Happy Father’s Day

My dad ‘n me (probably around 1964)

Yeah, I know, not a walking post, but a journey nonetheless. It’s Father’s Day, and I thought I would post the eulogy I gave at my dad’s funeral in 2008. I had a ‘challenging’ childhood, and not gonna lie, he was one of the challenges, but he was also – in so many ways – one of the saving graces.

October 24, 2008:

I’m Donna…Dad’s fifth child and contrary to what my sister Sharon just said, I’m the favourite.

I think we now have a pretty clear picture of what kind of man Hugh McKinnon was, the paths of his life, the people he loved and who loved him. But just to add to that, I wanted to stand up today for my father and tell everyone how grateful I am he was my father. Not because he was perfect, because he wasn’t, and not because I turned out perfect, because I didn’t. My dad was a good father. Sometimes a great father.  Occasionally a challenging father…but always, always funny.

Like so many men of his generation, he had to quit school at a young age to help support his family, but this is not the story he told. If you asked him about school, he would say that grade nine was the best three years of his life. No surprise that education and good marks were at a high premium in our house. It was dad who looked over our report cards…dad who helped us with our homework. He even helped me with math, a hopeless task if ever there was.

And he loved to read, even in the middle of the day. We both loved John Steinbeck and I remember walking in on him one day as he lay stretched out in his Lazy Boy, a copy of Travels with Charley in his hand and tears in his eyes from laughing so hard.  It was the second or third time he’d read the story. When he told me he really enjoyed a book I’d bought him for his birthday or Christmas, I never felt so complimented. On one memorable occasion he even quoted Shakespeare to me. It was an Autumn morning, many years ago. I was returning from an all-night party.  Disheveled, my head pounding, two juice glasses holding my contact lenses in my hands. As I stumbled up the walk, dad took one look at me, put down the rake, and said, “O death, where is thy sting?” Thanks dad.

Despite his lack of formal education, my father had a real flair for the English language. He could string a set of expletives together that could drop you to your knees in awe. A way of expressing himself that left his daughters bent over in laughter, and our mother shaking her head. “Oh Hugh…” she would say. He also had an encyclopedia of dadisms, most of which I can’t repeat here. Sayings that we grew up with that are now part of our family lexicon. 

A winter day wasn’t just chilly, it was ‘colder than the day young Charlotte froze’.

A stale fruitcake? “Harder than the back of God’s head”. 

And so on…anything to make us laugh.

Like all McKinnons, he could be moody, but as we all knew, it was mostly bark…not bite. Underneath that occasionally gruff exterior was a big-hearted, sensitive man. A man who on his first and last hunting trip had a deer in his sites but couldn’t pull the trigger. A man who cried when we had to put down our family dog Happy. A man who drove countless Brownies to countless bake sales. A man who enjoyed nothing better than to nap with his cat.  A man who loved Christmas and Thanksgiving and any occasion that would bring his family together.  

Grill master

Some of my happiest memories from childhood are the yearly trips to Jasper in the summer. Mom and dad in the front seat of the car, smoking and listening to John Denver, the dog draped around my mother’s neck, us girls in the back, no seat belts, legs hanging out the windows. Once we disembarked from the good ship Buick and unpacked, inevitably my dad would pull up a lawn chair beside the cabin, pop open a beer, and say, “I wonder what the poor people are doing today?”

I think this was his way of saying happiness is in the simplest things.

When we visited Athabasca Falls, which we did every year, he would hold my hand so tight my fingers still throb whenever I visit the Falls. To be truthful, even if I’m about to step off a curb I feel my father’s hand gripping mine.

Dad and my stepmum Shirley loved to go their granddaughter’s games and practices. I’m sure dad would have gone to his daughter’s games and practices if any of us had been interested in – or any good at – sports. My dad taught me many things but how to throw a ball was not one of them.

He did however, drive me to my art lessons and was always happy to look at my latest masterpieces. He loved all my drawings but was particularly proud of my illustration of Alfred E Newman from Mad Magazine. He often showed this one to people. I think he instinctively knew that comedy was the highest of art forms. If you’ve had a chance to look at some of the photographs we’ve brought today you’ll see a picture of my dad at the Smithsonian shaking hands with George W Bush. Obviously, this is a fake picture, but I remember he expressed disappointment that the fake Bill Cosby was not available that day. I don’t really recall what music my dad liked, but I know Bill Cosby’s comedy albums had frequent spins on the console stereo in our living room. Even as a kid, I had Cosby’s routines memorized. We all did.

One of my favourite memories of Dad is a trip my sister Sandra and I took in 1998 to Arizona to visit our snowbird parents in their natural winter habitat. I distinctly remember getting off the plane in Phoenix and being overwhelmed by the sheer number of deeply tanned, knee-socked older people in blinding white running shoes and shorts walking toward me. I moved to hug several men I thought were my father before I found my real dad…beaming as brightly as his shoes.  Sandra and I laughed the whole time we were down there.  In particular, we were greatly amused by the comedy routine on display in their living room each night, which usually began around 9:30. Dad would be sitting in his chair, Shirley on the couch. Both of them nodding off.

“Shirley…WAKE UP!”

A few moments later…

“Hugh…you’re falling asleep!”

“What?”

“You’re falling asleep. Are you wearing your hearing aids?”

“No.”

“Hey…Shirl…WAKE UP!”

And so it would continue for another hour until one of them finally gave in and went to bed, followed closely by the other.

When we visited the Grand Canyon, I remember standing several feet behind the railing, admiring the view, and dad came up behind me and said, “You’re standing too close.”

My hand immediately started to throb.

“OK dad.”

A grand dad, and the canyon

About a week ago, when my dad was intubated and heavily sedated and not really focusing on anything or anybody, Joanne and I walked into the room and started chatting with him. After a moment or two, I said we should probably identify ourselves since he wasn’t wearing his hearing aids. In fact, he didn’t like wearing them at all and would often leave them on the dresser in his bedroom, ‘listening for prowlers’ as he told Shirley.   

“Dad…it’s Joanne, the smart one.”

I replied, “No dad, she’s the tall one. I’m the smart one.”

He smiled. His smile. His very particular, very recognizable dad grin. Joanne and I looked at each other and laughed. We didn’t know at the time this was to be our last communication with him, he died on October 17, but now it seems fitting that it would be a smile. This is how I will remember my father.

With love, with appreciation, and always, always with a laugh.

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