I’m Andrew, Leonard’s grandson. To me, he was always known as “Papa,” and I feel lucky to’ve grown up with such a strong and unique example of what it can mean — if one is lucky — to be an old man.
His sense of humour, generosity, goodwill, and determination have been beacons to me of a life properly lived, over the years. And if I haven’t inherited these traits through the blood, so to speak, I hope that I will continue to remember Papa’s example the rest of my life. Because I’d like to become the rare kind of old man who is fun and excited by new possibilities, patient and kind — not from a sense of duty or manners, but from a genuine caring about everyone around me, spreading joy wherever I go.
It’s strange at these types of events how we gather to assert what someone was — what his life meant — and to listen to the assertions of others, each trying to sum up the person as best she can. And the person we are all reducing to a few paragraphs, a few well-chosen anecdotes, is not here to defend himself from such half-truths.
But really, when our loved one is no longer with us to continue adding himself to the stories and ideas that comprise him, it makes sense that we should come together and tell each other our own memories and assessments, however subjective and anecdotal, because the more of them we can share, the more our dear friend remains alive and influential on the world.
My own half-true story of Papa is at least somewhat complex, in that it contains many seeming contradictions or paradoxes: first, he was a strong, brave, and stubborn military man, but he was also a warm, gentle, and genuine family man who loved nothing more than to indulge the whims of anyone he could make a little happier by doing so.
This is not such an unusual paradox in men, especially those of a certain age, but I find that there is a stereotypical “manly” way, where one’s strength is worn on the outside while a gentleness lies within which those closer to us are allowed to see, and which hopefully guides our behaviour implicitly.
And in Papa these two sides were reversed: he was, as those of us who were close to him know, an incredibly strong and principled man; and yet his demeanour was always of utter gentleness and compassion.
Such a reversal of strength and compassion is generally considered a more feminine attribute, and maybe it was because Papa lived most of his life in the company of three women that he ended up that way.
His love of bird-watching, for instance, might not strike some as a particularly manly passion. But I like to think of him as an extremely early example of an extremely rare and important species: the military feminist.
So often, feminism has meant women acting more like men. But traditional male behaviour has already had plenty of impact on the world — both good and bad. I think more men need to start acting a little more like women, if we’re to properly balance things out, and Papa showed me how this can be accomplished with no loss to dignity or even true masculinity.
The second paradox or dichotomy that my grandfather embodied is related to the first — he was both a welcomer of new ideas and a keeper of the old ways.
He had an open, active mind that was constantly looking for new stimulation and he was ready to listen to opinions on any subject. And this lasted right to the end of his life.
So many times when I was studying philosophy at McGill, I’d visit Papa and Mamie, my late grandmother, for dinner and he would excitedly ask me some difficult question about the latest in Chomskian semantics, or else want to discuss some current popular science show about string theory he’d seen on PBS the night before.
I would try to remember whatever I knew or believed I knew about the subject, and he would listen to me hold forth, completely delighted, interrupting only to ask a question when he wasn’t sure what I meant, or to interject the occasional “Fascinating!”
But he also held firmly to the old values worth keeping, like loyalty, dignity, and a strong sense of history. He would jump on any opportunity to attend a formal ceremony, and loved making speeches (a trait which I have not inherited). His main disappointment, when he learned that he would not live much longer, was that he might not attend the Leacock Luncheon at McGill in October.
Being old-fashioned and proper were points of pride, and I believe even a certain amount of amusement, for Papa. He thrilled at using outdated exclamations such as “pshaw” (with a silent ‘p’), and invariably asked me, when I would visit, if I would like a nice, cold “Lervenbrau”.
I mentioned before that Papa was an avid birdwatcher, and I believe this is an important fact to keep in mind when thinking about these apparent contradictions.
If you’ve ever watched birds yourself for any length of time, you’ve probably noticed that they are fairly contradictory creatures themselves. They too, for example, love both the old and the new, routine and freedom, flying great distances to find food or nest materials, or sometimes it seems just to enjoy the breeze or the view, yet always returning dutifully to the nest, like a naval officer coming home to his family between deployments.
Some people are fond of birds because they like to imagine what it’s like to have the freedom of flight. They wish they could take off whenever they like, and view the world from above without a care.
But I think Papa liked birds because he could identify with them — he’d made it to their level, and saw in them the kind of freedom he had found for himself, and believed was worth cherishing.
Like a bird, Papa could usually be found whistling or humming, apparently carefree. And this would probably be the soundtrack to some little chore he’d be taking care of, like helping Mamie with the dishes or sorting his personal correspondence into piles, presumably for no other reason than that he enjoyed it.
He was, in short, a man who knew how to enjoy himself. Now, that’s a phrase that’s said of some men, and it usually means they have huge appetites and probably drink a lot and make lewd remarks to women and are generally loud and unpleasant.
But in Papa’s case it’s more about life’s little chores that have to get done, but don’t have to be a bother. He built a nest for himself and his family, but that didn’t stop him from spontaneously soaring above all our heads, in a light-hearted, inspiring, and completely unshowy way, merely by enjoying whatever he was doing at the time.
Birds are symbols of freedom, and we don’t generally associate freedom with a meticulous attention to the small details of life’s daily responsibilities.
But that is, in fact, where real, lasting freedom lies, and that’s one of the main lessons I’d like to take from Papa’s life. I would go so far as to say that it is not their flight that expresses birds’ true freedom, but their song.
They rarely sing and fly simultaneously, instead producing music when they’re building a nest, or looking on the ground for food, or just hopping from one branch to another, trying to find exactly the right spot. They’re contemplative creatures, and one has to be contemplative oneself to sit still long enough to enjoy their beauty.
Of course, Papa was no monastic saint, silently watching the world in a state of utter peace and non-judgment, nor did he use the minutiae of daily life as an escape from the modern world.
He cared very deeply about the state of current affairs, and loved to discuss the issues of the day. And his feathers could easily be ruffled by a perceived wrong turn in those affairs, especially if it was beyond his control.
He loved Montreal, for instance, as much as anyone has ever loved his home, and yet the politics of Quebec were constantly making him crazy. I confess that I would sometimes even seek out pieces of outrageous news just to witness his trademark expression of disbelief — a dropped jaw and knit brow, followed immediately by a “Surely not, Andrew! ”
But then — again like a bird — he could just as immediately flap his wings with a chuckle and shake off the perceived wrong in order to get on with other, more pressing concerns, such as a story about his school days, or a tin of cashews that needed opening. The larger problem would not be forgotten forever, just not dwelled upon once its emotional impact had been expressed.
These are the things I loved about Papa, the traits I aspire to emulate. They seem worthy to me of emulation because from what I could see they brought him, as if through no effort of the will, a genuine and infectious happiness.
They also brought him the love of everyone he met, but this is not a practical aspiration. It is not a desire to be loved that makes creatures like birds universally lovable — unlike dogs, say, or even certain ingratiating cats I’ve met.
They are lovable because they are naturally generous with their gifts and they inspire us with their effortless grace and beauty. Papa was the same. Just watching him enjoy himself brought joy to me and everyone around him. I hope we can all continue to feel and pass on that joy whenever we remember him.