Monday, September 12, 2011

Knowing Uncle Peter

The first thing I think I can remember about my Dad was that he had built boats for us. They were little wooden boats that he’d sawed out of pieces of wood and they had paddlewheels that were powered by elastic bands. You could wind the paddlewheel up and then put one in the bathtub and it would sail around under its own power and I thought it was the most amazing thing.

My Dad loved the water. He taught my brother and sister and I to waterski, although he was the only one who ever got the hang of the slalom ski. He owned boats and spent as many weekends as he could fishing at Dinosaur Lake. As a boy, with his brother Michael, he hopped on an ice flow on the shore of the St. Laurence, to ride it downriver, and was swept out far from shore, only making it back when a larger iceflow pushed him close enough to allow him to dive off and wade to shore before the current carried him out to sea. This didn’t discourage him though and in the summer he decided to try riding a log on the Jaques Cartier river, this time being swept off upside down through the rapids when the log rolled. Luckily, a nearby logger saw him, dove in and pulled him to shore. My Dad found this funny.

He was born in Montreal, which forever tainted his choice of sports teams, was raised in Donnacona and did some of his schooling in Ottawa. After school he followed his sister Libby west and, in 1963, he joined Pacific 66 in Taylor, BC, working at the refinery that his older brother, Kevin, had designed. He went there expecting to work in the yard, pulling wrenches, but wound up hired in finance where, in spite of having no training or experience, he excelled, as he always seemed to do. For a long time I had no idea what it was that he did for a living. He could fix things, like our car or my bike, and he taught us how to do things, like skate and ski. And then he put on a suit and went to work and did something. He never sat still for long.

The first time he tried to teach me to ski, he took me to the hill and told me to take my skiis, hike a little way up, and wait for him there. Then, optimistically, he bought himself a lift ticket and rode to the top of the hill, thinking he’d ski down to meet me, so he could get a few runs in over the course of the day. I hiked a little way up the hill, put my skis on and, not seeing him yet, decided I must have missed him and should ski down to look for him. As soon as I started down I realized that I didn’t know how to stop or turn, so I panicked and sat down, sending myself rolling end over end to a stop at the bottom of the hill. That was where my Dad found me, being put in a splint by the ski patrol. He didn’t get any runs in that day.

He was always looking for some new challenge or adventure. He worked but he was also a volunteer fireman. He helped to build the local ski hill. He coached the baseball team that my brother Paul and I played on. When my Uncle Mike built his house in Lac Des Arc, he was out there helping with that. Whatever it was that needed doing, he always seemed to know how.

Pacific 66 was bought by Petro Canada and then, in 1991, the refinery was sold to Westcoast Energy. Dad was asked to stay and help with the transition, and was the last Petro Canada employee to leave after the buyout. He tried retirement for a while but couldn’t sit still for long. He sold his house and bought a roadside café in the Okanagan, switching from Finance to short order cook without hesitation, always ready to work. When he told me what he was going to do, I thought it was terrifying, but risks never seemed to bother him and so he went.
He loved music – learning an appreciation for opera and classical symphonies from his mother, and acquiring an appreciation for 80s rock from his children.  He also loved animals – which, if you didn’t know him well, might come as a surprise.  He always seemed to have a dog a cat or a bird, or some combination of those, close to him.

He moved back up north in 2003, settling in Dawson Creek with his cat, Salem, where he could be close to Peta and Paul and their families.

He always seemed incredibly large and fearless to me, always able to do whatever needed to be done.  When I learned he was sick with pneumonia it was a small worry.  He was 71 so being sick seemed serious, but then, he never got sick in spite of everything he did, so it seemed impossible that anything could actually hurt him.  When we learned that there were shadows on his lung and liver x-rays, I seemed to get confused – I had a hard time keeping track of what day it was; I got lost in the parkade at work and wandered around not able to understand why my car wasn’t there.

Almost as soon as we knew it was cancer, he was gone.  I guess this is probably better, to go quickly.  But I miss him.  He never said much, which could be difficult for us at times, but when he smiled you knew he liked your company.  He could make you feel wanted without saying it.  This is the way he was.

He wouldn’t have wanted today to be a sad occasion.  He would want to see people enjoying themselves and remembering him as the person he was – full of life and humour.  So I’d like to thank all of you for coming today, to celebrate his life and his impact on ours.  Thank you.


this is the eulogy from my Uncle Peters funeral. Written and read by his son, Peter. I didn't know my uncle very well. I didn't know that he was 71 years old when he passed away, I thought he was older than my Dad. My Dad is now the oldest living sibling of that family. My mum keeps him healthy and strong. She keeps the both of them healthy and strong. After reading the eulogy, I, for the first time, felt as though I actually knew who Uncle Peter was. It was a nice glimpse at the man his son saw.

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