that he no longer sang about the house, but I did. Before I left for America again I asked him to make a record for me of all his old songs. “I’ll do it,” he promised. He had to hire a pianist and go into a recording studio but it did not take him long to do it.
The package came when I was living with my best friend in a Brooklyn apartment. She was a classical-music lover and without telling her who she was hearing I played my father’s record. It was his voice, but he was right, the vibrant tones were gone. The glorious voice was thinner and weaker but still it had his magic sound. We listened to the entire roster of songs and she chucked appreciatively. “Very good,” she said. “That’s my father singing,” I confided in her. She laughed. “Of course, I knew that. All you ever talk about is how your father had this lovely voice and always sang for you.” “Yes,” I said, “And now I have his voice forever.”
by Morna Murphy Martell