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.”

Frames from a moving life

Christopher and his two most prized possessions - wife Glen and 1968 Oscar - and host Barris at 2009 Gala.
Christopher and his two most prized possessions – wife Glen and 1968 Oscar – and host Barris at 2009 Gala.

It took us nearly a lifetime to recognize a lifetime. But we finally did it on Sept. 19, 2009. It was a tribute to one of our own – a photographer, innovator and award-winning artist. And in the days afterward, as the person given the distinction of hosting the evening and interviewing the man being honoured, I received two touching written snapshots of the occasion. One came from the subject of the tribute.

“Thank you for your introduction of me,” Christopher Chapman scribbled on a card a few days later. “And thank you for guiding me through that interview.”

The other snapshot came as an email from Christopher’s wife, Glen.

“How thrilling to have a significant number of family, friends and community there,” she wrote. “We’re still in awe of the whole evening.”

Rights of girls and women unmasked

Zenura Ishaq, after winning a court case allowing her to wear her niqub, recites oath to become a Canadian citizen. Photo courtesy CBC.
Zenura Ishaq, after winning a court case allowing her to wear her niqub, recites oath to become a Canadian citizen. Photo courtesy CBC.

I have listened to it. I have read it. I have asked my friends – both women and men – what they think of it. And because I have a sister, a wife, two daughters and a granddaughter and many female friends of various ages, cultural origins, linguistic backgrounds and religious faiths, in my life, I have agonized over its message.

“Why would Canadians, contrary to our own values, embrace a practice … that is not transparent, that is not open and frankly is rooted in a culture that is anti-women?” Prime Minister Stephen Harper said in Parliament earlier this year, “That is unacceptable to Canadians, unacceptable to Canadian women.”

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!”

Tour guiding 101

Guide Nathan Schultz (with walking stick) about to lead tour into Fallingwater.
Guide Nathan Schultz (with walking stick) about to lead tour into Fallingwater.

The group gathered as instructed at the end of a long walkway in the Pennsylvania woods near Uniontown. We waited for a few moments and he joined us – complete with ochre-coloured polo shirt and pants and a hardwood walking stick – to begin our tour. He seemed a rather young man to be guiding us through something as prestigious as this Frank Lloyd Wright-designed house. But the moment he began to speak about this place called “Fallingwater,” we sensed we were in the hands of a master tour guide.

“Just the way my arm rests across my walking stick,” he said, placing his forearm at right angles to the stick, “is the cantilever design that Wright used to build this home for Edgar and Liliane Kaufmann.”

A unique calling

The Grant Mansion has a unique place in Atlanta's history, if it can be preserved.
The Grant Mansion has a unique place in Atlanta’s history, if it can be preserved.

It’s rather unassuming, yet quite historic. It doesn’t dazzle with extraordinary colours or flashy architecture. To the contrary, its simple lines, modest proportions and utilitarian features speak more of its being a family dwelling than a historic building. But in the City of Atlanta, the Grant Mansion has a unique distinction. It’s one of the few Civil War period buildings not destroyed in the burning of the city 150 years ago by Union Gen. W.T. Sherman. Initially, its survival is attributed to one odd factor.

“Because Union troops found Masonic paraphernalia in the house,” documentation at the historic site explains today, “(soldiers) were instructed not to harm the houses of Masons.”

Madness as wisdom

Abraham Rosenbach got the bug to collect rare books from his uncle Moses Polock.
Abraham Rosenbach got the bug to collect rare books from his uncle Moses Polock.

Did you know that the original manuscript for James Joyce’s book Ulysses rests in Philadelphia? That’s because a Philadelphian named Abraham Rosenbach felt he needed to acquire it. In 1924, when he saw the first version of the book, Joyce’s actual pencilled words on paper, Rosenbach bought it.

He paid $1,975 for it. At the time, he felt he was simply helping Joyce raise much needed cash. When Joyce’s fortunes changed and he tried to buy the manuscript back from Rosenbach, he refused. Later, Rosenbach offered to buy the page proofs for Ulysses.

Joyce was incensed, saying “when [Rosenbach] receives a reply from me, all the rosy brooks [a play on Rosenbach’s name] will have run dry.”

Acts of liberation

Veteran glider pilot Martin Maxwell and dispatch rider Harry Watts pause at the British Airborne Museum at Oosterbeek, Holland (2015).
Veteran glider pilot Martin Maxwell and dispatch rider Harry Watts pause at the British Airborne Museum at Oosterbeek, Holland (2015).

Early in May, 70 years ago, a Second World War glider pilot named Martin Maxwell tasted freedom for the first time in nearly eight months. On Sept. 17, 1944, during his second airborne operation, he had delivered British soldiers and equipment in a controlled crash landing near Arnhem, Holland, during the Operation Market Garden, only to be wounded and captured days later. But on May 1, 1945, with the Germans surrendering all over Europe, Maxwell regained his freedom.

“A British tank came into our POW camp,” he said, “and we were liberated.”

Liberation not a moment too soon

Ninety-nine percent of the time Larry Mann performed in studio, on camera for voice-over to make us laugh.
Ninety-nine percent of the time Larry Mann performed in studio, on camera for voice-over to make us laugh.

Most of the time, Larry D. Mann was a comedian. In the 1950s, when I met him, Larry would warm up audiences for my father’s television show, The Barris Beat, on CBC. He also appeared in comic sketches on the show. His perfect delivery of punch lines, his deadpan facial expressions and his huge guffaws broke up every audience he ever met. Once, however, Larry Mann made me cry. He described a day in the spring of 1945.

“We weren’t prepared for what we saw when we arrived at the concentration camp,” he said. “We couldn’t get in the front gate because there were bodies, hundreds of bodies, piled up like cordwood. We hadn’t seen the pits yet…”

Is Christmas relevant?

"It's Christmas Eve" brought together Alex, the composer, and Quenby and Whitney, the singers and grandchildren, in 2001.
“It’s Christmas Eve” brought together Alex, the composer, and Quenby and Whitney, the singers and grandchildren, in 2001.

A number of Christmases ago, my father Alex called me. He was worried about something. I asked him what was wrong. He said he was facing a dilemma. He had just written a Christmas song and wanted one of our two daughters to record it. Since both were good singers, he didn’t know which to choose.

“Dad, I don’t see a problem,” I said. “They both sing. Why not ask them to record it together? They can sing it in harmony.”

Well, it was one of those times in my life when instinct proved to be bang on. My father approached both our daughters – Quenby, the teacher, and Whitney, the actor/singer – and they agreed to work on it together.