I had another hero in mind for today, but in honor of Father’s Day I have chosen to share with you a profile more dear to my heart.
I called him Poppy. The general population knew him as Pastor Eugene Vaters. He was a circuit preacher, a spiritual pioneer, a gentleman, a poet, and my grandfather. My dad, the eighth child in the family, was born on Poppy’s 40th birthday. He was and remains, my greatest hero.
To me, he was bigger than life, and time with him was a rare treat. He lived on the Atlantic Coast on the rugged island of Newfoundland, much too far away from our home in Toronto. My grandmother, who we called ‘Mom Vaters’ (she did not like to be called ‘Grandma’) is the Jenny of Jenny and Pearl.
There is one particular time together that I recall most fondly. When I was just a little girl, about 7 years old, we went on vacation to visit my grandparents. Our favorite cousins, Elizabeth and Sarah also lived there and my sister and I were so excited at the prospect of spending time with them.
“I have decided” Poppy pronounced one day. “I am taking my girlies to the Cabin for an overnight stay.” We squealed with excitement at the prospect of a road-trip. My Aunt Pauline objected. She couldn’t imagine how her 73 year old father could possibly manage four energetic tow-headed little girls, but she was overruled and we were on our way.
Now, you have to understand that the Cabin, as it was called, was little more than a one-room wooden shack in the middle of a rocky outcrop in the remote little village of Victoria, where my grandmother was born. There was no running water, one bed and a bare bulb hanging from the ceiling. None of that mattered to us. We escaped from our parents and the boys, the four girls together with our adored grandfather. It was an adventure!
Our first meal at the Cabin was peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and Poppy made us all scream with disgust when he opened a can of sardines and plopped them in the middle of his.
Because it was their summer retreat, he had a garden planted at the side of the house. He asked us all to come out and assist him for a while and we happily trooped outside. The soil on the property was more rocks than earth, with a profusion of wild blueberries, but difficult growing conditions for any other crop. The task slated for the afternoon was removing rocks that sprouted up every year, faster than weeds.
We set to work digging and raking while Poppy began removing some of the larger rocks. The sun was shining brightly at first but was soon hidden behind a bank of low clouds. The fog rolled in from the Atlantic, thick as pea soup and it wasn’t long before the other girls begged to go inside, away from the damp and the cold. They called to me to go inside and I hesitated at first. It was cold and I was getting a bit tired, but I declined as I saw an opportunity to have my grandfather all to myself.
The fog settled around us like a misty curtain and our breath came out in cottony puffs. I immediately set to work beside my grandfather, pulling out the biggest rocks I could find, determined to show him I was a big girl. The only sounds were the muffled laughter from inside the Cabin and the chink of metal against the rocky soil. I couldn’t imagine anyplace I would rather be at that moment than in that tiny garden working side by side with the grandfather that I adored.
The air became colder and the mist fell like rain, dampening our skin. The minutes turned into hours and time was suspended as my hands grew numb prying rocks from the stubborn soil. Throughout the afternoon, my dear Poppy would encourage me, touch me gently on the shoulder and smile at me approvingly, spurring me on. He was planting seeds of love in the stubborn soil of a hard-headed little girl.
Years later, a young lady received a letter from an old man. “Do you know, Karen, I could see again those nice, little fingers following my digging fork at Victoria, hooking out the stones?” he wrote. “That is so vivid. You were so determined and you stayed with me all the while the girls were warm and cozy in the Cabin.” He saw my determination and stubbornness as an attribute and not a great character flaw. What an incredible gift.
Poppy has been gone for over 20 years now, but I often reflect on that precious time together, remembering it fondly. Thanks Poppy, for believing in me .
‘Rise in the presence of the aged, show respect for the elderly and revere your God. I am the LORD.’
P.S. Dad, Happy Father’s Day! Thanks for being the best grandpa ever to my kids. I love you.