My family and I want to thank everyone for their good wishes and sympathy and for being here today in this church which was such a central part of dad’s life. Our family isn’t just my mom and dad and my brothers and me. Our extended family, our uncles and aunts and our cousins are very close and it’s that closeness that has helped us through a very difficult few weeks. Just a few days before my dad died we lost one of the mainstays of the clan, our Aunt Alice, Alice Cuddihy, my mom’s sister. Anything we have to say about our dad is equally true, and maybe more so, of Aunt Alice.
The family want these days surrounding dad’s death to be as much about celebration as about mourning. If we can do both equally we will have done Jimmy Lee’s life justice. So, what I’m going to do is ramble on about the things dad liked and loved and the things he loathed and despised. He was always funny about both. Let’s begin at the beginning. Dad was from Kilmaganny, in County Kilkenny and that village and that county are first on the list of things he loved. Though he spent almost all of his working life as a carpenter he started out as a blacksmith working with his dad, Ned Lee. I always tell people my dad was a blacksmith because the stories he told of his life in Ireland are stories of his days working in the forges in Kyle and Newmarket. If I told all the stories of those days we’d be here for, well, for days. Suffice it to say that they involved bicycles, spuds and talking horses. His love of his home was most deeply expressed by his love of Kilkenny’s hurling team. In fact it’s been little noticed that dad’s decline started when the Kilkenny Cats were beaten in the All Ireland this year. Yes, the Kilkenny hurlers are responsible for dad’s death – it’s a little known medical condition. I could tell stories of dad’s trips to Dublin for All Ireland Hurling Finals involving many pints, posh hotels and a mysteriously mobile spittoon but, again, we’d be here for days.
Dad moved to England in 1952. Dad had an unbelievable memory for people and places and dates – he was the repository for all the family stories and one of the hardest things about losing him is we are losing the family memory. That memory is best summed up by my brother Jimmy who asked dad about another of the great loves of his life, the Antelope pub on Stratford Road. “Dad”, Jimmy wanted to know, “when did you first drink in the Antelope?” The answer was something like this: “February 12th 1952. It was a Tuesday”. In the Antelope dad had the little piece of Ireland that sustained him throughout his years in Birmingham. Again, the stories are endless, involving pints, music sessions and the occasional juke box smashed to bits and thrown out into the Stratford Road. It was in the Antelope that dad displayed one of his most remarkable skills. He could sum up his philosophy of life or the current political situation in very few words. Usually this involved the things for which he had no time whatsoever. When I heard dad had died I thought of his dislike of those he felt had not earned their place in life, mostly the rich and famous and, particularly, politicians. Whenever someone rich or famous, but especially famous, died he’d say – Do you think they’re digging a bigger hole for him than they will for me? He detested the modern tendency to make almost anyone into some sort of celebrity and he was in the Antelope one night around the time David Beckham has broken his foot just before the World Cup. Someone was selling copies of an Irish newspaper in the bar and approached dad’s table. Dad said to him: “I’ll buy a copy of that if there’s no mention of Kylie Minogue’s backside or David Beckham’s foot”.
My most treasured memory of his political commentary was when Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister – oh, how he detested Margaret Thatcher – and I was watching television with, I think, my brother Eddie and dad was doing that remarkable trick so many Irish people seem able to do, watching the telly while the screen is completely obscured by a newspaper. For dad, always the Daily Mirror, he’d never lower himself to read The Sun. There’s a report on the news about Thatcher’s arrival at 10 Downing Street and, of all things she could do to infuriate what dad would call decent people, she starts quoting Francis of Assisi. “Where there is despair, we will bring hope” and so forth. Very slowly the Daily Mirror starts to descend, dad looks over at me and my brother and says, “Oh, we’ll all be millionaires”. Then the paper goes slowly back up.
Dad also had pithy comments for those he loved. High on the list were the four of us, his sons, Eddie, myself, Jimmy and Gez. When my daughter was born, while others congratulated me, his only comment was, “You’ll have to buckle down now”. We were only slightly more loved than the many cousins here and in Ireland. His summing up for us mostly consisted of a clip round the ear. However, above us all, the love of my father’s life, the center of his Universe, was Gret Rafter who became Gret Lee and our mother. There are many reasons people emigrate from Ireland – poverty, lack of work, adventure – but dad came, I believe, to follow mom. He told me a story of a falling out they’d had and how he had persuaded her to take him back and this is how he summed it up: There must have been something there. Indeed. Sixty six years they knew each other, more than fifty eight married. A flat in Balsall Heath where they lived when Eddie was born, the first house they bought in Fernley Road in Sparkhill where Jimmy and I were born then fifty two years at 66 Phipson road and the last of their children, Gerald. There must have been something.
Dad wasn’t one for expressing his love for us in words. As my mom got frailer and dad became her full time carer I visited and told him how great he was doing with mom. His reply was not a thank you or a boast or a complaint, it was the simplest and most moving thing I ever heard another person say: “Sure, didn’t she look after me when I was sick?” A man who kept his promises. He expressed his love through doing things, not saying things. I decided a few years ago, however, that I would tell him that I loved him. Whenever he took me to New Street or Digbeth Coach Station to head back to the States I would say, “I love you, dad” and he would just mumble and nod. I didn’t need him to say it, he’d shown it in so many ways. One time we were visiting, my wife and daughter and I. Now, one of the things you never did to my dad was tell him there was anything wrong with him. My wife is American and they often have a need to confront things even if you point out that Irish people tend to keep their families together by never talking about anything important. Both mom and dad were getting deaf and I said to my wife; “Don’t tell dad he’s deaf, start by telling him mom is deaf and needs hearing aids”. So, she did. “Jimmy”, she says, “Gret is getting very deaf and needs hearing aids”. Then came the response: “That woman isn’t deaf, she’s heedless”. Mind you, he did get her hearing aids.
Now, on that same visit my dad’s deafness produced a minor miracle, My daughter, who was about seven at the time, came from the kitchen to the sitting room and said to my dad something like, “Granddad, where’s the butter?” My dad’s response was” “I love you, too”. I didn’t laugh then and I am crying now but I love that the one time I heard him tell someone “I love you” was because he misheard. It was, though, the greatest summing up of his life. In that one “I love you” was this thought: I will shelter you and clothe you and feed you and protect you, I will educate you and when you are in trouble I will help you. There is only one thing left to say. I love you , dad.