In lieu of being there, I wrote Gramps' eulogy to be read at his funeral service that took place earlier today. I hope I did him proud.
A person may be someone different to everyone. He may be a father to one. The jokester to another. A miserable bugger to a neighbour and the most gentle soul to his mother. Eulogizing a character like Big Jim is a difficult task because he has lived such a big life and was known by so many. His life was rich with the connections he made with people that spanned from the Toronto area to Eastern Quebec. Everyone from the kids he drove on the school bus, to the hitch-hikers he picked up to give them a lift, to the servers in the coffee shops who served him hundreds of cups while being taught how to make the perfect cup of coffee, to the thousands he entertained with his fiddle in the parks and the legions, to the many he worked with over the years in the cement business, to the boys he played pool with, to the sons and daughters-in law who were the recipients of his words of advice, to the huge family who loved him -– to all of these people, to all of us, he was something different. But the one thing that I’m sure we can all agree on, is that we could all rely on Jim for a great story, a dirty joke worth repeating, and the biggest bear hug we’ve ever had with the smell of his strong aftershave left clinging to our clothes.
Jim’s life wasn’t a simple or stable one; its course taking many twists and turns throughout his 77 years. His roots lay in Strathcona, Deseronto and the Bay of Quinte area of Ontario. He lost his mother, Isobel, when he was but four years old and his brother, Jackie a short time later. These likely proved to be the losses that left their imprint and made him the big-hearted softie he was up until his last days. Passed around to different relatives, Jim spent his formative years living with his aunts and uncles in towns up and down Lake Ontario. Many of his school years were spent up the road at the Ritson Rd., Albert St. and Kingston Rd. schools in Oshawa. He sadly spoke of his regret of not having the stability in his home life to be able to take his studies more seriously and never made it beyond the eighth grade. He spent a short stint in the Army, then married Catherine in 1950 and they had six children; Wendy, Cathy, Vickie, Jack, Tom and Shelley. He earned his wages driving heavy machinery and cement trucks, plowing snow and much later, driving bus while always playing the fiddle and entering in contests to subsidize his income. He moved on to the Ottawa area and with his best friend and partner of 27 years, he and Jenny lived on both sides of the Ontario-Quebec border. He stayed by Jenny’s side through a long battle with cancer until her death in the mid-90’s. Jim found new joy in moving in with his son, Tom and his family in the Ottawa Valley shortly after, where many a kitchen music party took place. Not long after, Jim and Catherine’s long history and friendship proved to be strong enough for a reunion and Jim moved in with her in Ajax. On November 18th, Jim sent Catherine flowers to commemorate their 59th wedding anniversary. His last few years were spent living with his eldest daughter, Wendy here in Bowmanville. He recently spoke of his happiness at his roommate situation and remarked that they shared a beautiful friendship.
You could be sure that if Jim was visiting, he could most likely be found asleep on your couch, remote firmly in his grasp and Star Trek, Law & Order or the Price is Right blaring on tv. If you sneakily tried to pry the remote from his grasp, he’d awake with a start and in his deep gravelly voice say “oh, I’m up just in time for my favourite part”. Many family members’ homes are adorned with some of the woodwork pieces he created, if you could cajole him into making it. You would always find his space surrounded by heaps of crossword puzzles and Word jumbles, pens on every surface, a coffee cup nearby, an ashtray, a stack of lotto tickets and even the odd “book” or two. His books were really gossip rags like the Star or Enquirer, where he preferred to do his crosswords. However, he was known to believe the odd story about the babies born to aliens or dogs that could speak Chinese after eating a plate of chow mein. You could go months without hearing from him, but wouldn’t be surprised to hear the doorbell ring late at night and Jim at your door with a fiddle in hand. You could offer him the master suite of your home and he would always ask to sleep on your couch instead – with the tv on. When you’d offer him a drink, you could be sure he’d clean the glass himself before he’d drink from it. And if he didn’t like your coffee, he’d hop in his car to go out and buy a cup from his favourite donut shop. He always had a dirty joke to embarrass you with and he'd say "don't pretend you don't think it's funny. You'll be telling your friends this joke as soon as I'm not nearby." There is more than one story of him causing a commotion because someone spotted him parked in a car, asleep at the wheel, with no amount of banging on his door to wake him up. The fire and police department on hand, only to find he was just taking a nap. Rumour has it that there was a cigarette in his hand from before the age of 9, and although it was a habit that caused much stress to his lungs, it was a characteristic that undeniably accessorized him as much as the fiddle did. If you could handle the smoke, many great conversations took place while sitting with him on a back porch or in his van or car. Always a man who liked to look good with his dry cleaned and pressed shirts and pants, he also liked to smell good with his Aqua Velva, Old Spice or most recently- the expensive stuff. It is said that you couldn't go anywhere with Big Jim where he didn't know someone there. Especially in Ontario. He told stories of being pulled over for speeding by the police, but getting off because he was recognized and was later invited to their homes to play a tune for their families. Or of going to Santa’s Village in Bracebridge, only to be recognized by the Jolly Man himself. Family members can all relate to meeting people who would learn of their connection to Jim and recount how they’d once heard him play at a wedding, or in a hall and that he was the best they’d ever heard.
