Saturday, February 19, 2011

Eulogy to My Father

It's hard to believe that Dad is actually gone. I just didn't think old age was up to the job. A meteor strike, an earthquake, a bolt of lightning maybe. The man was more durable than Keith Richards. And now that he is gone, I find myself surprised that there are were no headlines to mention it: "H. A. Dead at 92" on the cover of the New York Times, or at least the Citizen.

Dad was large and in charge. Even in old age, when most people shrink and become frail, Dad just got bigger. And he wasn't exactly diminutive to begin with. A worker in his father's warehouses since the age of 14, Dad would spend 18 hour days tossing 120 lb bags of sugar, flour, salt, or whatever up to the top of 12 foot stacks. One of my favourite stories of his took place when he and Bud were in their late 20's or early 30's. God Almighty Fournier had left for a mover's convention in Detroit, and Dad and Bud discovered that there was not enough money in the bank to meet the payroll at Fournier Van and Storage. The old man had told Dad that a good businessman was a good collector--and then apparently forgot his own advice. The books showed numerous accounts owing. So Dad and Bud set out to collect debts, with the clock ticking urgently.

Now, can you imagine the reaction of their clients to the sight of these two irish gorillas, shoehorned into suits, knocking on their doors and very firmly asking for the money owed to them? They must have looked like the Kray Brothers."Hello. We have been reviewing our accounts, and we have discovered that you owe us this amount of money. We would like to collect it. Now. In cash.... Nice place you have here. Here's a picture of our Mum." By the end of the week, they had money to spare. It would only be years later that Dad found out just how much he had terrified these people. Dad didn't do subtle.

As for being in charge, Dad liked to plan projects. Under Dad's guidance, we would move a mountain two feet to the left on Saturday, and two feet to the right on Sunday. I would eventually discover that it had less to do with moving the mountain than with playing foreman. During the building of Chris's cottage, Don Blakesly took a picture of Dad, scowling at the camera, and framed it, with a caption that was a refrain we'd heard often during that summer: "Well, if you'd done what I told you..." Chris's cottage was fine, except for the roof. Dad was impatient, and decided that we didn't need to do extra measurements to square it. Chris gave in, and the roof has waves and troughs in it. I have to say that Dad always got the job done though. Not always the right way, and sometimes the job didn't really need to be done, but he made sure it got done.

Still, the results could be spectacular; an acre lot, clawed out of rumpled mud and rocks by my father and my brothers, that became a magazine perfect lawn, fringed with lilacs and apple blossoms whose scent was ecstasy on a spring morning; a bay of dead fish, debris, and scrub trees that became the site of the most magnificent chalet on Lake Pemichangan; hundreds of flawless roses, arraigned along the back of Des Pommiers or on the slope of the hill of the cottage. Those who bought the cottage in the interim could improve the building and buy bigger boats, but they could not sustain or equal Dad's daily efforts.

Dad had a good life. Varicose veins in his legs spared him from going to war and left him to raise his family in peace, but never much inconvenienced him otherwise. He worked for his father at Fournier Van and Storage until he partnered with his brother Bud at Moloughney's Van and Storage. As his family grew, he worried that he would not be able to provide for so many children--in most pictures taken of him during the 50's and 60's, he has a worried expression--though maybe he was just worrying about his camera in the hands of someone else. But by the time I was a child, steak was a fixture on the table on Saturday nights, he built the house on Des Pommiers and the cottage on Pemichangan, and even the steaks got bigger and better, with sirloin eventually giving way to filet mignon. He sold his business when he was 57, just before deregulation made the moving business go sour, spent every summer of the next 25 years at the cottage, and often travelled to warmer climes in the winter. And still he managed to party like it was 1949. If you'd told me a man with his lifestyle would make it in good health to age 92, I would never have believed you. And this is the same man who has been telling us for the past 40 years that he would be gone soon. We all hope to inherit his constitution, if not his habits.

I have heard it said that old age is not for the timid. Old age for dad came suddenly at crucial milestones: when he could not pull the motor off the boat, when he could no longer hear his beloved music (and we will always be grateful that he passed this love on to us), but most of all, when Mom died. In the days that followed he became a babe in arms, handing all control over to his children. From this point on he was often rudderless. In a retirement home, widows sought him out; he was a catch, but he would never give up the torch he carried for Gladys. His solution was to help Ann buy a house with a granny suite, a new place he could call home. And so it was for seven years, until late December, when he went into sudden decline, stopped reading his daily newspapers, and then collapsed. All he wanted at the hospital was to go home. The final milestone was reached when Ann had to tell him that it was no longer possible for him to come home. The care he required could only be given in a nursing home. "Oh, no." was all he said, and then he set out to die. And that he did, and quickly.

So I'm glad he's gone, because that's what he wanted. I can only hope to live and die as stubbornly as he did. Fortunately we are a stubborn family, on both sides. If your intent is to be a force of nature, like my father and grandfather, you spend little time in self-reflection and a lot of time in bulldozer mode. But while determination may make bullies of us all, conscience makes cowards of us all. There is a balance to be struck, and Dad was never entirely one or the other.

Goodbye, Dad. I shall always miss you and keep you.