One cool life

Kay Barris at the Lake Simcoe cottage c. 1960.
Kay Barris at the Lake Simcoe cottage c. 1960.

My sister Kate, my wife Jayne and I sat at her bedside, the same way we have almost daily these past six months. That day, last Thursday, the world was acknowledging the tragic loss of many lives on Sept. 11, 2001. We were marking the loss of one life. My mother – Kay Barris – had died minutes before we arrived about midday. We felt myriad emotions. Sadness. Loss. Some relief that the pain in her weary and withering body had ended. Then, a hospital social worker appeared, passed on condolences, smiled and offered an epitaph of my mother.

“She was one, cool chick,” Brenda Stein said.

In 85 years of life, my mother had been so many things – loving daughter to immigrant parents from Greece, studious pupil, hard-working retail worker in New York, adoring wife to a man she’d known since their childhood, gentle and ever-giving parent, wise and eagerly involved Yiayia (grandmother) to our two daughters, and even in her declining years a bright, well-read and perceptive mind, with so much more to offer than time or her physical body would allow.

But my mother “a cool chick?” That made me think.

Well, she was born in Bethlehem…in Pennsylvania, that is. My father used to say, “The two most important people were born in Bethlehem.” As a young woman, she worked at Macy’s in New York City, but clearly her intellect pointed beyond the retail counter. Her lowest mark at high school was a 75 in music; however, in commercial law, civics, English, science, bookkeeping and stenography she scored no less than mid-to-high-90s. In 1941, at commencement exercises my mother – Koula Kontozoglus as she was known then – was seventh in a graduating class of over 300. She also received the school Thrift Award of Merit. That’s pretty impressive!

She courted my father from the time they met. We have a picture of a community picnic in 1936, when she was 13 and he was 14. Amid hundreds of New York picnickers they’re standing side-by-side; my mother had made the choice of her life’s soul mate. Despite the fact Dad served overseas for nearly three years, she wrote him regularly. They married soon after his repatriation. And like so many wives, no doubt her shoulder bore the brunt of his post-war trauma.

Partly because Dad worked as a newspaper columnist and broadcaster, covering disparate events at all hours, Mom chose to be a homemaker. How wonderfully my sister and I benefited from Mom’s presence at home. She taught me how to weed and plant a garden. She helped me flood the backyard for my first ice rink. She listened and understood the first time I fell in love…and the first time my heart was broken. In the 1960s, when most teenagers sneaked away from home to party with friends, my mother made our downstairs recreation room available to us.

The kids all said, “Geez, your parents are cool!”

Kay and Alex Barris with his Nellie (Writers' Guild of Canada, Lifetime Achievement Award).
Kay and Alex Barris with his Nellie (Writers' Guild of Canada, Lifetime Achievement Award).

They didn’t know the half of it. In the late ’60s my folks moved back to the U.S. so my father could pursue writing for TV in Hollywood. Then, my sister returned to Toronto for her writing career. I moved West. So, with the family – all writers and all scattered – Mom, who never craved the limelight, wrote and telephoned and cleared the way for any and every family reunion possible. She was the glue in our far-flung family – there whenever any of us needed her.

And we often did. When I took radical positions politically, she listened. When Jayne and I chose to live together before marriage, she opened her door, her arms and her heart to us. And whenever I struggled to find creative direction, she applauded my every success and consoled any failure.

Following Mom’s hospitalization at Bridgepoint Hospital in Toronto back in the spring, my sister and I began writing a bedside diary of activity, wishes and reflections. The notebook became a daily registry of Kate’s and my observations, a means of passing messages when necessary, a shopping list of Mom’s needs. Mostly Kate and I wrote in it, but on several occasions, we arrived to find Mom’s thoughts jotted down.

“April 13. Tell Kate to bring me a back scratcher. I need it.”

“July 18. Today is my anniversary. Married in New York at St. Eleftarius, July 18, 1948.”

Then, following a visit from our infant granddaughter, Layne. “What a pleasure to hold your great granddaughter in your arms. Not many people get that, in a hospital bed. How lovely. She can’t imagine how happy that made me. I have a lovely, caring family. How lucky I’ve been.”

No, Mom. We are the fortunate ones to have shared life with “one, cool chick.”

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