Father’s Day gifts

My father Alex Barris at his Toronto newspaper office desk – writing to dealine.

My back was to the wall. Eleventh hour. Up against it. All those clichés applied. My Grade 8 history essay – on the causes and effects of the War of 1812 – was due Monday morning. It was Sunday night and the essay was done in every way but one. I pleaded with Dad to help me, not to compose the essay, but to type it for me. And he did, but not without an important provision.

“This is the last time,” he said. “From now on, you’re on your own. You’ve got to type it yourself!”

I nodded, not really understanding what had just happened. All I cared about was that my history paper would be delivered in class, on time and looking spotlessly professional. Why? Because my dad was a professional writer and he would never submit anything short of perfect.

We are all Syrians

Greek Line S.S. Olympia
Greek Line T.S.S. Olympia in service from 1953 to 1974.

My sister and I made it our business to arrive in the theatre aboard the ship before most other passengers. We loved the idea – especially on rainy days during our Atlantic crossing – of getting the best seats from which to watch the Hollywood movie screened that afternoon, a new one every day.

But this day, when we got to the theatre, most seats were filled with other passengers. The Greek Line ship on which we were sailing – the Olympia, bound from Athens to New York City in the summer of 1964 – had recently stopped at Naples. A large number of Italian passengers – we sensed they were immigrants – had come aboard. Anyway, when my sister and I entered the theatre this day the woman in charge of ship orientation was scolding some noisy children among the immigrant passengers.

“Be quiet!” she scolded with a thick Greek accent. “If you do not behave, I will throw you away!”

More liberation needed

My mother, Kay Barris, could have run the retail department in which she served as a sales clerk.
My mother, Kay Barris, could have run the retail department in which she served as a sales clerk.

The deadline for getting my news story on the air was fast approaching. My TV producer, a long-time filmmaker and friend named Sue, made some speedy recommendations in the editing room to help me get the story finished in time. At the time, her experience was wider and deeper than mine. And thanks to her skill, we managed to get my TV story broadcast that night. That’s when I delivered that horribly cliché and patronizing line about her talent.

“That’s why you get paid the big bucks,” I said condescendingly.

Aunts and uncles that are not

T&J_RENTABUG-1It happened during my first great adventure as a writer. It was in the spring of 1973. Jayne and I packed up an orange VW bug with all our travel and camping gear and headed west on a 20,000-kilometre odyssey. We were beginning our summer-long journey to gather research and personal accounts for my first book of popular history. Two friends – brothers Hal and Jim Sorrenti – suggested when we arrived in Winnipeg that we drop in on a relative.

“Be sure to stop and see our Auntie Marg,” they said. “She’ll help you out.”

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.