The following was given in honour of John Rempel at his funeral on a sunny afternoon on March 1, 2018.
Good afternoon. My name is Suhail and I am married to John Rempel’s eldest granddaughter, Jennifer. I might as well have been his grandson because John was entirely welcoming from the moment I met him – he made me feel at home and treated me like family. And this was no small honour: as his daughter Karen says, he was “bustlingly proud of his family.”
Although even an ocean of words feels inadequate at a time like this, there are a few things about John that seem to repeatedly bubble to the surface. Today, I have the honour of highlighting several of the obvious shimmers of his life: his family, his interests, his kindness, and his humour.
Family. John was born on the 7th of July, 1923. He was the third oldest of eleven children – nine boys, two girls. The 13-person household was undoubtedly a little (or perhaps not so little) world in itself. It’s no wonder that family became such a prominent value in John’s life.
When he got married to his true love and soul mate Elsie and had children of his own – Linda and Karen – his three girls became his little world, too. John was a bus driver with Winnipeg Transit for 30 years. It’s a good thing that his work required a uniform because apparently, he had no style or sense of fashion. His girls had to gang up on him to update his wardrobe and in his later years, he hemmed his pants with staples. He often had to drive on Sundays and the route frequently became a family outing. Elsie would sit at the front visiting with him while the kids sat at the back till there were no passengers and they could run up and down the aisle. It says something remarkable about John that his family would rather accompany him at work than be at home without him. He was their world, even on the twists and turns of a humdrum bus route.
Enjoying food and creating associated traditions was also important to John. Whether it was Karen and him regularly baiting Elsie at the dinner table about Karen’s university biology dissections, or Linda and him driving to Lockport to eat at the Half Moon and admire the leaves every fall, John made meals a regular place of family celebration. Even more than the food – which I’m sure was always wonderful – he loved to make time to experience and savour the joy of being with his girls.
When he had grandchildren, Elsie and he would take them to eat at the Pancake House the morning after a sleepover. John would faithfully order “pigs in a blanket,” much to the grandkids’ delight.
John got stomach cancer and though it sadly inhibited his eating, the one thing he never gave up was packaged dry Oriental Noodles. Some days, that’s all he ate. He said it made his stomach feel better. Apparently, his mother called him “Noodle Boy” when he was younger. Perhaps the fondness he had for his mom and being reminded he was her boy – even more than the dry packaged noodles – made him feel better.
Food wasn’t the only bond, of course. Linda and John shared a love of reading and often traded books. She once gave him her copy of the 1700s Scottish adventure called Outlander. When he finished the book and returned it he said “No more of those – way too violent!” Linda says she and her lady friends hadn’t noticed all the nasty stuff because they were too preoccupied swooning over the hero, Scotsman Jamie. Gory details and swooning ladies aside, a father and daughter exchanging books is a touching and intimate portrait of the usual family dynamic: they shared worlds.
Interests. John was an exceptionally competent, curious, and dare-I-say “hip” person. He got rollerblades in his 80s. In his 90s, he had an iPhone, an iPad, and an iMac; even more impressive, he actually knew how to use them. He used his iPad to watch Netflix and although he was horrified by the book Outlander, somehow, he loved the show Breaking Bad. He also loved Judge Judy and all the similar TV court room dramas and would faithfully watch how things unfolded every afternoon. This, of course, was despite regularly commenting on how the majority of the characters were “losers.”
He emailed his family and friends, did his own online banking, and in a classic twist of old-fashioned charm, spent each morning doing the Winnipeg Free Press crossword. With a specially prepared pencil and eraser.
John’s two great interests were driving and golf. If there was a job where he could’ve driven and golfed at the same time, he would’ve surely made a career out of it. He loved having a nice car, kept it in immaculate condition, and always washed it prior to taking Elsie out. And though he was fearful of flying, his love for driving was compelling enough that it took him to almost every state and province.
When he was younger, he loved golfing and eventually became a member of the Pine Ridge golf course. On the day of Linda’s Trousseau Tea in 1969, with just six years of golfing experience, he scored a hole-in-one. He came home bursting with excitement and told Elsie the news to which she replied, “That’s nice, dear, now move these table and chairs for the party.” She later realized what a feat it was as many people phoned that evening to express their congratulations.
Though his love for driving and golfing was obvious, he never got his priorities wrong. People were always more important than things to John, which brings me to his unfailing kindness. When Karen shamefully admitted to scraping his car as a teenage driver, John’s first response was “Is anyone hurt?” And when Linda’s husband Ed – John’s son-in-law – couldn’t afford to pay for a round of golf, John paid for the golfing fees and for the clubhouse meal afterwards. Years later, when he moved back to Winnipeg from Paradise Village and stopped golfing, John left Ed a few golf clubs, one of which was a driver the size of a 2-slice toaster.
For several years, John and Elsie managed a senior’s home called Autumn House. When his parents visited them there, the seniors told them “You have a wonderful son. He is so good to us.” His mother must’ve been so proud of her “Noodle Boy” that day. Being wonderful and so good to others, though, was far from a momentary exhibition for John; it was a consistent theme of his life. As Karen says, “He was personable, humble, and generous for 94 years.”
Humour. If kindness was a consistent feature of John’s life, its equally consistent bedfellow was humour. His grandson Paul and family used to eat supper together with him on occasion and go for a walk afterwards. Once, two years ago when he was 92, they got back to the apartment and John decided he wanted to ride his great-grandson Sam’s scooter around the kitchen table. I have it on good authority that potential fainting had to be averted and, ironically, John wasn’t the potential fainter. He was always spontaneous and fun, able to recognize glimmers of joy at a moment’s notice.
John had a delightful wit and a magnificent sense of humour, right till the end. When he was bedridden, just days prior to becoming delirious, Karen asked him how he felt one day. He said he gave himself till mid-March, to which Karen replied saying she didn’t think it would be that long. After some seconds of quiet deliberation, John said “We should start a pool!” A joke was never on the periphery, even if the end was in sight.
There are too many moments and incidences of John’s humour to recount. Suffice to say that the very thought of him suggests gladness and laughter, for this is what he radiated. I close with a story in his own words, from his autobiography entitled My First Eighty Years, about being in school when a doctor and nurse came to inoculate the kids.
“We had to line up outside, by the front door, and then move into the classroom. There sat the doctor with a foot-long needle. When it was my turn and I saw that spear, something inside me said to my feet, ‘Feets, make tracks,’ and I was gone into the bushes. But the little schoolgirls who already had been stabbed came after me, hunted me down like a wild animal, and dragged me back to the doctor. Then they gleefully stood by and watched me as I was being tortured.”
We remember, honour, and celebrate the melody of John’s life today: a gift from God, now in the presence of God, who was altogether devoted to family, delightful in interests, extraordinary in kindness, and sparkling in humour.