Over the holiday season while were visiting family in Alberta, Canada, my 92-year-old grandfather – who had been healthy and active his whole life – passed away. He went quickly and surrounded by his family, and I was honored to be there with my family and to participate in his funeral. I was asked to make a “slide show,” and spent a couple of days with hundreds of photos going back to the 1920s, which was a beautiful way to meditate on this man’s life. I can’t say that I was particularly close to him as an adult – our lives diverged in many important ways – but I loved and respected him.
I thought I would share a eulogy that I delivered at the funeral. I stood alongside my Uncle, sister, and two cousins who did an amazing job remembering Cecil, as did his children and the rest of the family.
Eulogy for James Cecil Blair
February 13, 1922 – December 27, 2014
James Cecil Blair, my Grandfather, was a man who had everything. A man who built, with his hands and his grit and his faith, an entire world. An empire that began with just two cows and a saddle. Also, of course, a man who would be mortified to hear me describe him this way. There are more than 40 people in this world whose lives – who they are and how they live – are a direct result of Cecil and his wife of 71 years, Chrissie. A man who, despite living to nearly 93, was survived by all his children.
My Grandfather built a legacy. A legacy in his land, in his church, in the Christian camps he built and supported, and in the lives of his family and grandchildren and great-grandchildren. He left this world with his reputation solidly intact and the love and respect of two large communities, one here in Brooks and one in Youngstown. He was given many years, each one of them with the woman he loved, and until the end: health, spirit, love, wit, pleasure, clarity, and memory. His name, his memory will now be carried forward by a dozen, then dozens, then hundreds.
If this is not a picture of a man who had everything, then I don’t know what a such a picture would look like.
Grandpa had more than one successful career, at least to the extent that you can call farming a career. One career was as a pioneering farmer and rancher right in the middle of the Palliser Triangle; a part of the world that the Royal Geological Society in London declared in the 1800s as unsuitable for human settlement, and also made very clear that nobody should ever try to settle there, much less farm. He had other careers, or at least avocations, as a building mover, an inventor, a whisker rubber, a harmonica player and jigger, a hobbyist haymaker, a land developer, and of course a semi-professional par 3 golfer and curler. Grandpa was curling up to a couple of weeks before his death.
What do you say about a man who had all of this?
Well done, certainly. Great job, of course, and even congratulations. But what else?
Here are a few more things.
I knew Cecil Blair primarily through one lens, that of my grandfather. A grandfather that I no doubt saw nearly every day for the first 5 years of my life as we shared a farm yard, probably at least weekly for the next 8 or 9 after we moved a few miles away, then monthly, then annually, then every year or two over the rest of my life.
As it is with your grandparents, you don’t necessarily know much about them as non-grandparents. Was he a good husband? Based on the evidence of 71 years with Grandma, it feels safe to assume so. In fact, I remember Grandpa publicly declaring his love for her in a self-knowing joke that could have been written specifically for him and the rest of the “Blair Men” as my mother likes to say.
At the end of a big family do for their 50th wedding anniversary, Grandpa came up to the mic to say a few words, and among those words he told a story about an old Scotsman and his wife. One day at the breakfast table, years and years into their marriage, his wife asked him, “why do you never tell me that you love me?” The old Scotsman replied, “I told you that I loved you on the day I married you and if anything changes, I will let you know.”
Aside from being my grandfather, what was James Cecil Blair like as a man? Again, I can safely assume from what I saw and heard over the decades that he was a good man. A man with flaws, like all of us. A man that could be harsh and even insensitive. A man driven to work, and work, and work some more. I remember a family friend telling me as a teenager that there was something most people in our community knew about called “the Blair work ethic,” and hinted that like my grandfather and my father, and the other Blairs, I might have it too. That was a strange but valuable moment of self-consciousness and awareness of the tradition that I came from, and one that I have tried in my own way to honor.
I can tell you from a young age, without being able to put into words why, I knew I was proud to have the last name Blair. To be part of Grandpa’s family.
