My Dad, Jay (John Benjamin) Ashbrook, would have been 100 today. He died in October 2002 aged 86.
He was born on 26 July 1916 in Madison, Wisconsin, of Arthur Elliott Ashbrook and Katherine Austin (after whom I was named) and went to the University of Wisconsin.
He was, he said, directly descended from one of Morgan’s Raiders, who attacked the northern states during the American Civil War: his father came from Kentucky and his mother from Arkansas, so they were southerners. His older sister Marcie married Frank Woy and moved to Butte, Montana, and he often visited them; he was fond of her children, Frankie (who still keeps in close touch with us) and Sally.
Dad met Mum during the war; his friends from Madison, Mum’s aunt Jessie and her daughter Jane, wrote to Mum to say he was coming over with the US army, but he telephoned her before she got the letter so she was no doubt rather taken aback. She was then a land girl at Northiam in East Sussex, and made the trip to London to meet him.
They married in 1948 and Dad stayed in England. They lived at first in London and then bought Wrango, in Denham Village, south Bucks, in 1952. Mum (aged 99) still lives there though it is a little large for her now. My sister Sue was born in London but by the time I was born they lived at Wrango. At first Dad was selling food to the US bases over here, then he moved into publishing.
We had a happy upbringing in Denham. My early memories of Dad are that he was immensely kind, generous and good-natured. We were always pleased when he ran our baths because he let us have long, deep ones. He invented bedtime stories for us and would willingly get up at crack of dawn to take me bird watching at the gravel pits. When we went to the New York in 1962 he said he would buy me a diamond tiara. It was a joke but I held him to it and so he bought me a two-dollar one from Bloomingdale’s—which was fine by me.
Connie and Belinda
He loved cars and Connie the Continental Bentley was his joy (and her predecessor, Belinda, whom I never knew).
Mum and Dad shared a love of dogs which has been passed down the family. The earliest I remember was Elmer, a characterful Boston Bull terrier who adored Dad, but we had a succession of dachshunds too.
Dad was a party-lover and was always good company. He had a stock of jokes and sayings—‘One man’s Mede is another man’s Persian’ for instance. Sometimes they were a bit obscure: when our dachshund was limping he said ‘poor Horace is St Albans’ (Verulam, ie very lame). He liked to play with words and come up with funny phrases such as ‘one swell foop’ (one fell swoop).
Sue followed Dad to the University of Wisconsin and in 1973 married Fritz Casselman. Dad was delighted when they produced two grandsons for him, Ben and Peter, with whom he could share his love of boyish things: cars, the traction engine and making peanut brittle (a sticky toffee confection—don’t mention the mess!).
Dad was proficient at painting and later etching. For a time he rented a studio at the top of a tall London building with no lift, and it was a real test for some of his portlier friends to visit him. Later he escaped to the top floor at Wrango and even the basement. I liked his landscapes, especially those he painted in the Rockies (which he loved), and was sorry he didn’t do more of them.
He painted a good self-portrait too.
And his friend from the Langham Club, Cliff Hatts, did an even better portrait.
When Dad died, Mum organised a seat in his memory on the village green at Denham. He had been a co-trustee of the green with Hugh Stewart, another long-standing Denham resident and good friend. The green had been given to the village in 1952 by Reverend Herbert Ward to save it from development. Dad and Hugh registered the green as a charity in 1992 and set up the Friends of the Village Green to raise funds to maintain it. We think of Dad whenever we pass the green.
It is sad that Dad did not live to see his two grandsons married, Ben to Erin in 2011 and Peter to Erica in 2015. He would have been proud of them all and would have enjoyed their excellent wedding parties.
We all miss you Dad.