Such an impossibly romantic name! Such an impossibly romantic background – his father a famous pilot back in the day when pilots rarely made it to the parenting age. My uncle Pierre’s father‘s plane is in the museum of Science and Technology…
But it’s about my equally romantic uncle I’m writing today. One of my very favourite uncles, one after whom I named my son, one who always made me smile, and one who was a role model for me in so many ways. A man who was handsome and dashing in looks, charming in manner – in every sense the romantic hero.
My uncle passed away this week, at the age of 85. I am sad to lose him, but I know that his faith will see him safely to see his peaceful place – and I know that he lived a life full of adventures and love and gusto and appreciation and joy.
Uncle Peter (or Pierre as I eventually was brave enough to call him, after my years of poorly learned French) was a man who lived large. He, his first wife, Dorothy Anne, and my cousins were such a huge part of my growing up they feel like my family. Uncle Pierre did things I always dreamed of doing – walking the Camino – twice! Hiking and staying in monasteries, gaining thoughtful peace. Coming home to a home filled of laughter and caring. Raising his children in a bilingual household when it was not the standard of the time. Being a member of the United Eclectics!
I loved him so, but I don’t think he really got to know me until I was a grownup, when I was fortunate to have some deep conversations with him. He made me yearn: for philosophy, for religion, for walking, for peace. There are so few people that you meet who make you want to be better than you are. He had that effect on me.
When I was a kid, and all of us, a multiplicity of cousins and associated parents were staying at our Second Cousin Cousin Grace’s cottage on Cape Cod. I couldn’t sleep. No lecture from designated babysitter Pierre. He talked to me, and made me a sandwich of bread, butter, and brown sugar. It knocked me right out. (The other parents simply told me to get back to bed. I remember his unexpected kindness).
I think that was what I loved most about Uncle Pierre – his ability to be kind in unexpected ways. As with many men of his generation, he held himself a little apart from the silliness that is little girls. But he adored my mother and father, and they adored him back. He adored all of his children, and their crazy pets – the Vachons always had a dog of enhanced personality – and his love for my aunt was bright and visible. Growing up in a cooler house, I liked to see the joy between them.
One morning Pierre and Dorothy Anne arrived just as we were heading out to church, and so we told them to help themselves to breakfast and left them in the kitchen. What Uncle Pierre couldn’t have guessed is that my dad had been experimenting with rum in maple syrup, and had a jug of it, a fair bit too rummy, in the back of the fridge, waiting for some titration with more maple syrup. We arrived home to find the two of them giggling helplessly over crumbs of pancakes. “Chris,” said Pierre to my father, “I think your maple syrup has gone off a bit.”
Uncle Pierre taught my dad how to sail, one calm day on Lake Washington. We were renting a place on the lake and it came with a small boat. Dad was eager to try, so out we went, testing how to turn about and manage the sails and the rudder and everything. It wasn’t very exciting due to lack of wind, but the motor brought us in nicely.
Uncle Pierre was a great teacher. So much so that my dad felt supremely confident, and the first chance he had, he took us all out in the boat on his own. Never mind there was a gale blowing up… We nearly drowned, except that my older brother conveniently let go of the sail line just as we were tipping over and we fluttered back into verticality, with only one head injury to report. I can still hear my dad laughing as he reported it all to Uncle Pierre on the phone the next day…
Pierre was at his wife’s side during her terminal cancer and supported her throughout. He also was stand-in family for many of the Warner (Dorothy Anne’s) clan, sharing his home with my lovely Uncle Cliff, rallying around to help where needed.
After Dorothy Anne died, he was also brave enough to love again, marrying the very sweet Margaret Graham. I haven’t met her in real life yet, and I love her already, just through the brief electronic chats we’ve had. I’m so glad they found each other after the loss of their first spouses – they had some time (not nearly enough) to travel and paint and laugh together.
I’ve been so blessed. I got to grow up in a life full of cousins and aunts and uncles that, barring the occasional one or two (there is always a worm in the apple!) made my world full of friends and people who supported me, who loved me unconditionally. We’ve lived all over the place, and we don’t see one another nearly often enough, but the lovelines are there and strong. I treasure them, and as with every family event, I vow to strengthen them even more…while knowing time, finances, illness, and life will keep us apart more than together.
Go with God, my dear “oncle Pierre”. I can’t walk the Camino, with my MS and general weakness in the heat. But I dedicate the next 500 miles of my walking to you. Once again, you are inspiring me to be better than I am. It might take me a year, or two. Or possibly more…how I will miss you. I will look for your kindness in the faces I see and seek quiet in myself as I walk.