Saturday, February 16, 2008

The Man I Want to Be

I drove up to the D'Escousse credit union to deposit a cheque, and found Willard Fougere's car backed up to the door with its trunk open. Willard was filling the trunk with money – bags and boxes of coins.

“Willard,” I said, “I knew you were filthy rich, but I had no idea you had to load up your car when you came to make a withdrawal.”

“Oh, yes,” said Willard, his broad face opening up with a smile. “The weekend's coming, I don't want to run short.”

“From now on,” I said, “I'm calling you 'Moneybags.'”

The mundane truth was that the credit union, where Willard's wife Naomi worked, had gradually accumulated an enormous number of pennies, nickels and dimes. Willard and Naomi were taking the coins to Halifax to exchange for more usable forms of money. But I called Willard “Moneybags” all the rest of his life, and the two of us always had a chuckle out of it.

When I moved to Isle Madame in 1971, Willard and Naomi were still operating the little red general store hanging out over the water in the neighbouring village of Poulamon. In those days shopping centres were few and far away, so village stores were sturdy and essential little businesses. The individual villages of North Isle Madame still preserved some distinctness, an echo of the days when each had things like a government wharf, a post office, a general store, a one-room school. Even in 1971, the Northside had at least four stores. It only has one today.

Willard's service was remarkable. He did deliveries, so house-bound people could shop by phone, and Willard would deliver the order right to their kitchens. He was a gregarious man, and he would stop and visit for a moment. He always knew what was going on, as storekeepers tend to do. Travelling through the villages on the north side of Isle Madame, Willard was a key component in the network of interest and concern that carries information in rural communities.

“I always saw Willard as a pillar in the community,” says Father John J. MacDonald, who knew him for more than 50 years. “He was a very welcoming person, and he easily related to all kinds of different personalities. He served in the merchant navy during World War II. That's why there was a flag on his obituary. He was quite close to Allan J. MacEachen, did you know that?”

I didn't, though I did know that Willard was an ardent Liberal – a hereditary affliction which is distressingly common on Isle Madame. Moneybags, Moneybags, I would think, shaking my head, how regrettable. But his Liberal sympathies were an integral part of who he was.

He and Naomi bought the store in 1957, three years after their marriage. He was 39 when they married, and she was 21, a beautiful young woman from River Bourgeois, on the opposite side of Lennox Passage. Almost 55 years later, he was still handsome, and she is still beautiful.

“I never saw him cross or cranky,” Naomi told me. “I've never seen him out of sorts. He was the same with me as he was with you or anybody else. He was always cheerful, always smiling.”

They sold the store in 1974, so I knew Willard mostly in his three decades of retirement. No man ever found more happiness in retirement than he did. He turned his attention to community affairs, becoming a diligent and generous volunteer in all the local organizations. His special love was the Lennox Passage Yacht Club, of which he eventually became an honorary lifetime member. The club's membership consisted mainly of people half his age, but he worked and played alongside them with a spirit that simply erased the age difference. He was one of those people who never really become old, even though their bodies eventually give out.

He had a little red truck, and a succession of fierce little white dogs, and he would cruise the island's roads on his various errands, smiling cheerily, with the dog sitting beside him like a co-pilot. He lived every day with zest and gratitude. When I found myself cruising the island in a little red truck, with a dog beside me, I told Willard I was training to become him, because he was what I wanted to be when I grew up. He thought it was a joke. It wasn't.

Willard Fougere died on January 28. He was 93 years old, a living treasure in his own corner of the world. “We've lost our lovely man,” said Naomi when I called her. And it's true, all that remains is our memory of his laughter and his smile.

But that's a sparkling legacy. And I will not stop striving to be like Willard when I grow up.

1 comment:

Nathalie Nobert said...

I just read your column on Willard. Really brought back memories for me. My mom's from D'Escousse and we used to go spend every summer there. I remember ever since I was a little kid and was walking the road there, Willard would pass by in his truck, dog on the dash next to him and give my brother and I a little wave. I know my Uncle Sonny misses him a lot. Thanks for the well-written column. Love anything that gives a shout out to Isle Madame.