Eulogies for Dad

We had a lovely home-made memorial service for my Dad last Saturday at the Foley Mountain Conservation Area near Westport, a spot he loved all his life. As I did after Lisa’s funeral, I’ve collected the wonderful tributes from Dianne and John Moroz, Pete Stothart, Howie Green, my sister Beth, and my Mom into this PDF. (Some editing has been done for length and to explain some obscure inside jokes.) My own words appear both in the PDF and below. We love you, Dad.

(Oh, yeah: The one person whose words I didn’t collect here was the elderly gentleman who really wanted to tell everyone about the day in 1944 that Westport got the news that my father’s father was missing in action. He was so determined to tell the story, in fact, that he turned the P.A. system back on and did tell it–after my mother had finished speaking, and the service was done, and after I’d expressly asked him not to. But it was a nice story, although perhaps a bit confusing to those in attendance, because in telling it he conflated my father and my father’s father. Elderly gentleman, if you’re reading this, DM me the text of your remarks and I’ll add them to the PDF.)

Eulogies for Dad (PDF)

The living room in our house in Dundas—the house that Beth, Amy, Jamie, and I grew up in—had a brown corduroy couch that made lines on your face if you slept on it. It had a wooden rocking chair decorated with a pretend bearskin rug. It had a chair that we thought of as Mom’s chair, a kind of armless lounge chair that I always thought was very stylish and elegant. But the best place to sit in our living room was Dad’s chair. You can probably picture it: a big Lazy-Boy style recliner, a classic Dad chair. It could swivel and it could rock and there was a lever to make the footrest pop out, and it was right next to the stereo. But the best thing about sitting in Dad’s chair was that, if you sat there when he wanted to sit there, he would come, stand in front of you, hold out his hand for a handshake, and say, “No hard feelings, Robbie!” And when you took his hand to shake it, he would grab your wrist and heave you out of the chair, catapulting you high into the air and across the room, where you’d land in a giggling heap. You’d never be fast enough to get up and get back into the chair before he sat down in it, but if a few of your siblings were around, they might beat him to it. So then he’d have to do it to them: “No hard feelings, Beth! No hard feelings, Amy! No hard feelings, Jamie!” And you could stretch this out indefinitely.

We called this game “No hard feelings,” because that’s what Dad always said, as if we were making up after an argument we hadn’t had. And that could probably be our family motto: “No hard feelings.” Certainly it was our Dad’s. Our family is really good at good feelings. We love each other, we make each other laugh, we don’t argue much at all. And the truth is, we’ve been lucky. Not that much hard stuff has happened to us. We don’t have nearly as much practice with hard feelings as with good ones. And I think that was one of Dad’s (and Mom’s) great gifts to us.
Dad wouldn’t want any hard feelings today. He wouldn’t want anyone to be sad for him, or sad because of him. He’d want us to get together in the sunshine, re-tell some old jokes and funny stories, drink a couple of toasts to him, hug, laugh, and call it a day. But we are sad, and that’s OK too. Because some of these feelings are hard.

*  *

Dad was born right here in Westport in December 1941. He was born in his grandmother’s house, the little white house on Bedford Street, the same lot where Mom & Dad’s house is today. Mom was born in Manitoba in June 1942, but Dad always told us he was six months younger than her, because December comes after June—and he said this with such conviction that we kids believed him most of the time.

This is the thing about eulogizing my Dad. I should be able to reconstruct the chronology, and get the dates and details right. But Dad never let any pesky facts get in the way of a good story. So some of the stories I think I know might not be 100% accurate. I know I could do the research and pin down the gospel truth. But to be perfectly honest, I like Dad’s stories the way they are: tall tales, that ought to be true, even if some of the details are fuzzy. Isn’t every great Dad kind of a mythological figure to his children?

