89 Years – Happy Birthday Dad!

I’m writing this on April 7th, 2022 – what would have been my dad’s 89th birthday. In the 5 years since Simon McGean retired his earthly body, a lot has changed in my life and in the world. But I can’t help but think how much changed in his lifetime. 

He was number 7 in a brood of 10 born between 1918 and 1942 in the village of Ingonish on Cape Breton Island. Five boys and five girls. I remember him telling me years ago that, when he was born, his parents didn’t know how they could afford to raise him. They apparently considered giving him up for adoption but decided against it. My eldest aunt, who passed away in 2020, told me that the big ones looked after the little ones – that’s how families functioned then. And it was pretty rustic. I remember as a child when my dad’s childhood house was replaced with a new one and indoor plumbing. I can still see the two seater outhouse and the chamber pots in that old house.

He was of a generation that went from transportation by horse and buggy to flights to the International Space Station. And yes, cars were invented before the end of the 19th Century and then subjected to mass production in 1908 with Henry Ford but there were not a lot of cars in Northern Cape Breton. The Cabot Trail was only opened in 1932, the year before he was born. It took time for modern conveniences to reach rural areas.  His father was a blacksmith by trade.

A Different World

It was a different world and varied greatly depending on where you lived. My mother-in-law, born in 1931 in urban Montreal would have had a very different start to life than that my father on Canada’s rural east coast.

The Titantic sank 21 years before his birth and he would have been 6 six years old as World War II began. Penicillin, a game changer in medical treatment was discovered 5 years before he was born but not readily available until the 1940s. After his 12th birthday, the Canadian Citizenship Act was passed. Two years later, NFLD entered Confederation as the 10th province in 1949.

During his youth, travel would have been difficult and most supplies were still brought by boat to the villages up and down the east coast of Cape Breton. I remember him talking about his mother getting barrels of flour, molasses and other supplies to tide them over the winter. And he spoke of the Aspy – the wooden steamer that carried those supplies and the passengers between the villages and industrial Cape Breton. There were a total of 3 successive Aspy’s, that stayed in service until 1964.  By then, cars, trucks and better roads made the boat superfluous. (That tidbit comes from Fred Williams book, “A Better Rock” about the history of nearby villages Neil’s Harbour and New Haven.) 

The Man

My dad was an incredible jack of all trades, and, I think, master of more than a few. Cars and electronics were simpler then and to be repaired until there was absolutely no hope, not trashed and replaced. I can still see him swapping out the old tubes in an old black and white television set that he built into wall. And picture him laughing so hard that I thought something would bust as he watched Laugh In or Three’s Company to enjoy the fruits of his labours.

He built his own house, within his means, with his own hands and maintained it well into his 70s. He would go into the crawl space of dirt under the house to check out plumbing as recently as his 80th year. He was independent and capable. He grew up in a time and a place where it was necessary to embody those qualities and it was a labour-intensive life. Even in retirement he kept horses and raised chickens and turkeys. That hobby earned him the nick name “Grandpa Chickens”. Can you imagine a life of raising livestock, planting gardens, fixing anything and everything around your houses and working full time while raising a family?  

A Library of Information & Change

Life certainly in more complex and it makes me wonder what changes will occur in the next 89 years. It’s said that when an elderly person passes away, it’s like a library burning down. That’s a great analogy and I cannot tell you how many times in the past five years that I’ve wanted to check some fact with my dad as he always seemed to have the answer. Or at the very least a joke or sarcastic remark to remind me that all was right in the world.

Time goes fast – my dad has one surviving sibling – the youngest – my Aunt Donna. Cherish the people in your life. Is there in elderly person that you know that could use a little company and give you an opportunity to learn something?  What changes have they seen that can shed some perspective on your life and the world that we live in today? Happy Birthday Dad.

Have a great week!

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