Charlotte's Web

Blogging my world since 2006

D is for David Cooper


There are many people whose names begin with “D” whom I know far better than I know David Cooper, but I have decided to leave the living alone. David Cooper is a mystery man. He is unknown. I apparently met him once at the age of three and have no recall of that encounter, apart from eating boiled eggs in a strange kitchen. I was celebrating my tenth birthday when the news came from Port Elizabeth that David Cooper had died and I felt, oddly, given that he was my grandfather, nothing.

I have studied my mother’s wedding photos, trying to imagine who he was and what he was thinking, giving away a daughter he had last seen five years before. Apparently, he dutifully paid for the wedding, appeared to be proud of her, talked pleasantly to the in-laws, looked dapper, and danced so wonderfully with my grandmother that she began to entertain hopes.

David Cooper was a charmer. Appearances were important to him. He was always nattily dressed, and had beautifully tailored clothes. Though untrained, he was a talented pianist and could play any tune. He sang well, loved amateur dramatics and was an accomplished painter. His talents he apparently inherited from his mother who, according to family legend, once sang in the Royal Albert Hall. He loved a party and a drink, and told a good story. David followed his brother and sister to South Africa from London when he was in his twenties, all running from a cold, possibly cruel, father. When he breezed into Kingwilliamstown, handsome, accomplished, funny and charming, Elsie Hinds fell for him. They shared a love of painting and the arts, and for her, he represented a way out – from a dominating, stifling mother and her somewhat dull small-town life.

War came shortly afterwards. David enlisted and Elsie camp-followed while he was training in Pretoria. She had her first child, a son, and then he went off to become one of South Africa’s Desert Rats. During the war, their daughter was born, and afterwards they settled in Johannesburg where David looked for work. He was not happy – the charming, gregarious man she had married was gone. Everyone said the war had changed him.

He decided to sell everything and move to Scotland, where his beloved younger brother Anthony lived. The family docked on one of the Union Castle liners at Port Elizabeth and spent three weeks on the boat. They were met at Southampton by David’s father, meeting his son’s family for the first time. He had a white Father Christmas beard and, in my mother’s words, “the coldest blue eyes I’d ever seen”. After a couple of months in Devon, the family joined Anthony and his wife Ursula in Scotland, but the time there was unsuccessful and the brothers fell out, over money or an inheritance. After a year’s experiment, David once again packed up his family, bought boat tickets and they headed back for South Africa, sad and disillusioned. It was the end of the marriage.

After the divorce, my mother and her brother saw David Cooper every couple of years. He diligently sent Elsie a monthly allowance, one that was not enough for the family to live on, but he never forgot Christmas or birthdays. My mother says he sent wonderful presents, always of the best quality. “If he sent a writing-set, it was leather; if he sent a train-set, the trains would actually work.”

In his fifties, David Cooper developed cataracts. He was working in shipping insurance, and he had married his secretary, who also functioned as his guide. They were sitting on a bench on the Robberg in Plettenburg Bay, when he slid off and died. He was sixty-four. The last time he had seen my mother was seven years before. She, like me, felt almost nothing when she received the news of his death.


This is what I know about my grandfather. There is a blankness in his story, an emptiness at the heart of it, a big zero. I think the reason is that he was hiding from himself. What if he had left London as a young man because of a secret? What if he was running? He found himself in South Africa, met the lovely Elsie and married her as an attempt to escape from that secret self. War came and he was able to run from his marriage, to a world of soldiers, and camaraderie and suffering. On his return, he found himself part of a family that he couldn’t love. He ran, again, to Scotland and when that didn’t work, ran back to South Africa, where the marriage was over.

I have heard the rumours about David Cooper. One cousin, who was spiteful and untrustworthy, told me rather gleefully over her third glass of wine. When I asked her sister, she said, “I’m afraid that she was right.” I took the information and buried it, just as David Cooper tried to bury his true self, because I didn’t want to hurt my mother by asking. Then yesterday, when talking to my mother about her father she confirmed that she knew the rumours. Out of respect for her, I am not going to say what his secret was, but you can probably piece it together.

So there are secrets and lies, as in every family. How sad for David Cooper that he could never be his true self, how sad for my grandmother that to him she never came first; how sad for my mother and her brother that their charming father remained forever distant. My mother told me a story yesterday. She said, “My parents were going out for the evening and came to say goodnight to us. I was in my cot and my brother was in his little bed. My mother came into the room and talked to us a little, then hugged us and kissed us goodnight. My father stood in the doorway, and all I could see was his shadow. I realise now that that was what he always was to me: a shadow.”


I’m working through the alphabet in a series of short, memoir-like pieces. My compadres are: Jadepark, Courtney, City Wendy and Life is Just One Big Adventure.

Author: charlotteotter

Novelist, feminist, crime writer

23 thoughts on “D is for David Cooper

  1. He sounds like a basically decent person who couldn’t make it with his family but didn’t abandon them either. What a shame he didn’t have more contact with his family after the divorce.

  2. You’ve set me wondering how much I know about my grandfathers. Maybe less even than you do about yours, though they were around in the background when I was a child and I remember my one grandfather as a chuckling man who would always bet four cowrie shells at pontoon/vingt et un and usually win. They are distant figures though and the stories of their lives very shadowy in my mind. I love the way your writer’s eye has redrawn a picture of your grandfather that brings him to life, even if it is a sketchy one and missing details.

