The young man was showing off in front of some of his buddies. The conversation shifted from small talk to basketball – one of his favourites – and then to some of the women in his college class. At the time, I was one of his instructors, and he didn’t know I could hear pretty much everything he was saying.
“Oh, you know what they say about women,” he joked. “They’re like city buses. If you miss one, there’ll be another along in a minute.”
When he called and asked for assistance, it didn’t take me long to consent. My acquaintance, Warren Ralph, needed a guest to perform the duties of the Reviewing Officer at a ceremony recognizing young people in his military cadet corps. I said I had no experience. But Ralph said it was easy. They would lead me through it.
“But I’ve never been the Reviewing Officer before,” I said.
“Piece of cake,” Capt. Ralph said. “All you have to do is walk through the ranks of the cadets with the Parade Commander at your side.”
There’s generally at least one of these in every neighbourhood. This person is most often extremely well grounded in the community or has lived there for years. People next door or down the block all feel they could trust this individual with their mother or their kids. I had a proxy parent like this. Only I didn’t realize I needed her as a surrogate until I was a young adult.
I knew her as “Ma Ross.”
Actually her name was Betty Ross. She was born Helen Elizabeth Watson on July 11, 1920, in Toronto. When she was four, her father died. So, she was raised by a caring brother. Betty came of age during the Second World War, fell in love with an RCAF Spitfire pilot – when they danced on terrace of the Palais Royale on a night in 1940 – and waited for her beau, Richard Ross, to come home safely from the air war overseas. In the 1950s, I met Betty through her son, David, who’d become my closest friend in elementary school in Agincourt, Ont. But that’s not when she became my fill-in mom.
I think after the assassination of JFK, it’s the most significant “Where were you when…?” event in our lifetimes. It was the time – as baby-boom teenagers and their parents – we stayed glued to our TV sets all night on July 20, 1969, to watch U.S. astronauts land their Apollo 11 module on the moon and then watched former test pilot Neil Armstrong take those famous steps and speak to the world.
“That’s one small step for a man,” he said. “One giant leap for mankind.”
In truth, however, the race for space began 50 years ago this week when Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human being to be catapulted into Earth orbit aboard Vostok 1, a space capsule about as big as the Russian-built Lada.
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.