Jim had a true gift. He could make the fiddle dance. He never learned to read music, but was self taught on his grandfather's fiddle, before buying his own 1890's Collin-Mezzin violin off a bootlegger in 1955. Absolutely beautiful music came from his hands. He could do tricks and wow even a non-loving listener with his version of Orange Blossom Special. He recorded a couple of LP's; Fiddle Park Favorites and Reels, Jigs and Hornpipes. He also starred in a live tv show on Barrie, ON television. Pembroke, Shelburne and Bobcaygeon Fiddle contests just won’t be the same without him.
Above all else, he will be remembered by his large family for being very loving, despite his stubbornness and quick temper. Wrongs were usually righted, mistakes were often admitted and broken relationships mended. Even in times of separation or estrangement from family members, he was fiercely protective of them and wouldn’t allow a mean-spirited comment to be made in their name. He was loyal to his own elders, his aunts and especially his mother-in-law. He couldn’t drive through Napanee without stopping to see Catherine’s mother- he was the only one who could tell her a dirty joke and make her laugh and not get smacked. He could melt years of hurt with the bear hug and a gruff apology.
He may have tried to take personal credit for his children’s success, but he was so happy to see the successful lives they had created for themselves, their spouses and for all of their children. You would hear him brag that they were a great looking bunch that all took after him.
For his daughter Shelley, he loved their shared sense of humour, her quick wit and booming laughter at his stories. He could always count on her to dance to his tunes.
In Tom he had a true friend and kindred spirit with their shared love of the fiddle. In many ways, looking at Tom now you can see Big Jim.
Jim was so proud of the family man that his son Jack had become and of his new retirement home he had made for himself and Sharon. Jack and Jim were the Abbott and Costello of joke telling and they spent hundreds of hours together in this past year during Jim’s stays in hospital with Jack keeping him company.
In Cathy he had a daughter whose voice he loved. At every reunion and jam, you’d find Cathy at his side, singing along to his playing.
Vickie recently enjoyed the opportunity to accompany her dad out West for his first visit to the Canadian Rockies. He always waited for Vickie’s kisses and fondly looked to her for her resemblance to his late mother, Isobel.
In Wendy he had a deep friendship and pride. She bossed and adored him at the same time and he loved every minute of it.
Even up until his last days in hospital, he was heard rhyming off on his fingers, the number of grandchildren and great-grandchildren that he had. Not to mention the great-grand-babies on the way. This past summer, he proudly sat behind his son, Jack as he watched Melissa walk down the aisle to marry Keith and he was looking forward to seeing Brandon marry next summer, with his son (and Jim’s great grandson), Devin in tow. He had always hoped that his passion for the fiddle might be passed down to the grandkids and happily found it implanted in Nathalie. He recently even jokingly took credit for Andrew’s deejay’ing success as being a musical trait he had passed on to him. He felt fortunate for having had the opportunity to live with Ryan and Dylan and even bought them all their once-upon-a puppy, Marty. Jacquelyn and Michelle were lucky to enjoy living close to their Granddad in recent years. The older grandkids; Valerie, Stacey, Rodney and Stephanie may remember the Christmas where he grandly took them to a Toys R Us and told them they could buy whatever they wanted. I’m speaking for Stacey and Jonathan when I say that they feel blessed to have had the opportunity for Jim get to know their sons, Will, Owen and Jake while recently in Calgary. The kids all have memories of stories he told, the time Stephanie soaked him with a hose in the backyard, when another grandchild shockingly yanked off his toupee, to times when Jim guilted them into running errands or doing a chore for him. He may not have been a constant presence in their lives, but he was certainly a memorable one.
Big Jim’s life was rich with stories. Full of love and lots of laughs. We won’t be able to drink a cup of coffee, see a pack of cigarettes or hear a fiddle play without remembering him. He will be greatly missed and never forgotten.