From the Field

A Letter to Uncle Bill

Posted: Dec 14, 2013 9:20 AM ET Last Updated: Dec 14, 2013 9:20 AM ET

Bill Jessome, a well-known Maritime broadcaster and one of the pioneer voices in Nova Scotia television, died at the age of 88. This is a letter his nephew and CBC reporter Phonse Jessome wrote.

A letter to Uncle Bill

I know first and foremost you are a man of words Bill. You rose every day, hungry to write. It was the one thing you did just for you. You showed me what it means to be a real writer. I've been struggling with a word this week Bill, so I am coming to you for help.

Legacy can be a very big word when you throw it around in a place like this, at a time like this. But when I take a word like legacy and hold it up to you, it seems too small. But it's the only word I have.

The Herald put you in a cartoon with Nelson Mandela this week Bill. Everyone agrees it was fitting. That's an impressive legacy. But it's just your professional legacy. There is also the treasure you leave those of us you called family or friend. The lucky ones.

I've been thinking about our relationship this week. I guess it puts me in the best position to talk about your two legacies. After all, you spent 33 years telling people I was not your son while treating me like I was. At the same time you spent 33 years mentoring me in a profession you helped to shape. A profession you guided me into.

In that time I have grown to know Bill, Uncle Bill, the loving and nurturing family man. My other father. I've also become the closest confidant of Bill Jessome the legendary storyteller.

I'm writing this letter in our spot by the Christmas tree at 4 a.m. I'm flooded with memories of those dark and early Christmas mornings, when we sat right here sharing a pot of coffee while everyone else slept. In this place more than any, you mentored and nurtured me at the same time. You shared your private concerns about our public industry.

This is where I watched the hardened news man struggle with the loving family man. It's where you scolded me for chasing stories about tragedy and human loss.

You lamented my decision to go to Bosnia, to Haiti and Honduras or even to Bathurst, where a town mourned the death of so many young athletes. Your temper flared here on calm Christmas mornings, because you loved our industry but hated it too.

'They don't know and they don't care,' you told me over and over. They don't want to know how stories about pain hurt the storyteller too.

I smiled at your passion and laughed at your frustration. You told me you were proud of the work I did even as you said you didn't want me doing it. Above all, I felt your love and concern.

You told me Murder at McDonald's was a book that made you proud, but you understood why I wish I didn't write it. It's your fault after all. I wrote that story, I write all of my stories, the way you showed me.

You taught me that we are the storytellers but it is never our story. It is about the people we meet, those who share their lives with us. To be a good storyteller, to be a great storyteller like you, means cherishing those people and feeling what they feel.

When you talked to me about the hidden toll our industry exacts, I heard the wisdom of a mentor passed on to a protégé. Yet, I also felt the love of a father. In those moments I saw all of you. The brilliant storyteller and loving family man exposed in the twinkling light of a Christmas tree. Those moments, those quiet conversations, were the best gifts you ever gave me.

This is also where you taught me the value of true love and the importance of family. You shared touching memories about the real love of your life. It wasn't storytelling, it was Rose. You described the first moment you saw her with such care and intimacy, that I can see Rose standing on Charlotte Street now.

You told me how she took the hand of a wounded young soldier, scarred was your word, but those invisible scars mark the most painful wounds. She took that soldier and showed him the future was bright no matter how dark the past.

Rose can take credit for every story you told us. We both knew she was the real reason for those ghost stories you made famous. For 35 years she was the ghost who always walked beside you. She was here by the tree with us as you made sure I remembered her.

Rose's love made a broken Pier boy feel alive and confident again. It brought the young dreamer out of the weary soldier. When people said you were reaching too high, that you could never become a broadcaster, she told you too high was not high enough for you. Her love carried you after she left.

I saw the tender beauty of that love in the warm glow of this Christmas tree. I heard it as you spoke of those echoes of Rose you adored. Your grandchildren and their children. You'd be so proud of Michelle this week Bill. She is doing everything exactly the way you asked. It's tough for her, but she's doing it. She is walking proof of the power of your love with Rose's love in it.

We were talking about you over your casket at the funeral home in Halifax this week. I know, you didn't want a wake like that, but we needed a minute with you. Besides, what did you expect. Neither of us ever did everything you told us to do.

Michelle told me about those drives through the Pier, past this very church. You took her to your home to teach her lessons about love and family. You taught her about nurturing love, the kind Rose showed you, and how it can change the path of a life.

Michelle and I agreed it was time for you to go back to Rose, but we felt the ache just the same.  We know it will fade because we know you haven't really left us. Not because your fans on the other side are training you on the finer points of haunting right now. Your work keeps you alive.

You will be with us when we hear your voice and see your style in the work of some of the biggest names in television. They've reached out this week Bill. They say the same thing. They learned so much from you. That's one of your legacies.

Michelle and everything she does -- your grandchildren and their children, their dreams, their lives -- that's your other legacy. I'd say the bigger one.

We started this chat talking about my struggle with that word. The dictionary calls legacy a gift left behind and I guess my struggle is in applying it not to you but to me. You've made me a part of both of your legacies.  I will continue to write stories the way you taught me and I will try to live my life the way you showed me.

I'll be up at five Christmas morning, Bill. I'll make the coffee and we can spend some time together then.

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About the Author

Phonse Jessome has been chasing stories down the main streets and back roads of Nova Scotia since the spring of 1981. So far he is showing no signs of giving up the chase.

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