The Hermit Poet

April 29, 2007

Eulogy for my Father

Filed under: General — Neil Aitken @ 6:45 pm

For those interested, here is the eulogy I offered for my father on Saturday. As with most public speeches, the actual eulogy evolved as I spoke, changing and extending slightly in places. But, for the most part here is what I said:

Friends and family members,

To say that my father loved Polynesia would be an understatement. As a young man he served as a missionary in the Cook Islands and New Zealand. His love for the Maori people and language infused every aspect of his life and became an integral part of our family. He brought their love of people, food, storytelling, and song in our lives and sought to share these things with all he came in contact with.

There is a word in Maori – tangi – which refers to the memorial service of one who has passed on in their community. There is a brief period of sorrow, but it is then followed by a celebration of the time they had had with the person. They celebrate with food, songs, and stories. My father did not want us to weep at his passing, but rather his hope was that we would celebrate his life. He wanted a tangi and so today we offer him this service.

*

My father was always fond of saying that you could learn a lot about a person by what they kept on their shelves, the books they read and what they held onto.

If you look over my father’s bookshelves, you will find an astonishing array of knowledge. Books on family history, small towns, place name origins, histories and mythologies of the South Pacific, books of poetry (Robert W. Service to Dylan Thomas), doctrinal books on ancient and modern scriptures, biographies of prophets and leaders, British, American, and Canadian fiction, hymn books in Maori and English, dictionaries, personal journals, photo albums, a collection of watercolors painted by Prince Charles, even copies of poetry chapbooks written by me.

If you pulled some of these books off the shelves at random, you would discover that each had been well-read and annotated. Sometimes complete lessons prepared and filed inside. Sometimes bookmarks placed for easy access to another detail or point needed for a presentation or an article. My father’s library was a working library – a reflection of an active and vibrant mind, a man with a deep love of learning and knowledge. He was always ready to teach a lesson at the drop of a hat or to tell a story.

Despite his willingness to teach and share, my father also encouraged us to read and study things out for ourselves. As a general rule, he wouldn’t answer any questions we had about homework, but instead taught us how to research so that we would find the answer on our own. Of course, this didn’t apply just to homework. I recall that any time my sister and I used an offensive word we’d picked up from other kids at school, he would make us look it up in the Oxford Dictionary and ask us if we understood why it was not appropriate. We learned early to take responsibility for our language and to this day I credit him and this practice for a significant part of why I became a writer and a poet.

Many of you knew my father as a dedicated genealogist with an obsession for citing his sources correctly. He held himself and others to a high standard, then taught people how to evaluate and understand their own records and evidence. He travelled throughout North America giving seminar presenations and workshops and was quite well-known. Although my mother would sometimes tease him that “he spent more time with the dead than the living,” his dedication to his family beyond veil did not overshadow his commitment to his family here. He always found opportunities to involve us in his work. I recall him teaching me how to read 17th and 18th century clerk script so that I could help him transcribe old wills and legal documents. Did he really need a 6th grader’s help? No. But I felt wanted and a part of his world when I was helping him – and it brought us together. He always treated us as equals, encouraged us to pursue our interests, and taught us the skills we needed to succeed.

Something else I recall about my father’s commitment to family history was that it grew out of a genuine love and desire to know and understand those who went before. Names and dates were insufficient, he wanted to know who these people were and helped us see them as real people. As many of his friends, colleagues, and students have commented in their notes and cards, my father was a fantastic storyteller – he loved to punctuate his lessons and conversations with stories from his past and from his ancestors’ pasts. He made their histories a part of his history – told us about great uncles and great grandparents we never had the opportunity to meet, shared his own accounts fighting fires, organizing dances, managing bands, and serving his mission in New Zealand and the Cook Islands. I was always amazed at the details and names he could recall – how every person he had encountered remained with him as a vibrant memory. In looking over his journals and files, I see now that this was a cultivated talent – something he worked hard to achieve and maintain. In some of his files, personal narratives begin “This collection of thoughts is written for the education and enlightenment of my children and their children” — a fitting reminder to me of where his priorities lay.

