Eulogy of Sidney Norman McLain
This is the story of Sidney Norman McLain – something that was made much easier to write because Dad wrote stuff down. A lot of stuff. Everywhere. In diaries, ledger books, notebooks, – everywhere. Things like that Mom and Dad used 6752 kilowatt hours of electricity in 1960 and it cost $140.22 for the whole year.
Dad also loved to tell stories. Lots and lots of stories – many of which I wrote down. So here’s what I have gathered together.
Dad was born in West Clifford, Nova Scotia, at 4 a.m. on Saturday, December 17, 1932, the youngest of nine born to Caleb and Annie McLean, although one sister died in infancy. He was born at home on a farm where they milked cows and sold cream, grew vegetables, and raised animals to eat and for sale. He quit school around grade 4 or 5 to help at home, and worked on their farm until he was nearly 16 and then went to work on other people’s farms and also doing some logging. He always said he spent his 16 th birthday on the butt end of a cross-cut saw, working in a logging camp. When he was 18 years old, he was working on a farm out in the Annapolis Valley in Nova Scotia where he became friends with a fellow named Tom Atkin. They hatched a plan to leave NS and head west, working their way across the prairies on the harvest, and then once they got to Vancouver, they were going to go on a boat and see the world, ending up in England, where Tom was from. They left in Dad’s 1937 Ford truck, on which he built a wooden canopy-type deal on the back and they put a mattress in there and headed off. They first worked in Ontario on Fraserdale Farms, a large dairy farm just outside of Toronto owned by Jack Fraser of Jack Fraser menswear. After a year there he traded in the truck on a 1952 Chev car and they headed west, taking jobs stookthrashing on farms in Langbank, SK and Crossfield, AB. They arrived in Malakwa at 4:00 p.m. on October 23, 1952.
The trip from Fraserdale Farms to Malakwa was 3,130 miles, cost $73.21, and consumed 184 and one tenth gallons of gas – which Dad wrote down.
They found their way to McLean’s sawmill, which was owned by his second cousin’s family, and he and Tom were immediately offered jobs there. He said, “After we got here I realized that there was no wind. I decided, ‘I like it here. I think I’ll stay.’”
Shortly after Dad arrived in 52, that cousin at the mill (Neil McLean) and his wife Helen took Dad on a blind date with a lady named Suna (mom) and the rest, as they say, is history. They picked her up for that blind date at the house by the swinging bridge, as her parents lived there. They were married May 22, 1954, and two years later, they ended up buying that house and land for $5,000. Dad was the planerman at the mill until 1957, after which he was on a crew that built the highway bridge at Crazy Creek. Then he started doing carpentry for Harry Trimbee, and built the Skyline. He was doing carpentry on his own and with Bert Northway until he started working for Crown Zellerbach, driving road grader up the mountains. He did that from 1960 to 1971 when he went to work for Blomquist Brothers Logging, driving skidder up in the bush. In that time frame, Geoff was born on Dad’s 25 th birthday (in 1957), Jeannette in 59, Scott in 62 and Sheila in 64. Dad was always doing carpentry work on the side, and started getting very busy during spring break-up making cabinets in the basement. He also found it increasingly unpleasant working in the snow and mud up in the bush, so in 1978, Dad quit from Blomquists and started McLain Holdings. There are not many houses in this area (or in Sicamous, for that matter) that he hasn’t either worked on, built cabinets for, built outright – or fixed the furnace in. He did carpentry work and furnace repair until 2002 when he retired and started doing more creative work, which he kept at until late 2019. He had a fall and scraped up his nose, and the doctor told him he shouldn’t get sawdust in it, so he stopped going out to the shop until it healed. Funny, but even though he talked about going out to the shop and getting back to work almost every day thereafter, he never really went back to it after then.
Mom started having serious health issues in 1979 and passed away just after their 30 th anniversary, in June of 84. The following year he and Margaret Lim were reacquainted at the Legion in Sicamous and started dating, and she moved here to his home in the spring of 1986. They were married on May 9, 1992 and Margaret passed away suddenly in February of 2017, after 31 years together. We actually had her celebration of life six years ago on Thursday. Dad lived these last years since Margaret’s passing alone in his house, and was determined to stay there until they carried him out in a wooden box. Stubbornly, obstinately, fiercely determined. As his health and abilities declined, he needed more and more support from family and his caregivers Audrey, Monica, and Denise. He fell and broke his hip on November 4 th , and passed away six days later on November 10 th at 5:00 a.m., at the age of 89 years, 10 months, 24 days,
and one hour.
