What follows is the eulogy I delivered at my father’s funeral. May he rest in peace.
Donald Thornhill (April 22, 1948 – April 26, 2019)
My father was a patient man and he had to be.
Here’s something he told me: “With the wear and tear we gave our clothes, it’s a wonder I had any pants to my name.” As the youngest of four boys to a fisherman and a homemaker, my father, Donald Thornhill, grew up at risk of going pant-less. My grandmother, Nan, had to make adjustment after adjustment to the same pair of trousers as they worked their way from Clyde (the oldest, who lives in St. John’s) to John (who passed away three years ago in Little Bay East), Reg (who lives in Northern Ontario) and finally, to my father, Don (or Donnie, as they called him). It reminded Dad of an old limerick that still brings a smile to my face:
There once was an old man from Belleorum,
who bought a pair of pants and wore ‘em.
He went to St. Jacques
and got a new axe
and went in the woods
and tore ‘em
That tale of tattered clothes continued to play out over Dad’s lifetime. Mom told me she and Dad had the biggest kind of laugh about Dad’s socks not too long ago. How was it that the man always had holes in his socks—their wonder turning into belly laughter. Mom, my sisters and I endlessly bought Dad new socks and clothes for every occasion—birthdays, father’s days and Christmases—and yet, the clothes he wore, he wore them out, leaving brand new ones untouched in his chest of drawers and closet. You could say it was something of a character trait because Dad was not about appearances. He was the kind of man who had to be told, Don, you’re in desperate need of a haircut—that’s what my mother would say. He allowed his shock of straight, jet black hair to grow long around his ears and into side-swept bangs across his forehead, the hair resting on the shelf created by the frame of his glasses. Dad seemed to favour the disheveled look on account of always getting up to something in the garage or the yard.
That’s what people did in the outports. You didn’t call someone in to fix your broken sink. You figured it out. You were resourceful. And it was in subtle ways like this that my father brought outport Newfoundland into our home and, in doing so, gave us an appreciation for the history on which our modest fishing nation was built.
Dad loved his outport home. He told my sisters and I how he and his brothers liked to climb to the tops of the hills overlooking their family home in Little Bay East, at the bottom of Fortune Bay on the Burin Peninsula. They especially liked to head up there to watch the storms.
“To see the waves roll way out, then way back in, there was seemingly no pattern to it and to watch it that way, from a theatrical perspective, was something wonderful,” Dad said.
But as he sat up there, perched behind the rocks on the mountain, waiting for the wind to rip and the ocean to swell, Dad also thought about his future. He didn’t see a career for himself in the fishery, so eventually he ended up in St. John’s at school and it’s where he’d also meet my mother, Pauline Marshall, at a dance.
“When I was 13, looking over the water, I could only imagine what St. John’s looked like,” Dad once told me. He was talking to me about those first days as a student living in St. John’s, “I was afraid to cross the road at the top of St. Clare’s Avenue. I’d wait until someone else crossed first a couple of times until I got used to the traffic signals.”
In retrospect, the distance between Little Bay East and St. John’s is relatively short (it’s a three-hour drive), but the two places were world’s apart for a boy from a fishing outport moving into town to take up trade school, just like his older brother, Clyde.
While city-living took getting used to, Dad loved the challenge of his school work from the minute. He had a voracious appetite for mathematics and science, especially physics – interests which started back in a one-room school, flipping through text books. He loved anything he could read about how the world worked, including nature. Dad had the whole wide world at his fingertips in those books and he spent every opportunity to flip through my school books—from elementary school to high school and university—showing me that same passion. I remember how Dad could recite formulae and theories in a way that brought them to life. He always had an example from his own experiences – be it building houses, working in a diagnostic imaging department or even working on accordions – that showed the application of math and science in everyday life.
“It’s all mathematics, my dear,” Dad told me just months ago in February when I’d been asking him about repairing button-style squeezeboxes. Sure, he loved accordions for their music, but as it turns out he especially loved them for their math.
That was Dad.
He didn’t want or need a lot in life. And yet, as many of you know, he filled our basement and garage to the rafters with stuff. There are different names you could put on that behaviour, but I came to figure out every single thing had a purpose for Dad. If it wasn’t clear what the purpose of a found or saved object was, you simply hadn’t had the thing long enough to figure it out. We used to joke Dad could fix anything with duct tape and a coat hanger – he was a regular Red Green. And there was truth in the jest. The man was, as I said, resourceful, he was creative, determined and returning to my first point, endlessly patient.
Living with four women reinforced the lessons in patience Dad first learned as the youngest of four boys in a fishing outport. You could say my mother, sisters Natalie, Angie and I taught dad the art of waiting. There was waiting for the bathroom to free up; waiting for us to have the last word; and waiting for us at the various destinations we’d call him from to pick us up and transport us here, there and everywhere. Dad’s love of moose-hunting was also much to do with waiting – how he loved being out in nature, patiently tracking signs of a nearby moose and waiting for the opportune moment. But I have to say I’m especially grateful Dad waited to get into his serious accordion repairs until my sisters and I had moved out of the house.
You know, even in his final days, my father waited. He waited to get in one last treatment of radiation – wanting to make every possible attempt to stand up to the cancer that would eventually take his life. He waited to reach his 71st birthday – just imagine that more than a year earlier, he worried he might not make it to his 70th. And Poppy Don waited until his fifth grandchild was born too.
On the morning my father passed away, the nurse said to mom and I: “You have someone looking out for you upstairs now.” The description fit. It made me think of Dad, waiting on the top of a hill, to see the waves roll in and out. It made me think of him waiting and watching a moose from the other side of the valley. Now, I can see Dad, waiting patiently up in heaven until one day we all have the good fortune to meet again.
Until then Dad, thank you for your lessons in patience. I thought we were the ones who had shown you, but you were patiently teaching us what you’d known all along.
To read Donald Thornhill’s obituary, visit here.