Saturday, July 18, 2020

The Death of a Wealthy Man

Donn Mattinson in the 1950s

My father-in-law died earlier this week; his funeral takes place this afternoon. Although I have known Donn Mattinson for merely 13 of his 94 years, I had the pleasure of writing about him and Mary, his wife of 72 years, for several stories in Field Notes, including the opening one, “A River Runs Through Him”. 

Donn was born and raised, and worked and lived his entire life in rural Nova Scotia. He came from that pre-WW2 generation that made do with what they had, that did more with less, reused and repurposed everything, and didn’t waste resources or time. Donn’s generation did not take for granted what they earned and what they were lucky enough to be given. There was no concept of privilege or entitlement. You certainly didn’t maintain a balance on a credit card, or spend beyond your means. 

Even as the world changed and he struggled to keep up with, or just understand, new ways of doing things, Donn remained steadfast in what mattered most: his devotion to family and to work, his dedication to his church and community, his generosity towards his wife and his children, his faithfulness to every aspect of his life. 

In June 2018, Donn had a heart attack. While he was recovering in hospital, I went to visit him just before regular visiting hours so we enjoyed a rare hour alone together. He shared some of his stories from his then-92 years of life with me.  

He reminded me of his advice to his two sons (and likely to his grandsons): “There’s no point in wearing a pair of pants if they don’t have a jack knife and a handkerchief in the pocket.”

He spoke a lot about being poor. He said his parents were poor, he said he and Mary were poor. “I’ve never had those things other people have. Two cars and a cottage and a camp. They take their wives on a trip down south,” he told me.

In response, I asked Donn, “Do you have any debt?” The answer was no.

It shocked me he could still see himself as poor – despite his large house, the barns and the field along the river, and his nice truck. He had everything people want, yet he couldn’t see what was so obvious. He was wealthy beyond measure when it came to the one thing money can’t buy: Love.  

I’m sure the devotion, generosity and faithfulness Dwayne gives to me, he learned from his father. How a man treats the woman in his life – his mother and his wife – says far more about the man than the money he makes, the truck he drives, and the house in which he lives. 
More and more, I see Donn in my husband, and for that I am grateful: Donn’s values, and what he valued in life, live on in my husband. 
What also lives on in Dwayne is a tendency to exaggerate, and leap to the worst-case scenario; on the other hand, Dwayne waits patiently in the truck for me, no matter how late I’m running or how long I’m taking in a store.

My impression of my father-in-law is that he was affable – easy-going and easy to get along with.
“Actually, he was,” Dwayne agrees. “He had to be really mad to get mad. I’ll never forget the day he beat the power saw to pieces because it wouldn’t start in the cold.” (That story ended up in Field Notes.) 

I wrote a version of the following for a newspaper column in 2012: 

Whenever we go four-wheeling through the family’s 300-acre woodlot, Dwayne tells stories about “working in the woods” with his father when he, Dwayne, was a teenager. He says it both hard work and good exercise. 
Hearing the affection in his voice, and the longing, I finally asked him why those memories mean so much to him.
“I miss spending time with my father,” he answered. He also misses the fresh air and the camp jays that showed up every day once father Donn signalled the start of dinnertime by building a fire. For Dwayne, those days of frozen sandwiches in his lunch pail and hot tea in a thermos are inexorably tied to the opportunity to the bond with his dad.

(These are the memories Dwayne still turns to now, following his father’s death. These are the memories in which he finds comfort and reassurance.)
“My father’s greatest strength was providing for his family,” Dwayne told me. “He worked steadily. He had a gravel truck and the farm. He sold wood. He’d come home from haying or putting in grain, have a bit to eat then out and turn on the tractor lights so he could sharpen fence posts till ten o’clock. Dad used to say, ‘Hard work and honesty pay off’. And he’s right. He proved it. And so did I.”

Sometimes, we see older people as entrenched, as stubborn, as “backwards” and “out of touch”, and yet, the values that our elders cherish (or “cling to”, we might say) are the foundation of a good life. If we are fortunate, those values are the wealth we inherit. 

Faithfulness. Honesty. Dedication. 

In the end, at his end, as Donn looked back on his life, he had 
no debt
and no regrets. 

He died as he lived: at peace with his life, in love with his wife, and at home in the hearts of his children and grandchildren. 
He died as he lived: with the greatest wealth any person could hope to acquire during their lifetime. He can’t take it with him, nor does he want to. 

Dwayne and his dad, August 2013

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