MY FATHER'S PLACES
By Aeronwy Thomas
Skyhorse, $19.95, 224 pages
The cover of "My Father's Places" pictures author Aeronwy Thomas as a curly-haired, 8- or 9-year-old smoking a cigarette, and instantly it prompts the question: What were her parents thinking of? They were the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas and his Irish wife, Caitlin, and the answer is that they were far too self absorbed to think much about Aeronwy, so she got away with lots of stuff.
Oddly, this snapshot of little puffing Aeronwy also evokes nostalgia for those brave times before parental anxieties led to today's hawk-eyed superintendence of children. It was 1949, and she was 6 when her family moved to the Boat House in Laugharne on the southwest coast of Wales.
The story she tells in her memoir ends four years later, when her father dies in New York while on a lecture tour. She had just left for boarding school, so her days in the village formed a discrete period of her life - one she spent walking in the estuary mud, collecting her dad from the pub and going to her grandmother's when her mother beat her with a hairbrush. But if her Laugharne years were often painful, they were also golden.
Wartime food rationing was still in force in Britain at this period. Homes were typically heated by a single coal-burning fireplace, so most rooms were cold; TV was still in its infancy; dishwashers were unheard of; and even fridges and washing machines were far from standard equipment.
Ms. Thomas remembers her father's fury when the coal man blocked the shed where he worked with sacks of coal. She recalls her mother's stews of pigs' ears and marrow bones; the wet laundry draped in front of the fire when it was too rainy to dry it outdoors; the smelly buckets of kitchen slops saved for the pig that her father and the pub landlord were raising for bacon and ham.
She treats these indignities as simple facts of life rather than privations, focusing instead on the joys of a house whose garden was often washed by the tide. She loved wandering the shore with her mother, looking for cockles or for washed-up bits of broken china. She delighted in finding dead sheep swept off the headland. She adored cycling around with the village kids, and she definitely felt the full importance of being dispatched to the pub to tell her father he had to come home.
Late morning always found him there, either doing the Times crossword, or gossiping with the landlady in the kitchen. This is where he learned of the local peccadilloes that became grist for "Under Milk Wood." But lunch at home was an imperative. Caitlin insisted that her husband, so wayward in so many ways - as she was herself - kept to a schedule. Her daughter writes:
"Writing began at 2. p.m. - no excuses - in the shed. ... Mother locked the door at times, particularly when he returned from trips abroad and was reluctant to follow his old routine as laid down by her. On the other hand he could count on her to accompany him to the pub every night from 7 p.m. till 10 p.m. Rowdy sessions back at the Boat House with pub friends tended to take place at the weekends when the workers could sleep in next day."
These rowdy sessions often involved the guests leaving on hands and knees so they could safely negotiate the steep Boat House path. They could also involve Caitlin dancing on a table or somersaulting over the lawn. Just as easily, she and Dylan could start fighting, slinging abuse, and even fists, at each other.
Little Aeronwy took much of this in her stride, minding her baby brother while her parents were out drinking. She longed for her mother's attention, but when she couldn't get it, she was happy with her grandmother. Her father was a more remote figure. He read to her occasionally - she recalls them poring over " 'The Wind in the Willows' together" - but he traveled frequently to London and Cardiff to meet friends and get work.
He also made four lecture trips to America. The idea was to earn money - permanently in short supply despite his constant work. He hoped to snag a job as resident poet in a university as well. No such offer ever came. His drinking and ramshackle lifestyle probably deterred would-be employers. They certainly used up the most of his earnings. When Caitlin accompanied him on the second trip - a move designed to head off his infidelities - she had a major fling in the department stores, returning to Wales with a stash of clothes, including silver and gold lame swimsuits, but no money whatsoever.
Dylan Thomas was only 39 when he died. Nonetheless, he left a large body of work - not just his poems and plays, but also a multitude of more ephemeral writing for newspapers, magazines and radio. The amount he published is astonishing, as is his early success. Though his life was short, he was already recognized as Wales' premier poet. It's hard to imagine that a poet could publish so much and win such a reputation so quickly today.
His daughter's memoir is therefore a vital record of a time not so very long ago, but as irrevocably passed as the era of crinolines. "My Father's Places" is also an enthralling account, sometimes charming, sometimes funny, sometimes sad, of her young life and her memories of her father.
Claire Hopley is a writer and editor in Amherst, Mass.
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