“You need somebody to cut that grass!” the man behind the wheel of the pickup truck shouted out through his open window one spring morning in the first year Raymond and I owned the Manse. We had travelled from our then-home in Montreal to spend the weekend in Queensborough, and I was doing an inspection of the grounds to see what needed doing.
“I sure do!” I responded as I approached the truck idling in front of the Manse. (This even though the question of who was going to cut the grass had not once occurred to me until that moment. It wasn’t going to be us, because a) we weren’t at the Manse very often in those days, and grass grows quickly; and b) we didn’t have a lawn mower.)“Could you do it? I’m Katherine, by the way.”
And he was Johnny. And Johnny totally knew who I was, even though I don’t think we’d ever met until that early-spring morning. When I was a kid growing up in Queensborough at the Manse, I knew the Barrys, Johnny’s family; but I believe in those years he was off working in other places. Johnny knew who I was because he was Queensborough’s unofficial sheriff, keeping an eye on everything that was going on and making sure that things were going on as they should be going on. And the fact that the daughter of a former minister here had bought the former United Church Manse and was spending the occasional weekend in it would most certainly not have been something Johnny didn’t know all about.
That day five years ago began our friendship with Johnny, who not only cut our grass for those five years but helped us out in a hundred different ways.
When we needed someone to make a gravel driveway, he rustled up Charlie Murphy, who did a superlative job. When we needed someone to repair an elderly whipper-snipper weed-whacker, he directed us to Frank Brooks, who specializes in such repairs. When I asked him how I could get rid of an ancient clothesline wheel that was permanently stuck into a tree in the back yard, he disappeared it for me. When we needed a new porch on the neighbouring Kincaid House that we bought a couple of years ago, he and his good friend and ours, Chuck Steele, built one for us. When underbrush on the Manse property needed clearing, he cleared it. And so on and so on and so on.But even though we were, and are, grateful for all this work he did for us and all the helpful advice he gave us, it’s more for his friendship and his example that I treasure his memory.
Johnny’s family, friends and community said goodbye to him this past weekend. After an up-and-down battle with cancer, Johnny died on Wednesday, April 19, 2017.
“Queensborough will never have a better friend,” I said in my headline for this post. And that is true. It is also true that Queensborough will never be the same.
Johnny liked a tidy village, and that was that. It made him happy when people kept their properties, lawns and gardens looking neat – and it made him grumpy when they didn’t. Those sentiments extended to public property, and Johnny could regularly be seen on one of his two trusty riding mowers cutting the grass alongside of all the roads in the village, down by the river, and in other public places. Keeping Queensborough looking good.
Property-owners who don’t even live here and who let their properties deteriorate drove him crazy. After a while he could only take so much, and then he’d be on his riding mower again, cutting their grass too and then clearing out brush or whatever needed to be done. Doubtless he never received a word of thanks (or a dime) from the negligent property-owners, but those of us who live here loved him for it. In recent years Queensborough has been adorned from spring to early fall with hanging baskets of flowers throughout the village. Johnny and Anne did an enormous amount of work to make sure those flowers were kept looking good. Like clockwork every early evening last summer, Johnny and Anne would go around the village watering the flowers. Johnny had done it himself the previous year, but last year he was already battling the effects of the cancer that had struck, and the treatment, and the aftermath. But as Johnny often said to me: “You’ve got to keep going.” And keep going he did, pretty much until he died. Only 10 days before that happened, he was out and about in Queensborough, raking up winter sand along the roadsides so that the municipal crews would cart it off. I had a good chat with him and Anne that morning, in which I got a tiny bit of a well-deserved (though good-humoured) lecture from him for being tardy in raking up last fall’s leaves from the Manse yard. Later that day he stopped by when doing his rounds in his pickup, telling me that when I did rake up the leaves, to leave them in piles and he’d come and take them away. He knew, and I knew, that he was very ill. “No way!” I said. “You can’t do that!” He assured me that he could and he would.
