Doodie: a daughter’s memoir

Dood was born funny; his smile could light up a room. When I was alone with him at the end of the church, preparing to process past the packed pews towards my fiancé and his best man Ron — yes, in that holy, deep and moving moment when he was preparing to give his daughter in marriage — he turned to me and inquired… “Sure you wouldn’t rather have Ron?”

Born John Maxwell Taylor, Doodie was never religious — our Congregational church once made him a deacon to guarantee he’d showed up between Easter and Christmas— but when a New York prostitute oiled up to him in the street saying, “Hey, you look lonely, mister,” he flashed back, “No man is lonely who walks with his Lord, Jesus Christ.” And when — aware that the only fiction he’d deign to open were Le Carré’s Cold War thrillers — I asked his opinion of my prizewinning Susan: A Jane Austen Prequel, he quipped that it “could do with a few more car chases.”

He was always so vital that I still can’t believe he’s not there… dancing around the house wearing nothing but a towel and going, “I’m the tooth fairy! I’m the tooth fairy” in answer to my tiny sister’s inquiry — singing the Williams’ fight song in the bathtub — or stomping up from the basement after losing at tennis. (He was always either “tasting the sweet wine of victory” or else “the bitter dregs of defeat.” There was — as ever with Doodie — no middle course.)

Everything Doodie felt was wholehearted. His devotion to the Dvořák cello concerto when we lived in Bangkok, Singapore and Myanmar fuelled my determination to learn an instrument that — growing up in Asia — I had rarely even seen… Although, having said that, my devotion to the cello, and my sister’s equivalent devotion to the viola, did not always thrill him. His lyrics to Fauré’s Élégie, with which I trounced the local violinists — at least, whenever my nerve held — were as follows: “I play all day Sunday/I play all day Monday/Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday/ Friday too…”

He also penned a little skit — as far as I am aware, his sole work of fiction — regarding Sammartini’s G major cello sonata, another competition favourite of mine.

Here, Doodie imagined that every composer is obliged, in heaven, to listen whenever their works are performed on earth. In his skit, Sammartini approached him in a dream, and tearfully begged him to stop me from practising his sonata: “Meester Taylore, I beg of you! I get no resta! Morning, afternoon, evening — eet ees always the same! The girl in McLean, Virginia, the G major sonata! I have hadda enougha!!!!

Doodie possessed a very pleasing tenor voice — untrained but remorselessly true to pitch — which I preferred to Richard Lewis’s (his own personal favourite). He sang in the Washington Cathedral choir and was particularly addicted to choral works, to Bach’s B minor Mass and Brahms’ Requiem, in particular. He and Mom attended the Kennedy Center and Wolf Trap religiously, though — if Dood was displeased — he was perfectly capable of storming out. He stormed out of Busoni’s opera Arlecchino, to my embarrassment, dragging me with him — once, he even stormed out of church, when annoyed by the sermon, I forget why. He could be very tempestuous, which I normally liked, but the two of us could also clash, upsetting the rest of the house, sometimes for days.

Doodie was also famously impatient. While Kath, Mom and I would be glued to the latest Henry James adaptation on TV, he would give it five minutes, pronounce it “slow” and wander off, to find a book on WWII, to locate the tennis on another TV or to ferment over his lack of “verdant carpet” — lawn treatments never worked, in our woodlands, but Doodie’s hopes (unlike his “verdant carpet”) sprang eternal.

He played an excellent game of tennis himself, and remained a popular club player well into his 80s. When we were living in Myanmar he requested — and got — a diplomatic house with its own tennis court. Every day, after work, he would rush home and play with his friends until the light died, when he would move indoors to work on his biography of President Garfield, or to listen to Beethoven. His claim to tennis fame: when the US Davis Cup team came to Burma, he actually partnered Stan Smith on “our” court.

His second claim to fame: his biographies.

