Robert lived with my grandparents from the time he was a teenager and they helped him get started by loaning him money to go to Ryerson in Toronto to become a chef.
My first memory of him was when he was going to school. It was my third birthday and he bought me a little round inflatable swimming pool. I still remember him laughing as he blew it up, filled and it and helped me dunk myself in it. His laughter rang throughout my life as did the encouragement he gave me that day.
Always he was there when there were big changes in my life. He never judged me or lectured me but he gave support and love.
After he moved back to Ontario with his new wife, Mary Lou, he lived and worked at her home, Fern Resort. Robert, Mary Lou and Fern became touchstones in my life. I was there for my 8th and 13 birthdays. My Mom and I spent the summer of ’65 there. Mom needed some extra money so she was the “Dining room Hostess” for the summer and I was the “Boat Girl”. In retrospect I know Mom wasn’t very well emotionally that year and I think Fern saved her and helped her to move on toward getting her feet on the ground and working toward her BA.
Giving people confidence in themselves and bringing out their best was Robert’s great gift the world…that and his great wit and humour.
We had some special times of bonding, Robert and I. When I was there in ’65 his big sheep dog, Camelot, bit me and Robert and I went off to the hospital for a couple of stitches in my thumb. He just tucked me up under his arm in the car and off we went. I was begging him not to put Camelot down because he was very angry with him. Robert just kept telling me it would all be OK and because he was Robert I believed it would be. Another trip to the hospital came in ’71 when I was there working in the kitchen. I spilled about three gallons of boiling water on my feet and Robert once again tucked me in the car and took me for help. Why he allowed me to stay there for the week of my recovery instead of firing me I do not know but I think he knew that at that point to go home would have been very difficult for me. In fact I might never have stepped out into my own life if he had sent me home.
Robert’s voice could calm all of hell I’m sure but it could also disrupt all of heaven. I will never forget the “Honeymoon Speech” given annually to the 85 some staff of 18 to 25 year old adults who gathered in the staff dining room at the beginning of “On Season”. The speech began with “The Honeymoon is Over”. He was letting us know the dilly dally of the off season we had been experiencing was coming to abrupt end and we were going to work our butts off for the next eight or ten weeks. At one point in his rather boisterous tyrade he would hold a tray full of dishes and then suddenly drop it to the floor. His words, “That was $400 worth of dishes and I own them so I can break them but don’t you dare break any or it will be coming off your pay.”
Once he got angry with me but he said his piece and I never heard another word about it. That wasn’t something I was used to but I loved him for it. The incident doesn’t need much explanation except to say it involved too much alcohol before the afternoon shift. His brother Ralph, who had helped me drink that bottle of rye, may have had the worst of Robert’s wrath that day but I never heard.
In my adulthood Robert and Lou were there when I need them most. They supported me at the most difficult times of my life. I like to think I was there for them too. When Robert lost his son Eric we spent hours talking about him and I recall Robert explaining how he had felt Eric’s hand brush over his head as he sat on the sofa in the house a few days after he had passed away.
There was nothing we couldn’t talk about and I trusted him with my life. When my marriage was in trouble he was there for me. When my son died Robert took me under his wing again. We talked for ours about our shared loss and the pain in our hearts on several occasions. Good Scotch seemed to help the conversation but was never overused. Recognizing I needed a break in 2002 Robert and Mary Lou had me drive the TBird to Florida. I’m sure they could have found someone else but they didn’t. I had a wonderful week before flying back home and was spoiled more than I had even been spoiled in my life. Robert took me to places he knew I would love and Lou took me shopping for some new clothes. As a single Mom new clothes were a rare treat. ,
Carla Palmer, who has been Robert’s partner these past 9 years, has always been around in my life at Fern too. When I worked there at 13 she took me to dinner in Toronto and we roared down the 400 in her little MG at some ungodly rate of speed to eat at the Town and County. We laughed the whole time. Carla was the den mother in ’71 when I got drunk for the first time in my life she held my head all night. The next day I got a stern talking to and then we laughed together again.
Three years ago Carla and Robert invited me to stay at Fern again for a few days. Robert took such pride in showing me how he had fixed up Carla’s cottage for her and his joy in their shared love was wonderful to see.
Again, that trip to Fern, was a turning point time in my life. I was trying to start a business, my Dad was dying. The four days of bliss on Couchiching fortified me for the difficult days ahead.
Eric, Laura and Mark were my little cousins but because of age difference I never got to know Mark and Laura as well as Eric. Even though they didn’t know me well they have always welcomed me as graciously as their parents and I have admired them for their devotion to their Mom and Dad.
Because my life lately has been pretty much devoted to looking after my partner while he dealt with cancer I haven’t been able to get to Fern for a visit. With things calmed down at home I had been hoping to make my way there in August for a few days or even just lunch but as life would have it, I waited too long.
Robert died this week, just a few days after his 80th birthday.
All of Robert’s days were devoted to making the people he loved happy. He made it his business to do things that would provoke people to be their best, give them smiles and most importantly make them laugh. Mark and Laura and their children will miss him deeply I’m sure. Never were children and grandchildren loved more than they.
Robert’s obituary tells some of story but there is a story with each life he touched because he affected everyone he knew as much as he did me. There are generations of staff who worked at Fern who can look back on their success in life credit to Robert’s mentorship and gentle (and sometimes not so gentle) pushing. We all laughed with him, drank with him, ate with him and cried with him. He taught us how to stand up for what we believed and his stupid flip flops and funky glasses helped us laugh at ourselves and not care what other people thought of us.
Thank you Robert for being bigger than life to me, for loving me and mentoring me through life. I will love you always and I know that goes both ways.
I think I can hear you laughing.