One man’s gift to his family

He offered more mentorship than advice.

I close my eyes and all of it comes back to me. Richard Nixon had just won the U.S. Presidency, for a second term. The family gathered – either later that fall of 1972, or the following summer – from Toronto, from Maryland, New Jersey and Florida. Then, usually after the first meal together, dessert was finished, a few drinks consumed, and it was time to talk. It wouldn’t take long before current events, politics and Nixon became the focus. Within minutes there was a storm brewing.

“How could he possibly get re-elected?” my father would say.

“He’s good for business,” a couple of my American relatives would say. “He’s gonna end the war in Vietnam.”

“He’s a crook!” my father would say, looking for a verbal fight.

“He’s our president,” came the retort.

And, well, it escalated from there.

Home for Christmas

78 RPM Decca V-Disc of "I'll Be Home For Christmas" recorded in 1943 by Bing Crosby and re-released by the U.S. War Department the following year.
78 RPM V-Disc of “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” recorded in 1943 by Bing Crosby and re-released by the U.S. War Department the following year.

I walked up the front walk in the darkness of the early evening. I quietly put my luggage down on the front step of my parents’ Los Angeles home and knocked on the door. This was a plan my dad and I had hatched weeks before. It was finally coming to pass. He knew I had flown in from Toronto. My mother didn’t know. And this night – just before Dec. 25 – my mom opened the front door. I was the last person she expected.

“What are you doing here?” she shrieked.

“It’s a surprise Dad and I’ve been working on for weeks,” I said, as I hugged her for the first time since the summer. “I just wanted to be home for Christmas.”

Of guns and goodness

A few weeks ago, I found myself in a line of American travellers moving through an airport security area. We were all rushing to get to a flight bound for New York City. We had all removed our coats, belts and shoes, and were waiting to be cleared to the gate. That’s when a fellow passenger struck up a conversation with me.

“Going home?” a guy asked.

“No,” I said. “Home’s in Canada.”

“Kind of the same,” he smiled. “Except you Canadians all say, ‘aboot.’”

I buttoned my lip, preferring to leave well enough alone. Fortunately, I didn’t end up sitting next to him on the plane, so I didn’t have to endure any more of his mistaken perceptions about the similarities between Americans and Canadians.

Tipping point

The Hobby Horse Arms in Uxbridge.
The Hobby Horse Arms in Uxbridge.

A Friday or two ago, after my wife and I had each endured a long, tough week, the two of us decided we needed a break. We chose not to eat in, but to treat ourselves. We dropped by the Hobby Horse, a local pub in Uxbridge, to enjoy a favourite beverage and meal and some relaxing down time. Of course, part of the experience of treating ourselves included enjoying one of the best servers in town – B.J. Byers.

“Hey, how are two of my favourite regulars?” B.J. said as we walked in.

“Great… now,” I responded.

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!”

Stitch in time…

My father was born in 1922, raised in New York City, N.Y. and (as his U.S. Army Honorable Discharge paper said) was last employed before entering the army as a “sewing machine operator.”

I saw my mother do it. I saw my grandmother do it even more. It wasn’t something my grandfather ever did. And I never saw my father do it. Although, after he died in 2004, we did find some of my father’s military papers from the Second World War when he served a sergeant in the army medical corps. And those papers suggested he knew how to do it. On his Honorable Discharge papers when he left the U.S. Army in December 1945, his attestation revealed that he had done it.

“Civilian occupation,” the discharge papers revealed, “Sewing machine operator.”

Days that change us

President Roosevelt signs declaration of war on Dec. 8, 1941.
President Roosevelt signs declaration of war on Dec. 8, 1941.

There was a day in my parents’ lives that changed everything. It happened in 1941. My father was 19 that September. My mother was a year younger. They both had grown up and gone to school in New York City. But events that day just before Christmas, meant that my mother would see her brother-in-law and her future husband, my father, go off to war. My parents were both U.S.-born and their American president described the change that day indelibly.

“December 7, 1941, is a date which will live in infamy,” Franklin D. Roosevelt said.

The favourite uncle

Our favourite Uncle George joins a toast to his 80th birthday.
Our favourite Uncle George joins a toast to his 80th birthday.

I remember the first time he spoiled us. My sister and I often travelled with our parents to New York City, where they had grown up. Until that time in the early 1960s, however, whenever we holidayed with relatives in the Big Apple, my sister and I had pretty much been turned over to our grandparents for entertainment and discipline. But this time was different. When we arrived, instead of the customary hugs and kisses from Yiayia and Popou (Greek for Grandma and Grandpa), there was this guy taking charge.

“Wanna go for a ride?” he asked us. And our Uncle George (my mother’s baby brother) led us to the garage to see his late model (early 1960s) Chrysler convertible. It was salmon coloured. It had these massive tail fins. It even boasted the most modern of driving conveniences – a push-button transmission. “Watch this,” George said. And he just pushed in the “D” button for “Drive” and away we went.