Dood’s devotion to history, to military history in particular, led him to write — with absolute ease, his style was effortless, and he had excelled in history at Williams — several well-regarded biographies. Despite this, his all-male, historical book club faltered, as the rest unanimously failed to read the military history they’d sworn they would. Instead, they’d have a few beers and discuss the fate of the Washington Redskins.

Doodie generally became deeply attached to his biographical subjects, which included President James A. Garfield — the bridge over our stream was the James A. Garfield Memorial Bridge, and Dood was very sad when it got washed away — Lincoln’s Secretary of State (William Seward), Robert E. Lee, Korea’s Syngman Rhee and his own father, Maxwell D. Taylor, who led the 101st Airborne into Normandy on D-Day, later Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Of course, he also had to work. As he used to tell us, rather gloomily as he departed in the morning, “It is man who hunts the buffalo…” He hunted buffalo in the research department of the CIA, for the State Department in Korea, Thailand, Singapore and Myanar, and finally, in Defence Intelligence. (My sister, when very young, actually believed he had gone to hunt buffalo… and, a true animal-lover, fretted over the fate of the buffalo.) But work — beyond his own biographies — rarely inspired real enthusiasm in my father.

He could also be completely pig-headed. In his latter years, he fell over so often that he was on first-name terms with the local Fire Service, because my slender mother could never lift him.

Why did he fall? Because, in his mind, he was still strong, supple, young — and a favourite with all the girls. (Doodie often confided, with regard to waitresses as well as wives of Heads of State: “I could tell she liked me.”) But, really, only Doodie would have considered it a suitable job for a 90-year-old — in an area teeming with hardworking illegal immigrants, each with a large Catholic family to support — to scatter grass seed so close to our stream that he actually slipped and fell in.

In addition to American history and classical music — though he was capable of being prodigiously rude about almost any music post-Dvořák — my father loved to travel. He heartlessly dragged my mother — herself perfectly content to remain in their beautiful forest, infested by deer — to Alaska, to Russia, to every corner of Europe, around half of Asia and through the best bits of South and North Americas. Though they never actually got as far as Antarctica, they hit the Galapagos twice and secretly, by their late 80s, Mom was burning travel brochures on sight.

Most of all, though, Doodie loved my mother. His 64-year-old devotion had been as immediate as it was lasting, and woe betide any of his children who upset Priscilla!… I believe too that he hated the very idea of death (informing me last October, with admirable recklessness, that he, a cancer survivor of 91, had “no intention of dying”) — because he was utterly unwilling to leave Priscilla behind him.

I loved that — along with his recklessness. I loved the spirit that took on his cancer and defeated it (even though the radiotherapy that demolished it was partly what killed him) — I also loved the boyishly itchy feet he never lost, his passion for connecting with the past, his impetuousness, his adventurous spirit, his vitality, his wholeheartedness.

Which was what I hated about his final state — unable to speak, only able to (almost) smile, or perhaps to shake his head, or to move a hand — so tamed, so trammelled, so unlike himself! How his powerful spirit seethed at the infuriating limitations the stroke, the radiotherapy and the encephalitis had imposed on him!

And when I told him — it was up to me; nobody else was going to — that he must let go, that he would see Mom again, in another country — and that he deserved a better life than this, the single tear that he released half-scorched my finger.

He died a day and half later. I will always be sorry that I didn’t stay another week — that I wasn’t there when he finally dared to leave my mother behind him. But I feel comforted to know that his powerful soul is again soaring, entirely jubilant, entirely Doodie.

He is waiting for my mother most of all — but also for us.

As Dylan Thomas wrote:

O deepest wound of all that he should die
On that darkest day. oh, he could hide
The tears out of his eyes, too proud to cry.

(Until I die he will not leave my side.)

Doodie, having dragged Mom on some trip or other…

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Alice McVeigh

Alice McVeigh

Novels — some award-winning — by London-based Alice McVeigh have been published by Orion/Hachette, UK’s Unbound Publishing, and Warleigh Hall Press.