When I was young and trying to figure out who I was – not that I have it figured out still – I used to believe that every aspect of who we are is fungible, changeable, up for grabs. That you could, for example, move to a new place, get a new job, grow your hair long, grow a beard and, say, pierce a couple of holes in your ear, and you would be a whole new person, a creature entirely of your own making.
But, it has taken me many more years to realize that this is a lie. Only about 20-30% of you is up for grabs, and the rest of you is you, for better or for worse. It took me years to realize that I am, in fact, my mother’s son, my father’s son, and of course, my grandfather’s grandchild.
So what became a part of me, the center part of me, I could not change even if I wanted to.
How fortunate then, how incredibly lucky then, to be the grandson of Cecil Blair.
* * *
There was a kind of frontier sense of justice and toughness in Grandpa. I’m told that by the time I was around, he had mellowed somewhat, and that by the time the great-grandchildren were around, he was practically a pussycat. As tough as he was, I’m told he was a real softie compared to his own father Floyd.
The greatest compliment you can pay a young boy is to treat him like a man. Grandpa knew that and my father knew that when raising me. The day that my dad let me cut in a wheat field on my own with a swather was and will always be one of the most important days in my life.
You could also argue that Grandpa kind of taught me to swim – using the sink or swim method. When I was a baby, Grandpa wanted to weigh in my training as a swimmer, and asked my mom to hand me over to him as he stood in the dugout, telling her that babies just naturally know how to swim. She wasn’t convinced, and resolutely refused.
Grandpa’s views on swim training were tested a few years later at a family waterskiing party down at Fisher’s Dam. I was too young to waterski so I was playing in the mud on the edge of the dam and I suddenly slipped down a steep drop-off where I couldn’t touch the bottom and I started thrashing and screaming and my mom screamed (i.e., a kind of quiet gasp) and ran towards me but Grandpa stopped her and there I was drowning until I finally got close enough to touch bottom and it turns out that I didn’t die after all. I don’t know if this taught me anything but at least it gave me a good story and something to present to my kids as evidence that we were so much tougher back in my day. Water wings and blowing bubbles in the pool – ha – throw you in the dam and see if you float.
After my dad and Grandpa separated their farms we would still work together a lot, including in the spring when it was cattle branding time. Now my dad and his dad didn’t necessarily see eye-to-eye on everything – a state of affairs that seems to continue on down the line, and one of those things was the method of branding. Of course when my brother and I were heading over to Grandpa and Uncle Merle’s to brand, we pretty much understood that we weren’t supposed to say that the way that God intended branding to be done was with horses, cowboys, ropes and sitting in fresh calf manure while trying not to get burned, cut, fried with dehorning acid or kicked in the head. We weren’t supposed to say that because the way we branded at Grandpas was with a calf cradle – a mechanical device that holds the calves still. We didn’t say anything but we kind of hated it.
Anyway, one time I was pushing what seemed like the 3000th calf through the chute and was straddling the chute with a foot on both sides and my feet slipped and I fell face first into the mud and the calf in front of me was loaded up and ready and kicked me square in the mouth and laughed about it too, leaving me with a split lip and chipped tooth and a pretty huge wound to my pride and I was hurt and mad and even may have been crying a little and I stumbled over to Grandpa and blubbered that a calf had kicked me in the face, and, looking up for a second from castrating bawling soon-to-be-steer, I saw for an instant the look which said well, are you still breathing and if so, why isn’t the next calf coming down the chute? Then he looked back down then up again and seeing that I didn’t seem to be moving anywhere, muttered go see your grandmother and I trudged to the house and I frankly I didn’t get much sympathy there either.
Here is what I learned from his life.
Living with Dignity
I learned from him that you should strive to live your life with dignity. This means conducting yourself in a way that demands that people treat you with respect. This means working hard to ensure your words and actions line up, looking out for your blind spots, and treating others as your equals, even if they are not. It means a clean truck, a straight furrow, getting the crop in early, and staying in the field late. It means not doing business with some people. It means not indulging in anger when it would feel so great and even right, letting go of personal slights, and paying attention to the context you live in. It means living like you see the beauty and worth of life, and striving to fulfill your potential and live up to your promises even if, while doing so, you are poor. It means living this way even if you are rich. At its worst, this quality can be exclusionary, narrow and even bigoted, but at its best it is what gives life quality and substance.
