Christmas boxes and cow patties

Yesterday I delivered a eulogy at my brother’s funeral. This is what I said.

Every Christmas we received a box from Graham.

When he first started sending these boxes years ago, we would open them to discover a collection of articles—unwrapped, unlabelled, and almost always without price tags, for he was unconcerned with such niceties. We had to sort through the box trying to figure out which presents were for which person. The challenge was half the fun. Some were easy. A gift certificate to Sears would be for my Mom, a bottle of Grand Marnier for my husband, and toys or games for the kids. Other presents were too generic to really know who he had intended them for. We had to speculate, take the best guess, or have a bidding war.

In later years his Christmas boxes got a little more sophisticated.

The presents would be wrapped in actual Christmas paper, and they would be labelled. But they still almost always had the price tags still attached. And the price tags were high. Graham lived frugally, but he could be extremely generous. His Christmas presents always made our jaws drop with their generosity.

Graham’s Christmas Box will be an enduring memory, because ours was a long-distance relationship. He served in the Royal Canadian Navy for 25 years, was a veteran of the Gulf War, and a member of the Royal Canadian Legion. He lived in Halifax for 31 years. It was his home, and he had a “Nova Scotia family” there. 

My brother’s life had two parts:

Before Nova Scotia, and After Nova Scotia. I don’t know a lot about his Nova Scotia part, so let you tell you about the part I do know.

Graham was a farm boy.

He grew up on a farm in the Ottawa Valley and lived there for 22 years. He could milk a cow, muck out the barn and drive a tractor. He hoisted many bales of hay over his head in the dust of a hot summer sun. He belonged to 4-H and showed cattle, grooming them and training them to stand just so for judging. He had to get up early to do the farm work—something that wasn’t easy for he was a natural night owl. It was hard physical work that he did capably, and escaped from as often as possible to pursue his favourite hobby—reading. No one could become one with a couch and a book quite like Graham.

He had an exceptional mathematical brain.

He excelled in that subject, won Science fairs at school and took many top student awards during his training. That mathematical brain served him well during card games that we played a lot on the farm: Canasta, cribbage, 500 and, of course, euchre. His ability to remember all the cards that had been played by everyone in every hand meant that I did not have much success in card games against Graham.

He spent a summer picking tobacco in southern Ontario and worked for a time at a magnesium mine near our home. It was during that time that he happened upon a horrific car accident on his way home from work. The cars were already on fire when he arrived, and the driver had already sustained major burns. Graham extricated the driver from the vehicle and moved him to safety just before the vehicles exploded.

He received a citation for bravery from the Ontario Provincial Police for his actions.

The day he did that, he went home and didn’t mention a word about it to anyone. The first my parents heard of it was when a police car rolled into the driveway a few days later. You can imagine what my parents’ first thought when the police arrived and asked for Graham. They were flabbergasted to hear what he had done. Such was the nature of my quiet, unassuming brother.

I won’t lie to you.

His fondness for alcohol affected our relationship. I didn’t enjoy talking to him when he was drunk, and I never knew when he was going to be drunk, so I didn’t call. Alcohol took over his life, and that is something that I will likely never understand and will always wish weren’t so.


I’ll remember him leading our pony around the farm yard, I’ll remember baseball games in the pasture with scraps of old boards for bases, and I’ll remember swinging on rope swings hanging from the rafters of our hay loft. I’ll remember building hay forts in those same lofts and spending hours reading comic books there.  And I’ll remember walking in the pasture beneath the oak tree and letting the fresh cow patties ooze through our bare toes.

That’s what I’ll remember.

3 thoughts on “Christmas boxes and cow patties

  1. Chris

    He sounds like a wonderful, if complex, brother Arlene. “Sorry for your loss” doesn’t seem to cut it, but I can’t find the words to improve on it. My own brother, also an alcohol aficionado, died a decade ago, and I do find that the only memories that continue to surface are the good ones. May it be so for you and your family.


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