This was a post I hoped I wouldn’t have to write for many years, but there’s a reason things happen and there’s a reason I’m writing it now. Eventually we’re shown that the journeys we make must continue without the guides in our lives. I realized that on June 11, 2016, when my grandfather, Myles McDougall, passed to the spirit world.
In Ojibwe culture, people don’t really go away. They just pass through the curtain to be reunited with their ancestors. But it’s hard when I know I won’t hear his voice on the other end of the phone anymore, with its very slight “Aboriginal accent”, even after years of not speaking his mother tongue. It’s hard. It’s been hard, and it will be hard, though I know he’s with me still.
So the morning of June 11, I accepted a wreath of sweetgrass from my visiting best friend and I hung it on my rearview mirror as I made the four-hour drive to my grandfather’s hometown. And I inhaled the scent of sweetgrass on that hot, humid, windy day – that day where the temperatures topped 38 degrees Celsius and the clouds scudded across the brassy sky. If he had to choose a day to go, it would have been this day – this bright and unsettled day, with a brisk wind and a hint of coolness and water-scent from Lake Erie.
And I sat in a blank hospital room with his body for ten or fifteen minutes, because I didn’t get to tell him goodbye. So I made due with what I had, which was a few moments with his body. I know he was there, though, because I heard my name whispered as I left the room.
We burnt the sweetgrass and his socks in the backyard, all of us huddled in a tiny patch of shade, and we made sure he wouldn’t be caught between this world and the next. And then he was gone. He was gone, and we were left to deal with a world where we couldn’t see him anymore.
I gave the eulogy at his funeral, an honour that I have not had before nor I believe I will have going forward. My main goal was to tell you about my grandfather as I knew him, but I felt that instead of telling you who I knew, he beamed through my words to let you know himself. A taciturn and shy man, he wasn’t one to open up, but I feel he managed to open us all to each other, to the generous and kind and very caring man he was.
So I’m reprinting it here, with my family’s permission, so that you can know the man who was not only my grandfather, but my elder and my guide. My life is not the same without him. I can never repay him for the gifts he gave me, but I hope I can at least honour him all the rest of the days of my life, as he honoured the ancestors that I got to know through his words.
I am a storyteller. My job is to tell stories. So I tell his, because his is where I start.
How do you summarize 90 years of a life?
Myles McDougall was a father, a husband, a grandfather, a friend. These are all things we knew about him. Some of you may have known him as a warrior, proud to serve in the U.S. Navy during World War II. Others may have known him as a skilled mechanic and electrician who worked thirty years for Chrysler. It’s true that he could have, and did, fix anything. He was one of the smartest men I knew, and one of the most skilled engineers.
But these are just the facts. They’re milestones that mark his life. What I’m here to do today is to fill in the gaps. I’m his eldest granddaughter, and it’s me that he asked to carry on the little-known aspects of who my Papa was.
Myles was a loving father. Though taciturn and quiet, he had a deep and abiding love for his children. Many of our monthly phone conversations would involve random thoughts and wishes for his four children. I include my Aunt Andrea, since he often would mention her in his musings, though she died more than 30 years ago. And he was so proud of the accomplishments of his children. He told me my mother, Vicki, a skilled nurse, had healing hands like his grandmother Alice’s. He mentioned how happy he was when Sandi and her husband Paul would come by to visit him. And he told me of the renovations and the many backyard projects he and Bradley would be doing. He was surrounded by family the day before he died and I believe it was that love that allowed him to leave this world for the next.
Myles was a loving grandfather to my sister, Meghan, and me. Generous and funny, our phone conversations would involve long and rambling stories about times in the war, stories about men who could only taste ketchup, the way a rifle felt in my grandfather’s hands. He fought in the South Pacific and it was a defining part of his life – an 18-year-old boy who came back a man from the horrors of war. But he would listen, too, as I told him about the writing I was doing, the way he had inspired me to dig deeper into my Native identity. He would ask after Meghan, so proud that she, like my father, Chris, worked for the government and followed in his footsteps. And we would have to be careful what we said around him – because a small mention of something we needed would often end in a surprise – the very thing we’d mentioned casually in passing showing up in his hands, a proud and pleased smile on his face, or a heavy roll of change being dropped into our hands, played off as “coffee money”.
Myles was a proud Native man. Near the end of his life, he would call me up just to tell me stories of his life on the reserve, the things he was taught. He loved his grandmother Alice, a healer, and told stories about her his entire life. He would tell me about her different uses for herbs, the way she had taught him his first language – Ojibwe. He told me of his deep and abiding belief in the spirit world, how he believed he would meet her again someday – and how he wanted me to meet her, too. I was tasked with carrying on the culture, and I take that task seriously. So know that he never forgot where he came from, or the traditional beliefs he was taught. Know that he cherished his family and his spirituality, and he told me that first and foremost, I am a Native woman, and I should be proud of that. That goes for all of his children and grandchildren. He was so very proud to pass his culture on after years of feeling silenced.
Myles was funny, so funny, in fact, that there were times when his dry sense of humour would pass over everyone’s head before we figured out the joke. And then he would laugh, his face opening in a wide grin. He teased constantly, and he found pleasure in hearing my shocked silence and then laughter on the other end of the phone, like when he told me he’d put a bigger engine on his mobility scooter so that he could race past the old ladies on the sidewalk. Many people may not have known this about Myles – because he rarely showed this humour to those he didn’t know.
His interests were wide, spanning World War II airplanes and ships, to plants, to the movements of the stars. He would take us into the backyard to show us the planets through his telescope, the way they moved around the many constellations. He had a fascination with what was next, who else could be out there. And this is in keeping with who he was – a proud member of the Eagle clan, a deeply thoughtful hunter. Nature fascinated him, the progressions and cycles of life.
We all got pieces of him throughout his life. And like any life, there are pieces we didn’t get and so much more to be told. I can only tell you of the things we shared: the way he always took my hand before we left his house. The random letters and cards my sister and I would get in the mail. His stubbornness and his rare moments of affection. The way he listened to whatever I had to say, even if it was boring. There’s so much more to be said.
But what I will remember most is his unwavering gaze and his deep silences. I will remember his generosity and his spirituality. And I will celebrate his life, the fact that a man who so loved the stars left us to join them and our ancestors, left us on his own terms, in peace and in love.
90 years is a long time to form a legacy. I can only hope that I am worthy of the wisdom and culture he instilled in me.
Chi miigwech – thank you, Papa.