I raked up the last of those leaves this past Saturday afternoon, after returning home from Johnny’s funeral. Both it and the visitation the previous day were packed with friends; Johnny was a friend to everyone. I was happy, though not surprised, that as people spoke to Anne and to Amanda and Maryanne, Anne and Johnny’s beautiful daughters, there was a great deal of laughter mixed in with the tears. There isn’t a soul who knew him who doesn’t have a funny memory about something Johnny said or did. He was a good-humoured person to the core. He said what he thought and he didn’t hold back, and sometimes what came out (like when he was talking about people who let their properties get messy) could take you aback – but it was the plain-spoken truth, and underneath it were his good-heartedness, good intentions, and sense of humour. Johnny had an absolute heart of gold, and everyone knew it. He loved a good laugh, and I know he would be happy that his friends were laughing even as they mourned his death.
Here is a video that makes me laugh. Our neighbour Chuck had an old shed on his property that he wanted to get rid of. It turned out that the shed, though small, was amazingly heavy, and it became problematic as to how it was going to get taken away. Of course Johnny had a plan. It involved a big truck owned by Smokey’s Towing of Queensborough (Smokey’s owner, Chris Moak, being a dear friend of Johnny); and it was quite the production, involving several neighbours who came to watch (me) and to help (others). As I filmed it, I thought, “This is classic ‘How we roll in Queensborough.’ ” Here’s the triumphant moment when they finally got the shed to load onto the big truck:
And here is what happened next! The shed was so heavy that the loaded-down big truck got stuck in the soft earth of Chuck’s yard. But – Johnny to the rescue! He and his hard-working Ford pickup pulled the whole shebang, and off went the shed for good.Anyway, back to me raking up the leaves from my yard. As you can imagine, my mind was filled with thoughts and memories of Johnny as I was doing it. Every time I do any property-maintenance work at the Manse, I think of Johnny, because I know he would approve. I am pretty sure he was happy that Raymond and I did a lot of cleanup around the Manse right after we bought it, turning a place that had been a tad neglected into a pretty attractive sight (if I do say so myself). That approval showed itself in his never-failing willingness to help us get the work done, whether that meant finding workers for a project, carting off rotting logs in his truck – or offering, just the other day, to pick up my piles of leaves. Basically, when it comes to doing work around the property, we ask ourselves: “WWJD”? (What would Johnny do?) And then we do it.
I mentioned Anne and Johnny’s daughters, but I haven’t yet mentioned Amanda and Maryanne’s children, Max, Owen and Will. Johnny was so proud of those little boys – as well he should have been. They are handsome and smart and well-spoken and friendly – a tribute to their parents and grandparents. Owen read one of the scripture passages at the funeral, and though he is only in Grade 2, he read it astoundingly well. His Poppy would have been bursting with pride. In fact, from somewhere high above us, I’m sure he was.
Here is one final video, shot by my friend Elaine in 2012, the first year we owned the Manse, on a day when Raymond and I weren’t here to see the action that we’d commissioned at our Queensborough house. Elaine was filming the stump grinder whom she’d found to come in and remove the remains of a big lovely maple tree that adorned the front yard of the Manse when I was a kid here but that had been cut down several years before. The stump-grinding is quite interesting to see, but what’s the best is when Johnny comes riding into the picture on his mower and gives a huge wave:
That’s our Johnny. The absolute best.
All of us in Queensborough will miss his hard work, his leadership, his example, and his sense of humour as he offered commentary on the passing scene from his favourite chair on the front porch of the lovely home that was one of many he built.
But his legacy will live on. Those same qualities – his hard work, leadership, example and sense of humour – will, I believe, continue to inspire us all to ask ourselves, “What would Johnny do?” and then do it. And in the process keep Queensborough looking as beautiful and as tidy as it does now – as Johnny would want.
If a little bit of Johnny stays with all of us in Queensborough – as I’m sure it will – then we’re good to go.