I was quite unaware of it at the time, but looking back over the years now, I realize I was fortunate as a teen to have two men to observe at close quarters. By their attitudes, their thinking, their lifestyle and values, each set an example that would play a determining role in shaping what I valued and how I would live. In many respects, they were virtual opposites. One showed me a path leading upward to constructive significance, the other showed me a path leading downward to unhappiness and futility.
The first was my father, the second was our next door neighbour, Mr. Loeppky. I loved my father and, although I certainly didn’t think in those terms at the time, I suppose I also loved Mr. Leoppky. To this day I place a high value on the time I spent with each of them.
* * * *
Mr. Loeppky lived almost next door to us. Only an empty lot separated our home from his. We referred to him as “the bachelor”. He was a bachelor not by choice but by divorce. His wife had divorced him many years before I got to know him. His fortunes had deteriorated badly since then and his home now was a two room shack, which he had constructed himself.
It was evident that no paintbrush had touched the exterior walls in many years. Inside it was equally rustic, with little more than a kitchen table, an old green fridge, a woodstove and an aged chest of drawers. There was no indoor washroom, but he did have cupboards and a sink with hot and cold water in the kitchen. A sheet hung in the doorway to the bedroom. His bathroom was a one-seater out house.
Mr. Loeppky’s surroundings had not always been so sparse. In his earlier, better days, he had owned and managed a successful GM dealership in a small prairie town. A skilled mechanic, he had at first done much of the service work himself, always as he volunteered to me one day, “with a flask in my back pocket.”
He was regarded as one of the elite in his community, a man people looked up to at least in part because of his business success. His home was one of the finest in the town. When I met people who had known him then, I noticed that they invariably spoke of him with a trace of awe, as someone they respected and admired.
Mr Leoppky had money , then, and he loved to party. In conversation he was engaging, and people clamoured to be around him.
Somewhere along the way a fondness for strong drink had apparently overtaken his earlier good judgment. His business acumen began to slip and his wife, possibly
aware that financial ruin might be approaching, entered into a romantic relationship with a local lawyer. Listening to him over more than half a dozen years, I concluded he had not understood the harm he was doing to his marriage and his family. He had not seen the divorce looming.
When I began visiting him as a teen, he had already lost everything, his wealth, good standing in his community, his family and also his sense of self esteem and respect. Still, even at age 65, there lingered about him more than a trace of his earlier good looks and outward refinement. But the total loss of his former life had exacted a bitter toll.
Even now I have only a vague understanding of why a 14 year old kid was drawn to visit this once proud, successful man, so completely fallen from his former high position and no longer esteemed by society. Possibly it was his doughnuts, and maybe his pies. He made them only occasionally, and I understand now that he may have continued to make them only because he knew I delighted in them. It is possible that I experienced some compassion for this lonely man whose only other visits were from a sister and brother-in-law who came now and then. He didn’t like his sister’s husband.
Sometimes when we were sitting at his kitchen table and he was talking, my lungs rebelled at the thought of taking in one more breath of the smoke from his cigarettes. I don’t think he ever consciously decided to tell me his life story. Certainly he didn’t take me back to the early years and lead me through a logical sequence of events to the present time. Rather, the story came out like pieces of a puzzle put in place over the years.
An episode or a bit of information might slip out when he had a bottle of gin on his table, after he had collected his pension cheque at the end of the month. While his trembling fingers rolled clumsy smokes from a fresh can of McDonald’s tobacco, his mind slipped into the past. If he had doughnuts, he’d place the large tin can before me and say “eat.” Sometimes they were no longer fresh and his many cigarettes had tinged them with the flavor of tobacco smoke. I ate them anyway. While he talked, I watched those faded blue eyes as they remembered scenes from a better time in his life.
In the end, his breathing became laboured and one day he said, “the doc told me I have lung cancer. Guess it won’t be long before the Grim Reaper comes to take me away.” He continued to smoke.
Occasionally he still made a batch of doughnuts. “I make them just for you,” he told me one day, turning away to cough into a large polka dotted handkerchief. Because he had stopped eating the doughnuts himself, they lasted even longer and I was increasingly aware of the taste of cigarette smoke. I knew it was important to him, so even though they had lost their appeal, I continued to eat them. His cough had become harsh and frequent, and it troubled me.
In all the years he was our neighbor, his two daughters stopped in once for about 10 minutes on their way to an appointment. His son came for only one short visit. During his last year as he grew progressively weaker, his children never visited.
He passed away in spring and I notified his son. My family organized a memorial service for him at the local funeral home. We had told our friends about Mr. Loeppky, and many of them came to join my parents and myself to bid him farewell. I was surprised and pleased when the son and two daughters arrived.
At the end of the memorial service, his son came to me and asked, “do you know what my father died of?”
When I could slip out I walked around to the back of the funeral home, because a deep sadness was overwhelming my emotions. My friend Henry, a local photographer was already there,shedding his own tears. I had introduced him to Mr. Loeppky in the last year of his life.
Even before Mr. Loeppky passed away, I had already begun to understand that I didn’t want to follow in the footsteps of this man I had come to care about deeply. Standing beside Henry now, I knew I must do everything possible to ensure that my life would not end in despair and futility. It was Mr. Loeppky’s gift to me.