Perhaps that’s the best way that I remember my father – as a father concerned about both the education and enlightenment of his children. He encouraged us not just to succeed in our academic studies, but also to pursue a path of spiritual excellence. He taught us to read and think for ourselves, to believe for ourselves, and to trust in a power greater than ourselves. In my father’s life, I saw again and again that faith was not just about prayer and belief, but also about hard work and accountability.

That was also his attitude about friendship. Whether it was in our church community, at work, with friends or with strangers, my father always treated others as important equals. He valued them as brothers and sisters. It seemed that he was always making some wisecrack with the salesclerk about needing a larger bag for shoplifting or commenting on some other funny thing they had just happened to witness. Life was full of inside jokes – and it seemed he was always in on whatever was happening.

My father loved to laugh and was well-known for his wry sense of humor. Among friends and colleagues, he was always quick to catch the offbeat and accidental comedy of a situation. He loved puns, wordplay, and clever turns of phrase. He loved humor that arose from the every day human experience. While he certainly liked to tease those close to him, I never heard him belittle or ridicule anyone – more often than not, he laughed at himself and his own foibles. I suspect he learned this while still young. Evidently when he was in third grade he once teased a girl so much that she smacked him on the head with a metal lunch pail! He used to claim that he still had a dent in the skull from that experience :)

For my father, humor was a way to open doors, to break the ice between strangers, to lift the spirits of those struggling. Even in his last days, without his audible laugh, we still caught him with eyes shining in glee at some funny story recalled by a friend or at a clever joke that someone told. He loved to make funny faces – and in fact, that’s how I remember him most often – with a goofy grin on his face after cracking a particularly awful pun.

Other things I remember. My father loved to travel and we benefited from those trips and excursions. We drove all over the country and came back to BC often when we lived in Saskatchewan. Sometimes he would stop the car in some tiny forgotten place and tell us a story about the place and how it tied into our family history. Other times we pull over at the side of the road to look for fossils when he spotted a seam of coal. He made time for exploration and wanted us to love the beauty of this world. I think he considered himself quite spoiled to have grown up here in Penticton and to have had mountains and creeks nearby.

I recall one Christmas Eve when we were returning from visiting friends in Rabbit Lake, Saskatchewan, that he pulled over on the gravel road and had us all get out to look up at the stars which were out in their thousand thousands in that dark perfect sky. Little things like that become powerful memories.

In the short span of his 59 years, my father created a lot of great memories. He accomplished many wonderful things, taught many people, solved many perplexing research problems, wrote many articles, gave many presentations – but in the end, the things he prized most were being a good husband, a good father, and a good friend. He lived a rich life full of laughter and music, and wanted even today as we bid him goodbye for now, that we should celebrate with happy songs and stories and not weep.

I am grateful to have been blessed with such a father as a friend. I am thankful, as he was thankful, for the hope and peace that we find in the resurrection, in the life and teachings of our Savior, and in the assurance that his journey led him on beyond struggle of this life into the joyful work of the next. Somewhere he stands on the other shore surrounded by those who went on before and there he continues I’m certain, making friends, telling stories, laughing, and enjoying the beauty of the world he has come to.

So today, to our father, brother, friend Ken Aitken we bid goodbye till we meet again on that other shore – goodbye but only for little while – goodbye, not really for he remains close to us in the lessons and stories he told, the memories we hold in our hearts, the songs we sing which he loved.

Goodbye my father. Goodbye our companion. Goodbye Ken our friend.

3 Responses to “Eulogy for my Father”

  1. Peter P Says:

    This was a lovely and loving tribute.

  2. Barbara Schenck Says:

    Thank you, Neil, for sharing your memories. I feel privileged to have known your father through our correspondence and occasional phone conversations. He was a delight and an inspiration.

  3. angie mcm (kasper) Says:

    Neil, I saw people writing condolensces on facebook, so I thought I’d check your blog to find out what’s going on. I’m so sorry to hear of the loss of your dad… so young. Your father sounded like a wonderful man who left an amazing legacy for future generations. Thanks very much for sharing.

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