I buried another body over the summer.
My first cousin Bob’s monument joined most of the rest of the family in the Island Brook Cemetery, deep in the heart of Quebec’s Eastern Townships. That would be in the hills of the Appalachians sprawling towards the borders of Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont.
Annick, his current girlfriend, asked me to say a few words before the music, drinking and dancing started in earnest. Maybe ‘current’ would be the wrong word when it came to describing girlfriends. ‘Latest’ would be a more accurate moniker.
Airforce veteran, jock, entrepreneur, mechanic, woodworker,traveller, quester, raconteur, New Age farmer, ladies’man. I don’t know, maybe that last term isn’t appropriate any more. I’ve given up trying to keep up. But these are just a few of the words that come to mind to describe a restless relative who returned to the family farm after sojourns in the Canadian air force, the Arctic, Newfoundland, Vancouver Island and Papua, New Guinea, to name just a few.
Life is full of ironies, of course. The man giving the eulogy, Bob’s closest living relative, was sixteen years his junior and had looked up to him during all of my sixty years and not only because I am the runt of my family’s litter. But even though I considered myself the best qualified expert to eulogize my cousin’s life most of my earliest recollections of Bob came through our mutual grandfather, Jack Dawson, who would always be telling me a lot of Bobbie stories, as he called him. That’s because Bobbie himself would only make it home for a couple of weeks during the summers when I was young and helping out on his family’s farm. He was over six feet tall and had built himself up “lifting weights and drinking beer” while in the air force and I marvelled out how he could toss bales of hay around as effortlessly as I hoisted a bag of marshmallows. Even then however, I wouldn’t see Bob too often before noon, as he usually had spent the preceeding evening out with some local member of the fairer sex until God-knows when. And in my impressionable juvenile mind, doing God-knows-what.
Bob filled me in about the time his father, my Uncle Earle, had left him in the hayfield with the tractor and explicit instructions to get the hay raked before noon. When Earle came back a couple of hours later he happened upon Bob with one of Island Brook’s fairer maidens getting to know each other in a Biblical way against one of the larger rocks on the farm. In a heated voice Uncle Earle wanted to know what Bob’s future plans were for life on the farm.
“Do you want to farm or fuck”?
It’s no wonder that Earle’s wife, my Auntie Jean who was a first- generation Ukrainian installed a ‘cuss box’ in which Earle had to deposit a quarter for every time that he uttered an oath. By the end of every week there would be enough cash contained within to cover the bar bill of Ernest Hemingway, a prodigious boozer, tips included.
Not quite finished high school in rural Quebec, Bobbie signed up for a four year stint in the Canadian air force in the late 1950s. He didn’t return full-time to the farm for another thirty five years.
My then-adolescent fevered mind’s eye could only imagine how much, ahem, Bob did during the free-and-easy decades of the 60s and 70s. His stories were always entertaining, he was willing to try anything and he had an air force veteran’s colourful vocabulary. There were no stories that I re-told to my mother.
For everything there is a season and a time for every purpose under heaven. Bob’s life, and his attitude, took an abrupt U-turn in 1981. No sooner had he driven the last nail into the sawmill in Port Alberni, British Columbia that was to make him a millionaire than the B.C. economy went belly-up into a heavy recession. It was too bad that his extensive skill set did not include a sense of business. He had failed to incorporate the enterprise and the bank, always humourless and not prone to mercy even when they are regaled with an entertaining story, took over the mill lock, stock and barrel. And not only stocks and barrels were included. My Uncle Earle’s two farms in the Townships that he had put up as collateral were part of the foreclosure.
Earle had to attend a public auction and buy back his livelihood. A few neighbours showed up at the public sale but no one put in a contesting bid.
Get-rich schemes were put to rest. During my first year of teaching I heard through my grandfather that Bobbie had accepted a job with CUSO… in Papua, New Guinea. That was about as far away from the family farm as one could get. A man with a lot of experience in building things in the bush, he was given the job of overseer of construction of a road being built in the jungle. The work was delayed one day as the crew stopped to observe a witch doctor doing a dance on a hill overlooking the construction project.
“What the hell is that?” my cousin asked his bulldozer driver.
“It’s a traditional dance putting a curse on those responsible for ruining a traditional burial ground of the local tribe,” he was told. Well, that’s not exactly the way it was worded. Pidgin was the language of communication, but I’m not really good with its spelling. A practical man not given to metaphysical musings, Bob snorted and gestured with his arm. “Carry on,” he ordered his crew.
The next day that same arm was wracked with pain. “The shaman cursed you,” one of the crewmen, a local, informed Bob. “Your arm will only get better when the project is stopped.”
Bob’s practicality was enough that he would try anything if there was a possibility of success. Almost immediately after he had called a halt to the jungle road his arm was pain-free and spirituality’s New Age had gained a convert. Upon his return to his native land the farming hamlet of Island Brook would undergo a transformation to not only organic but something called bio- dynamic farming. His quest for new ideas on the subject became as relentless as his pursuit of women had been in his youth and would lead him into correspondece and friendships not only with the counter-culture community in the Townships but devotees around the world. The change in his thinking was nothing short of miraculous. There is no one more righteous than a reformed whore. No offense.
By this stage in Bob’s life I had married and was soon to have children. Or my wife would, anyway. I was as fascinated in the new turn in Bob’s life as he was, even though not only me but many in my family were often left shaking our heads.
It was a shock when my sister phoned with the news that the Grim Reaper had re-appeared in the family and that Annick was organizing a ‘Celebration of Life.’ Given Bobbie’s Irish and Ukrainian heritage all the whiskey and vodka one could want would be provided. The door would be open to the whole community. I went fishing one more time in the huge pond that my grandfather had made behind his barn, and where Grandpa, Bob and I had spent so much time.
The next day we would throw his ashes onto the water. I could swear I could hear his voice coming up from the depths below telling one last story, and leaving me laughing one more time.