John's Memoire

«Pendant que Montréal fêtait, l'automne entra par la porte de derrière et éteignit toutes les lumières de la maison.»

(while Montreal partied, Autumn crept in by the back door and turned off all the lights in the house)

Serge Fiori, Février, 1975 from«S’il y avait besoin d’une cinquième saison»

Out of the blue and very strange, my father brought home three music albums in 1978: “Passagers”(Beau Dommage), “Harmonium”(Harmonium) and “S’il y avait besoin d’une cinquieme saison”(also by Harmonium). With characteristic understatement, he told me that he was wondering about French-Canadian music and thought we might all be interested in some examples of what people were currently listening to. I said very strange because I didn’t even know my father listened to popular music at all. I thought he liked only the Kingston Trio, Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass, and other dreary confections of the Fifties and early Sixties, which is a funny thought now knowing better his great love of all music (and even funnier because I now listen to the Kingston Trio with great enjoyment and nostalgia). More to the point, as a child of the dawning great media ageI barely knew there was an alternative to Anglo-American pop music and culture.

To say that this music had an impact on me would be the understatement of a lifetime. Those albums ‘blew my mind’ in the best possible way. Over the course of years and decades I wore out the grooves on all of those records, recorded them diligently on cassette, and graduated to  the Columbia House CD’s – they are still in my iTunes library and I sing them in shower.

This experience was an example of the curiosity and openness that defined my father and that he modeled in so many different ways, music, culture, and relationships. He was open to all new ideas and ways of thinking, and was always ready for what would come next. And he shared the adventure.

For Howard, on October 6th of this year Autumn crept into the house one final time. He’s gone, and I don’t know how to go on without him in my life. As I have before, when the wound inside is deep – and this time it’s very deep – I write my thoughts down to help work them out. And although my father was 88, blind and increasingly having trouble with even the most basic aspects of mobility, I wasn’t ready for him to go.

When Howard shared something, or took you somewhere, or introduced you to something, he did it in a refined way. I’m not talking about pretention which he hated with a capital “H”, but about true refinement that makes allies in whatever shared project is being proposed. “Do you like olives?” he asked my fifteen-year-old self. “There were some kinds that I have never seen before at the Atwater Market, so I bought some. Here, would you like to try?” I did, as it turns out like olives very much, but had I not that would have been okay too.

My father was “in charge” in a very real and more than average way. He came by it honestly – an only child with a covered sand box; head of the household and the family business by the time he graduated from university; president of the corporation; patriarch of a blended family – if you knew him just a little he could be an intimidating man. If you knew him just a little more, you would know that the exterior was just a veneer of reserve and that he was interested in and cared about every single person who crossed his path. One of his particular rare gifts was the ability and the desire to see the uniqueness and potential of everyone.

He explained to me once that as a boy he had teased the milkman, a mentally challenged boy who delivered milk in the village via horse and wagon. His father, not liking to raise a bully, took him to the dairy and asked the manager if Howard could sit on the waggoneer’s perch and attempt to drive the team. With small-town familiarity in full effect, this proposal was accepted and Howard took the reins…with disappointing results: the horses refused to budge. His father drew the obvious comparison in ability and my father assimilated the lesson that every person has their own qualities or skills that you will not match.

Yes he could be intimidating, and he grew up in an era that encouraged that cut of alpha male to flourish and thrive to an excessive degree, but Howard evolved in another direction. In 1979 he married the love of his life Lise Durivage and they set up a household with my Provost brothers, Marc and Francois. Lise and her boys gave my father the greatest gift of his life. Through humour and teasing and high spirits they rounded off Howard’s sharper Anglo corners and crusty exterior.

Very early on Howard trotted out “my sweet pet” as a term of endearment for Lise, which aside from being stuffy and reserved can only evoke the French translation meaning “my sweet smelling fart”. With great glee the “Frenchies” teased Howard mercilessly with this malapropism. To this very day Howard is still referred to directly and indirectly as Sweet Pet; actually it is our very favourite of all the family nicknames, and there are many.

Howard grew more accessible under this subtle scrubbing of his ego and as a result and by the time he was sixty I came to know him as a gentle, humorous man. I saw him on the floor playing with his grandchildren William and John Thomas and I watched him become a well-loved “Bonhomme” of St. Anicet, the place that held his heart. Years ago I reflected and concluded that gentleness was his essential character. In an era where men were expected to not be gentle, it was a great gift to have it returned to him.

As he grew old, Howard became blind due to very severe glaucoma. It was a thirty-year transition of slow, grinding, progressive loss of depth and contrast in his eyesight punctuated by many unsuccessful operations and procedures attempting to stem the damage. Howard hated every minute of the decline but never gave up on trying to compensate with technology and live life to the fullest. He adopted walking poles to get him in and out of the ocean in Naples Florida, big screens on his computers, text enhancers and voice recognition to do his correspondence. He became close friends with Siri, although they had occasional fallings out, as Siri can be quite obtuse and does not abide salty language. 

Howard, to his own surprise, ended up a big reader – though in audio-book form, something he discovered because of his failing eyesight, and so there was a characteristic advance within the decline. I personally think he would have had more years with us if not for his eyesight letting him completely down near the end.

I don’t know how to end this memoir or chain of anecdotes. Howard and I shared many experiences that delighted our senses, challenged our boundaries and made us into better people. I saw him do the same for everyone around him. All this to say that I am devastated to bring the news that Autumn slipped in by the back door and turned off the lights.

My father is gone and I don’t know what to do.

Pendant que les ruisseaux
Dans le secret des bois
Deviennent des rivières

Moi, moi, je t’aime
Moi, moi, je t’aime

Gilles Vigneault