Family man, gentleman Islander, veteran. Born on July 12, 1922, in Grand Tracadie, PEI; died on died March 28, 2016, in Charlottetown, from complications from a fall, aged 93.
Even at 93, John MacDonald had might and muscle in his handshake. He was remarkably strong and you felt it from fingertips to palm. "You've got a good grip," he'd say with a grin and twinkle, humouring me, during summer visits to his farm in Pleasant Grove, near Charlottetown.
John's grip revealed something even more powerful: strength of character. A lifetime of physical labour and enjoying the outdoors made him strong. His character – kind, generous, loyal – came from his Roman Catholic faith, a Celtic sensibility and his family's love, resilience and wisdom.
John was the last of the six boys and two girls born to Willie Alfred and Mary MacDonald of Grand Tracadie. They were a loving clan who shared joys and endured hardships, including when their barn burned down after a lightning strike. Those days taught John and his siblings to work hard and live with modesty, compassion and humour.
In the Second World War, he served in the army in Europe. When he came home, he married Ursula Morrissey. Together they raised four children (Cheryl, Margaret, Michael and Charles) while he worked as a paint-crew supervisor in Prince Edward Island National Park.
John was generous with his hospitality. Visitors were entertained in the kitchen with tea, Ursula's cookies, and stories. John loved hearing and telling tales, including duck-hunting exploits with his brothers and close shaves while cutting down trees. Conversations could range from observations about the potato crop, to his grandchildren's antics, to memories of fishing for smelts in the Great Depression, or recounting (again) how an ancestor escaped the deadly Yankee Gale of 1851. These were chapters of our grand family story.
The extended family narrative mattered to John. He valued continuity. A second-floor bedroom in his house was dubbed "Leonard's Room" after his younger brother who stayed there during visits from the mainland. Leonard died in 2000 but the room is still Leonard's Room.
Into his 90s, John insisted he was unusually healthy. "I never take a cold," he insisted. "I never feel an ache." All available evidence, including his mighty grip, supported his claims.
John's faith gave him strength to persevere through struggles at all stages of life, though he also saw the lighter side of things. Last year, a relative asked if he said the rosary often. "Oh, I give it a spurt every now and then," he replied. He had a healthy disregard for the separation of church and humour.
In February, he was hospitalized after experiencing weakness. Doctors found bone cancer. But he was able to return home, where he sought a "good" cup of tea. On Easter Monday, he felt strong enough to venture outdoors to walk down his laneway, to be his own person on a lovely spring day. He fell during the walk, and died peacefully in hospital later that day.
At the visitation, I placed my hand on John's folded hands and gave them a gentle squeeze. Our last handshake.
He was buried with his rosary and pocketknife because, as grandson Mark said, "Wherever he goes he'll need his rosary and his pocketknife; if he has those he'll be fine." John had a powerful grip on us. We now hold him firmly in our hearts.
Jim MacDonald is one of John's nephews.