Master painter, dancer, seamster, fisherman, caregiver. Born June 30, 1919, in Jerslev, Denmark; died Oct. 14, 2013, in Langley, B.C., from injuries suffered in a car crash, aged 94.
With his infectious smile, insatiable curiosity and can-do attitude, Peter Bech made friends wherever he went. He was blessed with many skills and a hearty love of life.
“I never thought I’d live this long. I am disgustingly healthy,” he said just weeks before a car crash took his life.
Well into his 80s, Peter and his wife Mimi went ballroom dancing every week. He sewed her dresses, one of many skills he learned by reading or trial and error. He also designed and sewed their costumes for Halloween parties – pirates, Vikings, leopards. When he couldn’t find one he liked, he designed and sewed a huge tent for his family’s many camping and fishing trips.
Peter and Mimi were married in Aalborg, Denmark in 1947 and sailed to Canada in 1958 with sons Soren, 9, and Poul, 3. Having completed a 10-year apprenticeship, Peter was a master painter, a skill in high demand in Canada. You’d need a magnifying glass to find the joins in his wallpaper.
In Halifax, Peter led his family from the MS Stockholm into a big warehouse that served as the clearing point for immigrants. Nice officials who couldn’t speak Danish spent hours examining papers and going through luggage. The language was no problem: Peter had taken a one-month night-school course to learn English. The luggage was another matter. One trunk held our eiderdowns, and imports of goose and duck down weren’t allowed. So Peter broke the trunk’s padlock to make it look like it was damaged in transit and couldn’t be easily opened. With the officials fooled, we immediately boarded a train to Montreal where friends who were living in Ottawa picked us up.
After four years in Ottawa, Peter decided we should move to British Columbia to see the Pacific, the mountains and the trout-bearing lakes. He piled us into a 1955 Pontiac and drove across the continent to Burnaby. Another reason for the move was that the B.C. painters’ union had higher wages: 50 cents an hour more than the $1.65 that painters earned in Ontario.
Peter and Mimi, who had always rented, bought their first home in Burnaby. As an obnoxious teenager, I thought it was a dump; you couldn’t even stand upright in the basement. But I lacked the ability to imagine what he could do. Peter moved the boulders in the front yard to build a rock garden. He put up wooden beams to fix the collapsing ceiling in the living room. He used a hand jack to single-handedly raise the house one section at a time and add two rows of concrete blocks to the foundation.
Two years ago, he decided to fix his deck. I worried about him carrying the heavy 2x10 pressure-treated boards. “That’s okay,” he said. “The people at the lumber store will put them on the roof rack, and I can drag them into place.” We compromised by holding a family deck-building party.
For the last decade, Peter was a full-time caregiver to Mimi, who has dementia. After she was admitted to residential care last summer, he visited every day, but now had time to learn new things.
“I’ve signed up for a computer course at the library,” he told us. His first class was scheduled for the day after he was killed.
It was a shocking end. But it was a life lived well, a life filled with love, loyalty and laughter.
Soren Bech is Peter’s son.