Of Papapol’s 96 years, I knew him the last 14 of those, after I met C and started attending holiday celebrations with her and her family in Montreal and Chicoutimi. These Christmas and New Years celebrations have become some of the most memorable and special in my life, and a lot of that had to do with him. Even though the conversations he and I had were spoken in a strange dialect of broken English and broken French and were mostly about very simple things like the weather or digital photography, he made a big impression on me. You didn’t need to speak his language to know that he was a loving, kind man who was smart and good and true. I always regretted we could not have deeper conversations. I always wished I could hear more of the stories he had to tell.
He impressed me with his intelligence and curiosity. How he embraced technology and used it every day, when a lot of people of his generation tended to be intimidated by it. And how he always showed up, and always wanted to participate, even when his health made that difficult. He made people feel special about their life. He reminded you that life was something to appreciate. He reminded you to love the people close to you.
He liked to say that one of the secrets to his longevity was his daily scotch. Sometimes he had it as a Manhattan. Sometimes just a scotch and soda. I like to think he was right. I like to think my daily IPA will do the same for me. (And if one-a-day is good, then three or four should be excellent!) But Papapol’s longevity probably had much more to do with his general outlook on life. His positive spirit. (I have to admit, that’s often much harder for me to emulate.)
I liked to mix his evening scotch drink for him, though I was always a bit nervous I would get the proportions wrong. But if I did, he’d say it was good, anyway. And then he’d tell me, “Maybe a little more soda.” I think he’d probably agree with me that it was better to default on the side of too strong rather than too weak.
Every Christmas he handed out gifts to his many children and grandchildren and he would also say the benediction on New Year’s Eve at midnight. Rituals like these were important to him, I think. I can relate to that. I’m a fan of ritual, myself.
Christmas of 2002, he gave everybody baseball caps like the one he’s wearing in the picture above. They said “Club Papa Pol.” We were all members. Even me. From then on, we would wear them whenever we went anywhere together as a family. And we would take pictures of ourselves in them on trips to Japan or Argentina and email them to him.
I read a great poem recently, a reflection on death by James Fenton as read at a memorial service for the writer Christopher Hitchens. In it, the poet says of his dead friends:
And what else would they want from us
Than an honoured place in our memory