When Dad talked about his childhood in Westport, it sometimes sounded like the 1950s and it sometimes sounded like the 1850s. The stories Dad told described a kind of Tom Sawyer / Huck Finn childhood: roaming wild in the woods for days (these woods right here), catching everything that moved, climbing everything that didn’t. He told us about epic wars, fought with slingshot and BB-gun, between all the Protestant kids in town and all the Catholic kids. All the people in Dad’s Westport stories had colorful nicknames: Speed, Fetch, Puke-face. Dad’s nickname, apparently, was Spider. He said that people called him “Spider” because he was such a fast runner. As a kid I accepted that explanation, because I believed everything Dad told me, but it doesn’t make a lot of sense to me now. There are a lot of animals that run faster than a spider. But there you go again: myths and legends.

* *

Speaking of mythological figures: Dad’s parents: Robert MacDougall, known as Mac, and Helen MacDougall, born Helen Porter, were both schoolteachers. They met on their first day of teaching, the only two teachers at a tiny school on Manitoulin Island, aged all of nineteen and eighteen years old. They had a few good years together; they were married in 1937. But Mac volunteered for service when World War II broke out, and he was killed in action in Italy in 1944, leading a gallant, doomed charge against a Nazi machine gun nest—a detail guaranteed to capture the imagination of his grandsons.

My Dad was just a toddler when Mac died, so Dad and his sister Diane grew up without a father. I’ve often wondered how a boy with no father grew up so happy, so secure, so comfortable in his own skin—and also how he grew up to be such a guy’s guy—a jock, a football player, a great outdoorsman. While at the same time he avoided so many of the traps and pathologies that snare so many men in our society, especially older men: problems with anger, or alcohol, or attitudes about women.

A big part of it, I imagine, was that Dad spent his whole life surrounded by women who adored him and would do just about anything for him. There was his Mom, Helen, my Granny: sometimes stern or strict, maybe, but she absolutely doted on Dad. She was also a great outdoorswoman and an athlete in her own right, so I guess those parts of Dad’s life came straight from her. There was also Dad’s Granny, Nell Stinson Porter, who was ostensibly helping her widowed daughter raise her two kids, but most of the time was really Dad’s fun-loving partner in crime, spoiling him rotten and covering for him whenever he broke Helen’s rules. And there was Dad’s big sister Diane, who might sometimes have resented the way the whole world seemed to revolve around her little brother—but the truth is she doted on him too.

And then, later on, there was my Mom, who met Dad on her first day at Queen’s University in 1960, falling for a scheme so hare-brained and politically incorrect—well, if you don’t know the story, I’ll let her tell it. I’ll just say we kids came by our gullibility honestly, and we didn’t get it from Dad.

As I understand it, my Mom had smarter boyfriends at Queen’s than Dad, more serious boyfriends, boyfriends more likely to become big shots. But she always says she married Dad because he made her happy. And possibly because he could run straight up the moat of Murney Tower? Like I say, the details in all these stories are fuzzy:

Did Dad really skip three grades in high school and still get picked to play football in university? Did he really see the Beatles perform live, before they were big, when he was in the Air Force in Germany? Do they really play Singing in the Rain on TV each year before Christmas? Myths and legends, legends and myths.

*  *

My big sister Beth was born in Madison while Dad was finishing his doctorate; I was born right after our family moved to Dundas, when Dad became a professor at McMaster University in Hamilton; Amy and Jamie soon followed. I know Dad was working hard in those days, and with four kids Mom was working hard at home so that Dad could work hard at work. But as hard as he was working, I don’t remember him ever being absent or anxious or short-tempered. He was always present, he was always himself, reliable and cheerful, keeping his cool and making us laugh. The term “Dad joke” was invented for our Dad—he always said, “I’ve got a million of ‘em”—even though the jokes themselves long predated him. I grew up thinking university professors were easy-going guys who loved corny jokes, beer, and fishing. I was so dismayed when I got to graduate school and everybody there was a neurotic nerd like me.

Mark Twain once said something about his own father that has long resonated with me. Twain said, or is supposed to have said: “When I was twenty-one, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have him around. But by the time I turned thirty, I was astonished at how much wisdom the old man had gained in just a few short years.” So it was with me and Dad. I went off to university an Alex P. Keaton conservative, with the same short hair-cut the Air Force had given my Dad in 1963. I came back with a ponytail, an attitude, and a long list of things my Dad was wrong about. I cringe when I think of all the arguments I wanted to start with him in those days. Dad certainly rolled his eyes at me, and he never took me as seriously as I felt I deserved to be taken, but he never took the bait, he never took it personally, and if he ever got annoyed, he didn’t show it. And after I grew out of that early-90s stridency—like Mark Twain, I was astonished at how much Dad grew up in just a few short years—he never brought any of that up. “No hard feelings,” once again.