  3. the thing is, as present as my grandfather has always been in my life, you know more about your absent one than I ever have. we take the present for granted, but treasure the slivers of those we barely know. how messed up is that?

  4. How interesting, but I can’t work out his secret. Like the other commenters I know very little indeed about my grandparents, and that generation who went through the war were a tight-lipped lot. But I guess any man who never forgets Christmas and birthdays and who sends wonderful presents can’t be that bad. He wanted to give something better than himself, and to be aware of that, however dimly, must indicate genuine humanity.

  5. Beautifully and intriguingly written – I want to know so much more about him. I know so little about my own grandparents, only a photo or two. Don’t know much more about my parents, in some ways.

  6. He is vivid in your writing. And yes, it’s sad that he lived a shadow life.

  7. “My father stood in the doorway, and all I could see was his shadow. I realise now that that was what he always was to me: a shadow.”


  8. I love the posts you have written for Alphabet: A History so far. I ran into them because Shakesville, in a blogroll, linked to Jadepark’s “A is for Aub Zam Zam”. I read some more of the beautiful Alphabet posts various people have written, and have particularly enjoyed your style. If I may do a little self-advertising in a blog on which I’ve never been before, it inspired me to start my own alphabet…

  9. I love this idea of memoir-like pieces. I’ll have to go back and read A, B, and C!

  10. What we chose to write says so much about who we are.

  11. I know his secret. I liked this because you’ve reminded me of my father (who doesn’t share the same secret btw). I wish mine had an excuse like that but he just doesn’t like his family particularly much. I heard last week that he has cancer but felt nothing except for a sense of dread that I might have to go and see him. People are strange really.

  12. I’m loving this alphabet series and I would love to be able to write this well about my own grandparents. Sadly my family (who have discovered my blog) would not approve unless it was a glowing account with no dirty laundry on display. But I will write about them anyway (just not post them yet). The mystery adds to the writing and all I can guess is that he somehow got on the wrong side of the law.

  13. Interesting that we all feel so compelled to take a guess – which of course I’ve done. This made me sad, Charlotte. Sad for him, his family, his shadow life and the blank spot in your heart where he otherwise might live. And sad, too, for the many conversations I so easily might have had with my own grandfather but still didn’t. Talk about a missed opportunity.

  14. Pingback: D is for Dirty « Writing Under a Pseudonym

  15. Not sure what the secret is – but that just adds to the mystery!

    So powerfully written.. and sad too.

  16. Beautifully told. I love the idea of the alphabet memoirs.

  17. What a lovely post Charlotte. So sad that your mom and her brother were denied a real relationship with their father, and how sad for your gran. Like a previous commenter, it did make me wonder abotu what I actually know about my grandparents. Both my maternal grandmother and Paternal grandfather died before I knew them. Neither of my parents were very close to their parents though, and we always lived in different towns, so even my memories of the surviving grandparents are scant. My grandmother taught me how to play patience and once downed two whiskies & soda and saying “My, this is good Appletiser!” My grandfather never forgot a birthday and sent my brother and me bonus Bonds every year. Other than that, what I mostly have are stories told to me by my parents. I often wonder how very different our generation’s children’s perceptions of their grandparents will be.

  18. Pingback: A: Reading Anne « Writer In Progress

  19. Another great post in the series. There is so much I do not know about my grandparents; we always lived so far away from them they weren’t even shadows. Whatever his secret was, I’m sure his war experience gave him PTSD and it didn’t make things any easier.

  20. Hi Charlotte – OMG – I have been looking for information on my Granny’s brother – wondering why we never knew more about him…. and I kind of know why now…. My Granny actually followed your Grandfather to South Africa (from the story we were told) and never left as she met my Grandfather… would love to hear more from you. I contacted your Dad the other day as I found your Mum’s wedding picture in my Granny’s suitcase and googled it…so I was at least able to put together that my Granny’s brother did have a family….
    I knew my Granny well, she was an absolute star – matriarch of the family and her loss is felt everyday… however, my Mum died just 9 weeks ago and I’m trying to piece bits of family together to try to still feel the connection… I can’t let it go. My Granny however was incredibly reserved and did not discuss her family from England – though I also knew well one of their brothers and stayed with him many times in England with his wife – but unfortunately he died in 2003…
    Wow, your post is about families not knowing eachother… little did you know that family in NZ would read it and be able to help put a story together….
    Would love to hear from you though…

  21. Hi Charlotte. Mandy in New Zealand has just passed a copy of this wonderful, extraordinary story to me. I was named after David. My mother was Tony, my mother Ursula died less than a year ago. You are my cousin. Hello! My life is in Scotland, running a business with my wife, a business started by my parents. You can check it out at . Your blog fills in a lot of gaps, but begs more questions as well, do get in touch. David

  22. Hi David – how wonderful to meet a real, live David Cooper, and a long-lost cousin to boot. Will contact you immediately!

  23. Hello Charlotte…I’m another cousin !!! (David’s sister actually)
    I’ve lots to tell you. Do get in touch. Jo

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