Father's Day 2015: A 'thank you' to the step-dads, too

The men trying to fit into their step-children’s lives as best they can and do the right thing

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Father’s Day! Regular readers may recall that I never knew my father, Eddie, as he died when I was a 15-month-old baby , aged 41.

I know little about him. A South London van driver for the ice cream cone family to which we’re related, he was a little poetic for a regular working class bloke and a tad too keen on gambling. Relatively recently, I learned that he was wounded in mid-air during the war, parachuting in over Arnhem.

Having dwelled little upon him as a child, in later life I came to romanticise him. Eddie has been increasingly in my thoughts the longer I have been a father. Which all makes me feel very guilty about Bert.

Herbert Cyril Hatfield, Edwin’s brother, was born in 1922, and lived a largely unremarkable life until his death in 1978. He had bad eyesight, wore thick National Health Service glasses and rode a 50 CC Honda scooter from his home, first in Herne Hill and then Croydon, to work every day as an electrician in London hotels like the Strand Palace.

“Unremarkable”, save for one major exception. Two years after my father died, uncle Bert became my dad. Perhaps, you may find this odd, perhaps not. It’s not so strange in Italian families, I’ve been led to believe. Who cares?

I was four when he married my Ma; my sister was three. Imagine taking on a young family in this way – even one you already knew and presumably cared for. Bert hadn’t been lucky in love, but like most Hatfields he was a little awestruck by my then glamorous Ma, a volatile mix of Elizabeth Taylor and Sophia Loren. It was the 60s. She brought a little of La Dolce Vita to a Croydon council estate.

Bert and she married to give us a father. It was less Barbara Cartland, more pragmatism, but we remain nonetheless grateful. He was what I knew to be a dad: stern and gentle in equal measure; loving, but the disciplinarian; and the “man who could”, ie, fix things.

Neither gambler nor poet, he seldom ventured into culture. On our regular visit to the Green Shield Stamps store on a Saturday morning he once, entirely out of character, bought a cheap replica of Rodin’s “The Kiss”, because “your mum might like something romantic”. He reckoned without her puritanical Catholicism: “I’m not having this filth in my house”. Rodin went straight into the bin.

His crestfallen face and the conspiratorial wink he gave us is my clearest memory of him. That is, until he winked at me again as the ambulance took him away after the fatal heart attack my 13-year-old self watched him suffer at our kitchen sink.

We never really commemorate Bert’s life in the way we do Eddie’s. But there will be thousands of “Bert”s out there; step-dads trying to fit into their step-children’s lives as best they can and do the right thing. They tread fine lines, trying to respect their step-children’s birth fathers – as Bert always did. Often, this takes place against an unfairly negative narrative around the supposedly evil stepdad.

So, to the late, remarkable Herbert Cyril Hatfield, and all stepdads like him, two words I never managed to say when you were alive: thank you.

Stefano Hatfield is editor in chief of High50