August 7, 2011

Eulogy for Robert Bates

(L-R) Auntie Honey, Myself, Uncle Bob - July 15th, 2011 Grand Forks, B.C. 
An expected, but unwanted late-night phone call and the distance I feel from my home town is only traversed by certain memories:

Five years old and I'm standing in front of the doorway to Uncle Bob's wood shop. The combination lock hangs on its latch, and the door is open about three inches. Inside, I can hear the whir of the lathe. I knock and wait. In a moment he's there, clad in blue-gray overalls, a dust-mask over his mouth and nose. He greets me and allows me inside, providing I don't touch anything. I enter and sit on a small chair and watch him work. The room smells of cedar dust and Verethane. I tromp patterns in the sawdust on the floor with my feet.

Seven years later and Uncle Bob is showing me where the old Lawnboy is kept so I can keep the weeds down in the empty lot beside their house. He is my first client and writes me a $16 cheque after each cut, which he carefully records on a form that gets submitted to Veterans Affairs. I have to sign my name too. In winter I shovel the driveway, or clear snow from the roof of the shop, or the low-lying garage. Half way through any job and I'm always invited inside for a break. I sit at the kitchen table with Uncle Bob and Auntie Honey, and my tin of Coca Cola. One summer I get lazy - teenage stuff - and avoid his lawn for a few weeks. He calls our house, asks me if I'd rather the money go to someone else, if I can't handle the responsibility. I cut his lawn the very next day.

I bring girlfriends over to meet them. The serious ones anyway. The one I end up marrying plays the violin. One Christmas Uncle Bob brings out from his bedroom his old fiddle, a cassette player, and a book of old songs he likes because they're played by Don Messer. I sit at the piano, my wife-to-be takes the fiddle, and we butcher our way through several jigs while he records them onto a cassette tape. A tape he uses to teach himself those same songs.

Even later, and we now have a daughter who comes with us on visits. She trundles about, causing small disasters. One time, Uncle Bob gets up from his chair and disappears down the hall. He returns with his fiddle. He tunes it quickly, and plays a fast song for her. His hands are slower now, not quite able to catch the trills. I am suddenly aware that he is not invincible, which bothers me. The thought of either Uncle Bob's or Auntie Honey's absence is unfathomable. As quickly as it came out, the fiddle returns to his room.

Our last visit, three weeks ago, and I find myself standing in their yard, looking at the old wood shop. Uncle Bob comes down the steps slowly. His heart is bad. He can't putter around like he wants to - like he should be able to. And he's aware of his own mortality. We climb into his 1978 Datsun pick-up, which was orange when he bought it but later spray-painted "John Deere Green". We drive into town, my father behind us in the van, and head to Sears to pick up a riding mower. He's worried Auntie Honey won't be able to mow the lawn when he's gone. She's already told him there's no way in hell she'll ever get on that machine, but that doesn't matter. I also don't mention how Dad has been mowing it for years now.

It is one of the finest afternoons in recent memory. 36 years old, and I'm sitting in the same truck I used to, when we'd drive around town and pick up discarded oak pallets for Uncle Bob's wood projects. Suddenly I'm that kid again, waiting for a story about the war, or a bit of curmudgeonly gossip about someone in town who's annoyed him. I'm the kid who thought the world was okay because sometimes even the old people were cool. I'm the kid who could sit for hours in their basement with toys and comics from an era I never knew. I'm the kid who'd ride his bike to their house, crashing it onto the lawn before heading inside to say hello.

As we drive, he mentions that he can barely handle the arm-strong steering now. But he does fine. We joke that if the mower falls off the back of the truck, it'll only hit Dad, who's new teeth haven't arrived yet anyway. We get the mower to the house and each one of us try it out on the empty lot. On a return trip to drop off the ramps we've borrowed, he lets me drive.

The last day I visit Uncle Bob and Auntie Honey, we have to catch our flight back home to Ontario. Our visit to B.C., and Grand Forks, is over. We stand in their back yard, which is a ghost of what it used to be. He tells me he has taken his old shop tools and buried them in the back yard. "No one uses tools like that anymore," he says. "They don't fit with any of the new." It makes sense for him to bury them somewhere. I have no idea if there is sentiment involved. Auntie Honey tells him he's nuts. We say our goodbyes and take some pictures. My daughter tries out his walker and tells him it's very useful.

Backing out of the driveway, I see Uncle Bob leaning against the tailgate of the old Datsun now parked in the garage. Auntie Honey stands off to the side, waving. I roll down the window and shout a final farewell, to which he smiles and raises his hand. A casual gesture, the both of them waving as if we are only heading back down the street to my childhood home. As if we will return the next day and carry on from where we've left off. And my heart is fit to burst. The wood shop tucked away at the back of the yard - nearly out of sight.


Sam said...

Really sorry to hear that, Harry. A very well-written and touching eulogy.

jgreaves said...

Very beautifuly written Harry. I did not know your Uncle Bob but I feel like I do now. John

Anonymous said...

I'm very sorry to hear about your loss Harry. This is a beautiful eulogy.
- October

Been said...

Oh Harry, I love this tribute to Uncle Bob. I'm so glad our kids have had the chance to be apart of their life and I will work hard to ensure their memories stay preserved. Breaks my heart to know he's gone.

Don said...

Nicely written, Harry!!

Laura said...

Harry, I am so sorry for your loss. I know how special, to say the least, Uncle Bob was to you. I am truly saddened.
Love Lucy

Harry Tournemille said...

Thanks for the kind words, everyone. Much appreciated.

Nelia Botelho said...

Well done, Harry. You've got some beautiful memories to remember him by.

Anonymous said...

Awesome Harry,he misses you too!

Anonymous said...

i felt like i was right back at my Grandmas. Sorry to hear of your loss. Wonderfully written eulogy.