Dad was one of those ‘backbone of the community’ types. There was a bad car accident on the highway? Call Sid. Your hot water tank died? Call Sid. You needed a certain tool to do some work at your house? Call Sid – or just drop by and see him. Once he and Jeannette had to go driving around Malakwa looking for some scaffolding that he had loaned out because he couldn’t remember who had borrowed it. Over the years he was involved in many community endeavours and served on or lead numerous committees; the centennial committee, the re-enactment of the Last Spike, the Farmer’s Institute, the Rod and Gun Club, the cemetery committee, the community association, the volunteer firefighters, and he had a long association with the Legion. He was instrumental in the building of both of the fences at the cemetery, the Malakwa Centennial Park, the community hall, and the fire hall – and he was the first fire chief of the Malakwa Fire Department.
Everywhere he went people knew him – but he always had an awful time remembering names. Walking into the pub in Sicamous we met a lady coming out who said ‘HI SID!’, gave him a great big hug and chatted briefly, then left. I said “Who was that?” and Dad said “I have no idea – but I got a hug out of it!”
Because of all his community involvement and being so well known in the area, someone once suggested that Dad go into politics and he thanked them for the vote of confidence but said ‘not a chance’. I don’t think that would’ve been a very good career choice; for politics you need a lot of patience, and patience was most definitely not his strong suit.
Academics were also not his strong suit; Dad struggled with getting things from his brain onto paper and vice versa. There were some things and words he could never get right; he called the male cat a ‘she’ and the female dog a ‘he’, he said chimley, cerstificate, Kmark, Kanloops, and he did that east-coast thing of putting an ‘er’ on the end of any word ending in an ‘a’.
All that being said, I bet that if he grew up in the present day, he would’ve been an engineer of some sort.
From his meticulousness in everything he did to that very cool cabinet he built in the shop to the way he MacGuyvered up his scroll saw on the base of a dentist’s chair to customizing every drawer in the house (now we know where IKEA got their ideas from!) to making all kinds of handy things for the shop and for the house – he was the kind of person who could figure anything out, and then build it. He might need to sleep on it – and often the solution would come in his dreams – but he’d figure it out. Less than 24 hours before he passed away, he was looking at the lift mechanism on the wall in the hospital room and he wanted a pen and piece of paper and was trying to draw something. He was trying to figure out how to make something better right up to the end.
Most of you are aware of his skills and creativity in woodworking. Carpentry in general, and then his intarsia and scrollwork. But did you know he built a lot of the displays at the Enchanted Forest, and Margaret painted them? However, before intarsia, his first creative endeavour was photography. Many of you remember his famous slide shows of pictures from up on top of the mountains or our trip to Nova Scotia. Well, he taught himself the art of photography; he would often line us up in front of the curtains or outside and take picture after picture, and have mom record the camera settings of each picture as he took them. Then when the pictures came back, he or mom would write the settings on the back of each picture, and he would study them and figure out what worked and what didn’t. Then he would make changes to his settings, line us up, and try again. He bought all the lenses and accessories one could want, mostly from Shane Ready at Ready’s Rexall, and was soon asked to take pictures for weddings or other special events.
He did make the leap to a digital camera, but struggled with understanding the computer part of it. As time went, it became apparent that he really couldn’t get a handle on this digital age. As much as dad would’ve loved to be able to send pictures to people, to look things up on the google, and to have video chats, in the end, his digital camera was full of pictures that were saved in multiple places but he wouldn’t delete them (and he never could find a particular one that he was looking for), his laptop was for spider solitaire and watching the screensaver slide show, and his cell phone was for emergencies and for taking pictures of his knees.
Give him a piece of wood and he could cut it exactly in half without measuring; in fact, he got the lead carpenter fired off the Crazy Creek bridge project because the guy told the foreman and Dad to put the steel plates for the beams in at the wrong angle and Dad pointed it out. He said, ‘I had only been there a month and I spotted it. When you’ve got one pier downriver by 8 feet from the other one, the beams have to go at an angle, so you can’t have the plate going straight. Anyone should’ve seen it.’ He was extremely mechanically inclined, but give him a computer or a smart phone – and that was a different story. Remember that part where I said patience wasn’t his strong suit – – ? All of us tried; ALLLLLL of us… we tried to explain the phone, tried to help him to grasp it. Monica even printed off enlarged pictures and wrote instructions on them, but we all met with minimal success. He would say, “They gave me this bloody thing – may as well have given me an airplane and told me to fly it.”
