My father, Reginald Keith Robicheau, died last night. He was 79 years old. I cannot make it to his funeral. I will use this space to pay a tribute to his life. I loved him dearly and he was a wonderful Dad to me but I said my good-byes to him while he was alive. When you live so far from home, this is part of the deal. It’s hard but I’d rather focus on savouring all he gave me.
There are two great lessons he taught me. They are things that he always said to me and my brother Keith and sisters, Susan and Laurie.
“Keep your chin up” – was what he said when he wanted to encourage us. And, “Where’s your common sense?” – came out when he wanted us to question our own behaviour.
My father lived his entire life in St. Andrews, New Brunswick. His father was a fisherman who had his own wholesale retail fish market. His mother came from across the Passamaquoddy Bay in Robinston, Maine and from good people who had good habits of domestic management, etiquette and neighbourliness. She was educated, proper and genteel.
As ideal as that might sound, my father’s childhood was riddled with the uncertainty of living with a father with severe alcoholism. He was an only child and there was much humiliation and much work in his destiny. His childhood was cut short as he often had to be the man of the house. In his high school years he rose at four or five in the morning to drive to meet the fishing boats before going to school. He was trying to help his father’s business stay afloat. His teachers did not wake him if he fell asleep in school.
My grandfather joined AA when my oldest sister was born. He did not want to cause the same harm to another generation. Except for a few memorable slip-ups he did not drink in the 40 plus years I knew him. His business did well, he and my grandmother were able to build a small home which she lovingly cared for and my father finally had some peace. He volunteered with his father in the local Lion’s Club for many years.
Dad worked for Fisheries and Oceans Canada from the time he was 18 until he retired at age 52. He never got to go to university so he had to stay a technician. Every six weeks he went to sea for two weeks. A few years ago we visited Halifax harbour and saw the small ocean-going research vessels that he worked. He told us stories of staying up all night picking at ice with an axe so the ship would not capsize in perilous winter trips to Newfoundland’s Grand Banks.
Once he retired, I don’t think my father every set foot on a boat on the ocean again. His favourite place in the world was a long skinny lake called Digdeguash where he had built an 800 square foot camp, in 1970, for us to enjoy for the best years of our youth and our children’s youth.
People in the west and in Ontario have summer homes and cottages. In the Maritimes we have camps. This was my father’s slice of heaven. He called it his sanctuary. We all learned to waterski here and so did our children. Over the years, tubing became popular and kayaking and fireworks and every grandchild learned to run an outboard motor with Grandpa.
He also took the time to teach them to fish.
He loved to forage for blueberries and patiently pick them over so my Mom would make him a blueberry pie.
Dad kept a huge garden at the camp. Freshly shelled peas were his favourite food. I’m so grateful to be the daughter of a gardener. And even more grateful that he helped me build my square foot gardens in Calgary and that he was around to give me advice when I needed it. He was an organic gardener. He loved to drag seaweed off the beaches and dig it into his soil. And he was a devoted composter. He gave away bushels of tomatoes each fall. He just loved to grow things and sometimes got a bit carried away.
Lobster was right up there – along with anything grown in his garden – as his other favourite food. He was a master at cooking and preparing the lobsters so that everyone could break into them as easily as possible.
In the last few years, he really grew to love when we would go for special dinners at The Rossmount Inn. He always ordered the exact same thing – chef Chris Aernie’s haddock. However chef Chris prepared it, Dad knew it would be mouth-wateringly good.
Dad loved St. Andrews and serving his community. He was a town councillor for many years, a cub scout leader, a Lion and a devoted volunteer at his church – almost single-handedly running their lobster dinners and rebuilding the church basement.
Retirement at age 52 gave Dad a whole new lease on life. He was talented with carpentry, plumbing, electrical work and motors. Our home was a shell when Mom and Dad bought it and Dad worked on it continuously for the 55 years he lived there. This summer when he knew he wouldn’t live much longer he had a new roof put on, the entire exterior painted and a new front walk installed so my Mom would have it ship shape after he was gone.
Dad loved to sit in the sun room on the back of the house. We’ve always had a cat and our cats always loved joining Dad in his chair.
Of all the things my Dad loved about life he loved his family the most.
He especially loved his wife of 59 years, my Mom, Gerri.
Dad was quiet. He loved nothing better than to be around us and to have us home but he liked to be in the background. If he could be near us, but doing something, that was just right for him. He was best one-on-one and knew a lot about what was going on in the world.
He read Time magazine, Macleans, National Geographic, The Saint John Telegraph Journal and The St. Stephen Courier faithfully. He was liberal-minded and accepting of others. He wasn’t always the greatest husband as he had his own struggles with alcohol but he was a wonderful father.
He expected the best from us always. He expected us to go to university and to realize the dreams he never had the chance to pursue. He was so proud that all four of his children got that chance and that we all are successful in our chosen fields and in our family lives. He never really got over me moving to Alberta but he was a good sport about taking the train out to see me every few years. He hated flying but he even did that once – just to spend more time with his youngest grandchild and to help me with chores around my home.
The last week, Dad grew weak. We all knew it was coming. He’d been given a terminal diagnosis last March.
Yesterday, he got up, sorted the mail, paid the bills and balanced his cheque book. He sat in his favourite chair. When he realized he was having trouble breathing and couldn’t get out of the chair, my Mom and sister took him to the hospital. He was made comfortable and passed away surrounded by family – including my sister’s dog – within a few hours.
What a blessing to have had such a father. I love you Dad and will cherish everything you taught me and every moment we had together – always. Wherever you are going, keep your chin up. Wherever I am, I promise to use my common sense and to savour it all.