There have been times in my life, I have to confess, where I didn’t feel worthy of being Dad’s son. I used to wonder why I couldn’t throw a football like he could, or why I wasn’t the life of the party like he was, or why I didn’t wake up happy nearly every day of my life, like he somehow seemed to do. But all those doubts and insecurities were on me. Not a whiff of that ever came from him.

And I don’t want to focus on what Dad didn’t, or couldn’t, teach me. Here are a few things he did teach me. Dad taught me:

How to tell a joke, how to tell a story, and how to tell poison ivy.

How to climb the Treacherous North Face of Bluff Point, and not to worry that it’s really more like the east face. And never to take the big rocks at the cottage for granite. (Get it?)

He taught me how to drive, and how to grill a steak, and how to tie a tie.

He taught me how to shoot a porcupine, and how to paralyze a walleye or a pickerel by grabbing its lower lip. He taught me how to clean and gut a fish too, but I think I’ve forgotten.

He taught me the words to “Old Shep,” the trick to playing a saw, and the choreography to “Teen Angel”—though I could never cut a rug like him or Aunt Di.

He took me to see all the Star Wars movies and the James Bond movies and Raiders of the Lost Ark. He taught me that The Heroes of Telemark was the first action movie to feature telemark skiing, which combines elements of cross-country and downhill skiing. I don’t know why I needed to know that, but I’ve never forgotten.

He taught me how lactic acid builds up in your muscles and the difference between fast-twitch and slow-twitch muscle fibers.

He taught me how to lift weights, though knowing how to lift weights doesn’t do you much good if you never do it.

He taught me that running is good for your soul and bad for your knees.

He taught me to love Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson, Molson Export, Wolfe Lake, and sunlight through the trees.

He taught me to love life, to laugh at myself, and to look on the bright side.

He taught me, I hope, to be a good husband, a good father, and a good man.

*  *

As many of you know, my wife Lisa passed away this June, dying just a few days before Dad. Dad and Lisa were both diagnosed with cancer around the same time, three years ago this summer.

A slow death from cancer is a cruel blessing. It is a blessing because you see what’s coming, and you have time to say your goodbyes. And that is a huge comfort to the ones you leave behind. But it’s cruel, because it takes things away from you bit by bit—even the things that you or your loved ones think make you “you.” One day, Dad went fishing for the last time. One day, Dad went for his very last run. One day, Dad sat on the gazebo at our cottage in the late afternoon sunshine and enjoyed his last Wolfe Lake happy hour.

It was hard to see Dad’s life taken from him in this way: to see the varsity athlete’s body betray him; to see the great outdoorsman confined to his bed; to see the eternal optimist downcast and depressed. And to see our Mom working so hard to hold back the inevitable. Dad didn’t want help from anyone but Mom at the end, and she didn’t want to be anywhere but at his side. And the waters rose, and Dad’s world contracted, until it was just him and Mom and us four kids sitting around his bed. We said our goodbyes and our “I love you”s, and he sipped his last sip of beer and told his last joke. And then we left Mom and Dad together, and then even she had to let him go. And he died at happy hour, and the sun came out from behind the clouds.

Dad didn’t want all of us to fuss over him—“no hard feelings,” even then—and I’m sure he’d be embarrassed by all this attention and emotion today. I’m sorry, Dad. Sometimes we do have to feel hard feelings. But I think those will fade quickly and we’ll just be left with memories of a great, great man who got to live a great, great life.

Memories, and a few questions: Did the Incredible Hulk really phone our house that one time? (Dad insisted he had.) Could he actually make the sun come out just by taking a nap? (He said that he could.) And: was my Dad truly that strong, that dependable, that happy, that good, for all those years?

He was. He really, truly was.