I think all kids are on some level afraid of their grandfathers. Or at least those grandfathers who were raised during the depression on the bald prairie. Grandfathers where are stalwart, moral, seemingly perfect. I always was. That’s why it was good to be reminded that Grandpa was human.
My friend Kevin, who was working for Grandpa on his farm at the time, told me a story that provided a glimpse into Grandpa’s humanity. One spring day, a muddy day in the corrals, Kevin was busy on one side of a tall windbreak fence, when he heard Grandpa on the other side, struggling to get his quad unstuck. He was pushing and revving and grunting, and then . . . my Grandpa swore! Yes an actual swear word passed my grandpa’s lips. I never asked Kevin what the swear word was, but there’s a good chance it was something as foul as “crap” or “bloody.”
Though I am sure that he would never put it this way, Grandpa was ambitious. Working hard was good, but working smart was even better. A man does not build an operation like his by accident. A man does not start with a saddle and two heifers and turn that into what he did without ambition. Ambition drives you and rewards you and in and of itself it is a value worth honoring, through both success and failure.
The Power of Story
I also learned about the power of the story from my Grandpa. The Blair men don’t really communicate much, but when they do, it’s typically in the form of a story. Stories about people doing the wrong thing at the right time, saying the right thing at the wrong time, and most of all, people doing funny stuff. You can all picture Grandpa approaching you with a twinkle and a crooked smirk and knowing you were in for a treat because he was going to tell you a story – and you knew you would laugh and you would tell that story yourself dozens of times. These stories were passed around and passed along, like a kind of currency that said something real and even profound about both the teller and the listener and bound us together in a sense of shared understanding, experience, and values.
Once I almost drowned myself and my horse trying to swim with him across Fisher Dam during a cattle roundup, ostensibly to cut a few miles off my trip but in reality I did it mostly so I could tell the story to Grandpa and my dad and they would think I was cool. I think they mostly thought I was kind of dumb, but they laughed at my story and that was even better.
It’s no doubt a cliché to say that family is important. The Blairs are not huggers. At family gatherings there are no long meditative soliloquys about how special everyone is.
But as a child there was no mistaking the unspoken message. Family is something to build and protect, and to take seriously.
Grandpa was the first man I remember seeing cry. I was very young, playing with Grandma’s toy farm set on the lino floor in their kitchen when Grandpa got the call that his mother had died. It was also the last time I saw Grandpa cry, or come to think of it, any of the Blair men. Until today.
I also wish I would have learned how to be thrifty, how to be humble, how to dance a jig, how to play golf with just a 7 iron, how to live to 93, how not to get fat, and how to fill a room with people like this who love and respect you. Perhaps there is still time.
* * *
There’s no predicting which memories will stick with a child, which is one of the reasons that raising children is so terrifying. I’ve shared some of the things that I remember about my grandfather. I can’t say that each one of my memories is good – that would be a lie and a disservice, quite frankly, to his memory as a real, living human being. In later years as our cultural tastes, lifestyles, and ultimately religious beliefs diverged, I felt an uncloseable gap open up between us that I mourned.
But those are not the memories that I dwell on.
I dwell on the futility of trying to explain to him how my new digital watch worked or what I did for a living and how his response was always the same – the completely unreadable utterance, “Oh?”
What exactly did that “Oh?” mean?
I dwell on him saying that he heard that the shape of soon-to-be-built Calgary Saddledome hockey stadium was called a reverse hyperbolic paraboloid and what the heck did that mean, and I must know because I had encyclopedias and was studying high school physics. So I took it as a challenge and wrote a school paper answering that question in excruciating detail and when I presented it to him, illustrations and all, ending with a proud flourish, his response of course was . . . “Oh?”
And finally, I dwell on being out in the treeless pasture on a July day, sweating alongside my grandfather, building a barbed wire fence, the hawks screaming high overhead, then him suggesting that we go for a dip in nearby low spot, and him stripping down naked and I stripped too and the water was cool and smelled like life itself, and for a moment it was just me and my grandpa swimming in the July sun and nothing else.