Dad loved meandering. Whether it was when he was driving himself and would just go on a toodle to see what he could see, or in a store, where he had to go up and down every aisle, or when he was visiting a place like Fort Edmonton Park or any museum, or a heritage farm we visited in NS. He had to look in EVERY SINGLE building and spent a couple of hours in the tool shed, talking to the fellow about all the tools. He needed to see everything that there was to see, and was very observant. He was one of those people who could tell rain was coming by the way the leaves looked on the trees, and he always took note of what Mother Nature was up to.
He also especially loved the mountains in the area; from the day he arrived in BC, he wanted to see what was on top – and on the other side – of all of these mountains, and has been up all of them numerous times, and hiked up Eagle Pass once. When I was a kid, many many weekends were spent riding up the mountain in the back of whatever truck he had at the time, just to see what there was to see. It was the simple things of life that he enjoyed; his idea of a holiday was camping, and we had a trailer of some sort from the time I was very little. He had no desire to see places like Arizona, Mexico, or Hawai’i. Give him a few days away camping by a river or lake somewhere and he’d be very happy. And if family or friends could join in – even better.
His taste for the simple things permeated his life to a large degree. He wore those green Driller’s Drill pants and shirts to work for YEARS, and he had one suit. It was a very nice suit, but he wore that same suit to our graduations, to all our weddings, to Mom’s funeral, to his wedding to Margaret – because you only need one suit! This approach also extended to food. Now Margaret was a terrific cook – but sadly her talent was wasted on Dad. She definitely expanded his palate far beyond what mom ever would’ve or could’ve, but if you took him to a restaurant, you’re pretty well guaranteed he would order one of three things: sometimes liver, but most often fish and chips or chicken fingers and fries. He would say how people go crazy for steak but he would far rather have a hamburger. And we all knew if it was cooked over the fire in the back yard – now you’re talking!
An unusual claim to fame, particularly when he was younger, was how much he looked like Sean Connery. He had a few stories to tell about that, with the funniest being about getting amazing extra-special service at a gas station in Kamloops. He was driving a brown 1977 Impala station wagon, not your typical Sean Connery type vehicle, but he and Margaret pulled in and this kid seemed very excited to be serving him. He was cleaning the windshield, checking the oil – really going above and beyond. Dad handed him his credit card and the kid grabbed it, looked at it, looked at Dad, looked back at the card, and said, ‘Awwww man – I thought you were Sean Connery!’
Even though he moved to pretty well the other side of the country from his family, he was good at keeping in touch. He would phone here and there, of course, but that was expensive. So for a period of time, he and Uncle Harry would record a visit with the news of what was happening on a cassette tape and would send it back and forth every month or so – kind of a precursor to FaceTime . Some of his siblings did come out for visits here and there, he drove to NS and back four or five times, and there were five trips by air. The most epic trip for all of us was the one in 1973, when we took a station wagon, a 17’ holiday trailer, us four kids, and eight days driving across the country. We were gone most of the summer. His last trip back home was in 2018 when he took me and Jeannette to show us his roots. We went to the first farm that he worked at, which is still in the same family and is being run by the grandson of the man Dad worked for. When we asked to speak to Farmer Glenn, Dad said to tell him that he was there to see about getting a job.
Dad was not a demonstrative person; I have described him as emotionally constipated. There were no grand gestures of affection or eloquent words, and he would never say ‘I love you’ first. But you knew he loved you if he made you something or if he wanted to spend time with you, whether in person or on the phone. He had numerous address books with people’s birthdates written down and would often call up old friends on their birthday – or even any old day, just to chat. He called both me and my cousin Jessie in Nova Scotia every day for years, and the first question was almost always about the weather. Right up until the end, what he wanted most of all was to have someone there, to have a visit. Perhaps over a coffee, but preferably a beer or a rum (or two or three), and to share just one more story. Or two or three.
Dad has left quite a legacy. Everything he built stands as a monument to a life of working hard, of doing your best, of not giving up. He had friends for years from every job, every organization he was involved in, every walk of life right back to the first person he met when he arrived here in 52, who is here with us today. He has numerous nieces and nephews spread from NS to Vancouver Island, his caregivers, and then there are us kids and our spouses, seven grandchildren and their partners, and seven great- grandchildren – and also Margaret’s children and their spouses, 10 grandchildren and their partners, and 24 great-grandchildren.
Thank you all for your love for Dad and for being his friend, and for coming to pay tribute to our father, step-father, grandfather, great-grandfather, friend, neighbour, and to the man who lived in the house by the swinging bridge for ever. Every phone conversation we had he’d end by saying ‘Bye now’, so I’ll say bye now, Dad – rest easy. We love you.