There is a saying: “We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give.” My father, Cyril Marcus O’Connor, made a very fine life.
Those of you who knew him well knew that he was motivated by three guiding principles: faith in God, love of family, and pride in hard work.
He worked hard at whatever task was before him; his job, taking care of his home and family, working at the church, or lending a hand to someone, which he did often.
He was born the sixth of seven children on April 11, 1931 on the Irish Ridge just outside of Huntingdon, Quebec. His parents, Patrick O’Connor and Stella Walsh O’Connor, were born into Irish families that had farmed along the Ridge since about the 1830s.
Patrick and Stella continued the farming tradition, raising seven children who all learned from their parents the value of hard work.
My father would often quote his mother, telling me: “Never put off till tomorrow what can be done today.” The children also learned from their parents the importance of faith. His father helped to build St. Joseph’s Church in Huntingdon, the church where Cyril was baptized and confirmed.
Nicknamed Dan by his family, Cyril was also raised to value family and community ties. He lost his father at seven years old, and grew up watching his mother run a dairy farm while raising her children. When she needed help, there was always family around to pitch in: her brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews. Cyril learned early on that family cares for family and there was nothing he wouldn’t do for his family.
It has been such a privilege to grow up as his daughter, knowing that no matter how many mistakes I might make in life, he’d always be there for me.
My grandmother Stella once told Mom about how she would take a short nap in the afternoons once the youngest boys were home from school. She would sometimes hear Cyril and his younger brother Harold plotting to get some of her afternoon kitchen chores finished before she woke up. That was just the kind of family and work ethic they were raised with — you thought of others before yourself, and there was always a job to be done.
I don’t want to give the impression that my father was a perfect child. According to one story, Grandpa Walsh was over for Sunday dinner which included homemade ice cream for dessert.
Cyril loved ice cream, so when his bowl was empty he nipped some from his grandpa, who happened to be blind.
When his sister Bea and brother Walter caught him, they taught him a lesson by taking him to the milk house where the ice cream was kept and telling him if he liked ice cream so much he should just eat all he could. They didn’t manage to turn him off the ice cream. We used to laugh at Cyril’s homemade “ice cream sandwiches,” consisting of a scoop or two of vanilla between two slices of bread.
Cyril took on huge responsibilities early in life. When his two older brothers left home he quit school at 15 to run the family farm.
He mixed work with pleasure, though, going out with his cousins to barn dances on weekends.
It was at these dances that he would have first set eyes on the pretty farm girl from the Scottish township down the road. And Cyril’s cousin Kenny happened to be dating the girl’s best friend, Edna.
Maybe Cyril put Kenny up to it, we’ll never know, but a double date was arranged for New Year’s Eve celebrations 1949 and I understand there were fireworks that night.
Cyril and Shirley (nee Rowat) were married in 1953, moving to Gatineau where Cyril worked as a millwright for Canadian International Fibreboard for 17 years.
A year after they were married, Larry was born. Brian followed three years after that. Cyril and Shirley built a house together, literally, but eventually it was time to move on.
As a child Cyril was tossing hay with a pitchfork which went right into his knee when he slipped.
Cyril didn’t stop to get any kind of medical attention, just pulled the pitchfork out and kept working.
He developed arthritis in that knee, and the humidity of the area really bothered him, so in 1969 he and Shirley decided to move their family west to Williams Lake where the air was drier.
A few years later a baby girl was born. I have such wonderful memories of growing up living on the Onward Ranch, and Dad loved living there. It reminded him of his years growing up on the farm.
He often lent a hand in his spare time, doing the haying or helping with maintenance of the ranch buildings. Cyril and Shirley had a big garden and raised chickens and pigs and kept a milk cow that calved every spring.
There were so many happy times in our yellow house on Mission Road. The Oblates were like family. There were many get-togethers with people from the ranch or the Mission, so much laughter and even the occasional sing-song.
We were sad to leave the ranch, but in 1980 we moved to town and Cyril started working for School District 27. He started in the bus garage then did grounds for a while, and finally settled into doing the welding for the district.
He often taught himself, but he acquired tickets for millwrighting, welding and carpentry. Once he was even asked to repair a band instrument, and he figured out how to fix it.
Health problems forced Cyril into early retirement in the 1990s, a hard adjustment because he was so accustomed to physical labour.
Though he slowed down some, I still remember him in his 70s shovelling snow off a neighbour’s roof, and I was in a total panic just a couple of years ago when he climbed onto the rail of my balcony, two stories above a concrete patio.
He just laughed at me as I yelled at him to get down.
In his later years, Cyril was active with the Knights of Columbus, the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, and Meals on Wheels.
Brian tells me that for him the first sign of spring isn’t seeing a robin; it’s seeing Dad taking down the winter stuff, putting the garage-in-a-box away and putting up the swing. Then it’s on to the annual painting of the new asphalt for the driveway and other jobs.
I know it is starting to sound like I think my father was a saint, and to a certain extent I really do.
But he liked to argue. We could holler at each other over differences of opinion on politics or religion, but never really be mad. It was actually sport in our house.
Growing up near Montreal, while his whole family would cheer on the Habs, Dad proclaimed allegiance to the Maple Leafs.
Cyril died at peace on March 26, 2012. He said goodbye to every child, grandchild and great-grandchild. It was such a good death, in keeping with his very fine life. He was predeceased by an infant daughter, Mary, and an infant son, Joseph. He is lovingly remembered by his wife, Shirley; their children Larry (Lori), Brian (Dina) and Nancy (Jason); grandchildren, Dan (Amanda), Derrick (Breeann), Jolene, Nathan, Kieran and Meghann; great-grandchildren, Cianna, Trey, Ava, Jewel, and Hailey. He is also missed by his brother Harold (Cheryl), and numerous cousins, nephews, nieces and many friends.