February 11, 1924 – January 25, 2013
Annunciation Catholic Church, Edmonton, Alberta
January 31, 2013
My Uncle Mike once said, “Life is like a story, and in a good story, you’re always looking forward to the next chapter.” He has now gone ahead to discover the next chapter in his life story.
When Mary Ann and Christina asked me to help them prepare the eulogy, I sat with them in Mike and Christina’s comfortable living room and looked around at the walls that had surrounded their family for 50 years, from the time they built it to just a few months ago when Mike was hospitalized.
I thought, “If these walls could talk, they would share the legacy that Mike left. They would tell about the many chapters in Mike’s life story.
If these walls could talk, they would say that Mike loved his family, that he took care of his family. That was his top priority.”
His grandchildren remember him: Ryan remembered Grandpa and the games they played when Ryan was growing up. Sometimes, the two of them tried to squeeze side by side into Grandpa’s chair. That game only worked when Ryan was very small. They both were skinny and could wedge into the chair. But, soon Ryan was way taller than Grandpa.
Stephanie remembers that when she was about three, Grandpa played a monster game with her. He sat with his accordion on his lap and she tried to sneak up on him. When he heard her coming, he made a ‘monster noise’ with the accordion and she ran and hid again.
When Stephanie and Ryan were young and wanted to watch TV, Grandpa turned on Mr. Dressup. He told them, “That’s me on there. I’m Mr. Dressup.” Stephanie always insisted that that couldn’t be true. “Grandpa, you can’t be in two places at once,” she said. But, she still maintains that when her Grandpa was younger, he looked a lot like Mr. Dressup.
Mike treasured his many friends. If these walls could talk, they would tell of visits and parties with family and friends, and, of course, of the music that was part of every social occasion.
Christina and Mike had lots of friends and for many years, they took turns having house parties, and the music and dancing and visiting went on late into the night. One New Year’s Eve, Mike and his brother, Alfred, sat down with their fiddles at 7:00 in the evening. Family and friends came in and went out. Some played cards, some danced. But no one interrupted Mike and Alfred. They played the whole night long. They played together often till Alfred moved to Calgary.
Mike and Christina were fortunate to be surrounded by good neighbors and good friends. After a visit from Leonard, Mike said, “After all these years, Leonard and I still have good visits.” He further reflected, “We have been blessed with so many good neighbours and friends. Leonard and Marleen. Gunther and Lennie. Orly and Lenae. Bernie and Mabel. Ruby and Beth. And Cathy. I’ve always enjoyed their visits and they always were there to lend a hand when they were needed.”
If these walls could talk, they would tell of a man who loved carpentry.
Mike was skilled with woodworking tools. He discovered his talent for working with wood after he and Christina had their house built. The inside needed some finishing touches, so Mike set to work to get them done. In time, Mike began to build doghouses to order. One memorable order: The doghouse was to be built with two rooms, a verandah, an interior light, a heater to keep the dog warm, and cedar shakes on the roof to match the owner’s house. So that’s what Mike built. He stopped building in 2004, when he was 80. He had built-to-order for more than 40 years.
Mike dearly wanted to pass on his carpentry skills to someone. After Mary Ann and Ivan got married, it was no surprise that Ivan unwrapped a woodworking tool for every Christmas till his own workroom was well supplied. Along with each tool came Mike’s instruction on how to use it. Ivan was skilled with metal and vehicles. Mike undertook to teach him how to work with wood. Once, when Mike was sick and couldn’t finish a doghouse order, he coached Ivan through it. Ivan said, “Mike gave the directions and I followed them.”
If these walls could talk, they would tell of a man who didn’t let blindness get in the way of reading everything he could about the many subjects that caught his attention over the years.
Mike was always interested in knowing more about the world today than he knew yesterday. He loved to read. When he was a young boy on the farm, he read every night by the light of the kerosene lamp. At some point, he decided to read only non-fiction.
Mike, like many of his brothers, lost his sight in his teens due to RP. Did that keep him from reading? Definitely not. Through the public library, he borrowed CNIB Talking Books. In fact, he was such a regular library user that he had his own personal EPL volunteer. Her name was Jackie and she made Mike her number one client. She found out what he liked to read. She chose books for him for many years, knocking on the door of his home to deliver one batch of books and pick up the batch Mike had finished with. Mike always said, “She was ‘Bang on! She knew what I liked to read – and she got it right every time!”
If these walls could talk, they’d bring a smile to everyone with stories of Mike’s gentle sense of humor and how it brought joy and laughter to everyone who knew him.
In the last few years, Mike spent a fair bit of time going to the doctor. He never entered Dr. Sandra Simon’s office without a joke, a funny saying or a rhyme to share with her. The nurses at Unit 9Y at the Edmonton General Hospital all liked him. They told many little stories of his fun-loving approach to life. One of their favourite stories is about Mike and Roman aqueducts. Mike read about these ancient sets of pipes the Romans built to carry water to their cities, and, in no time, he had the nurses shaking their heads and grinning when he insisted on comparing his catheter to an aqueduct.
If these walls could talk, they’d tell of a man who treasured his marriage and his relationship with his wife.
Mike and Christina called themselves the ‘tag team.’ They worked together at everything.Mike peeled the potatoes for supper. When the clock said 4:00, he started peeling potatoes. That was his job.
Christina planted a garden for years. When the time came that she couldn’t bend down and tend to the beans anymore, Mike took over that task for her. Last summer he told her, “Mom, I won’t be able to help you with the beans next summer. You can’t bend down anymore and I can’t bend down anymore. It’s time to stop growing beans.”
Last fall, Christina was making apple crisp for the neighbours next door. Mike said to her, “Why don’t I peel those apples for you? That way I can help say thank you to our neighbours for their help.”
A tag team, that’s how Mike saw their relationship. They walked hand-in-hand, side-by-side, through all of the years they spent together. Just a couple of weeks ago, on January 18, their 55th wedding anniversary, they remembered their wedding day in Medicine Hat, a January day so warm that the men took off their top coats. Mike held Christina’s hand for the whole afternoon.
Mary Ann says, “That’s a picture I’ll carry with me always. Hand in hand, Mom and Dad watched the seasons come and go. They faced sunshine and showers, and they helped each other grow.”
If these walls could talk, the story they’d tell would be of Mike and his love of music.
Mike loved music. There was absolutely no doubt about that. He played the accordion and the piano, and, of course, the fiddle. He was just in his early teens when he began to ask his dad, and George Borlee and Jerry Boddez to teach him how to play. He didn’t read music. He listened to a tune, practiced it and then played it.
Mike also tried his hand at writing. When his sister, Irma, was younger, and feeling blue after a boy that she liked broke up with her, Mike wrote her a poem to help cheer her up. She kept that poem for many years. He wrote a song about Stephanie and softball, and Ryan and soccer and recorded it to an old tune. He also wrote a poem that his niece, Iris, Hector’s daughter, inscribed on a plaque for him.
Mike’s love of music and the fiddle, in particular, led him to the Wild Rose Old Tyme Fiddlers Association. This group brings together fiddlers from age 15 to 90 who play for the love of the music. Mike loved to take his turn playing the tunes he loved: waltzes, two-steps, foxtrots, polkas, and the odd jig.
Gene Michael, a good friend of Mike’s, who along with Andy Chevalier drove Mike back and forth to the jam sessions, told me, “Mike was a nice person. It was good to know him. He dearly loved the fiddle. And he knew so many tunes – they all seemed to be his favourites.” Gene chuckled and added, “Mike played a pretty good fiddle, especially once he trimmed the tips off those two fingers. After that, his notes ‘trued up’ and he played really well.”
Just last week, on Thursday, Mike asked to have his wooden spoons brought to the hospital so he could play them in his bed. He wanted to be able to tap away, to make some music. “I’ll keep them for a while,” he said, “Maybe play a little tune for the nurses.”
If these walls could talk, they’d resound with the shouts of an enthusiastic sports fan.
Mike loved sports. He watched hockey and football, but his true love was baseball. As soon as the weather began to hint of spring, Mike would start to ask, “When do the Blue Jay’s play?”
When Mike and Christina wanted to watch hockey, football or baseball, they had a system that worked for them. Christina watched the game on TV with the closed captioning on and the sound off. Mike listened to the game on the radio. As the game progressed, they traded bits of information that the other missed.
Mike’s daughter, Mary Ann, wasn’t a keen sports fan at all, but she learned to follow the NHL, NFL and MLB schedules. She discovered, soon after she moved to Calgary, that being Mike’s only daughter didn’t automatically place her ahead of the Oilers or the Eskimos or the Blue Jays. If she called during a game, Mike told her, “I can’t talk to you right now. Hockey’s on or baseball’s on.”
Rene Boddez, one of Mike’s many nephews, shared Mike’s interest in sports. Rene said, “Mike knew the Oilers and the Blue Jays inside out. I looked to him to keep up to date. Mike knew ten times more than me. He knew all of the players and their salaries. He had a good idea of where they were standing in the league, a clear memory of the last game they played, and a pretty good notion of who was likely to win the next game. I occasionally used what Mike knew to put down a little bet with the guys at work. I often won.”
If these walls could talk, they’d tell of a man with a strong devotion to God, a man who committed his every day to walking the path God laid out for him in the best way he knew how.
Mary Ann remembers: “We went to church every Sunday, no matter what. When I was little, in winter, they dressed me like the abominable snowman, and we walked to church. No matter how cold. Mom and Dad walked hand in hand ahead of me. I’d walk behind. … They made a good windbreak.”
From the time Mike was a child, he went to Mass every Sunday. He was devoted to the Virgin Mother, Mary. Mike and Christina said the rosary every night together. Mike would lead and Christina would respond.
Mike believed in guardian angels. He believed they sat with him at night in the hospital, and he found that very comforting. It’s comforting also for those of us who are here remembering Mike. It’s comforting to know that love is the only thing that isn’t left behind when someone dies. So those guardian angels of Mike’s will be very busy seeing that all of the love he had is being quietly carried back from him to those he loved, and forth from those who loved him, to where he is now resting, … and maybe tapping his foot to some heavenly fiddle music.
Compiled and read by Elaine Cust from details lovingly shared by
Christina Kopp Cust and Mary Ann Cust Ewanicke