Monthly Archives: December 2018

Happy Holidays … And a Better New Year!

I don’t know how many really do or don’t, but I was never a Jewish child that wished he could celebrate Christmas. Wasn’t jealous, or envious, or whatever. (I’m not as an adult either.) I’ve always understood that I live in a country where Christian is the dominant culture. Personally, I like all the Christmas music in stores at this time of year! And I certainly don’t mind if people wish me a Merry Christmas. But I’m Jewish. Given how multi-cultural our continent has become, I generally go with Happy Holidays myself. (Or Happy Birthday, since December 25 is when my brother David was born.)

Hanukkah is a fine little holiday. I certainly enjoyed the presents I got when I was a kid. I still enjoy the gifts I get now. But Hanukkah is not “Jewish Christmas.” It’s a minor holiday in the Jewish year that just happens to be at the same time as Christmas so it gets the attention. (I do believe that  gift-giving has long been a part of Hanukkah, but I’m sure that it’s gone over-the-top in modern times in an effort to keep up with Christmas. Not that I’m really complaining.)

Hanukkah
Presents for the family Hanukkah party at my mother’s house, 1998.

All this being said, I’ve always enjoyed the many Jewish traditions at Christmas. Movies on Christmas Eve! Chinese food! And, for our family during most of my growing-up years, skiing on Christmas Day on slopes that were practically empty and without lift lines!

When Barbara and I very quickly reached the point where we knew that marriage was in our future, she told me she would like to convert. There was never any pressure from me or my family; it was something she wanted to do. The only thing my parents would have asked was that she respect our family traditions. Apparently there’s a relative in my extended family whose non-Jewish wife once shouted, “three cheers for the Baby Jesus!” at a family Hanukkah party. It didn’t go over well! (One added bonus of Barbara becoming Jewish was that there were few decisions for Josh and Amanda about the holidays: Christmas with their father and his family, Hanukkah with their mother and me and my family. The same with Easter and Passover.)

The first Christmas Barbara and I spent together was in 1992. I cooked steaks, peas and mashed potatoes on Christmas Eve. On Christmas Day, we watched Gone With the Wind on television. Not really anyone’s idea of tradition, but certainly something I’ll always remember. The next year, we saw Schindler’s List on December 24 … but it turned out to be the only year we ever saw a movie together on Christmas Eve.

Barbara’s mother very quickly came to love the Jewish traditions of my family. Like Barbara, her mother was an only child and they both enjoyed being part of a large, warm family. Alice would join us for Seders, High Holidays and Hanukkah parties, but she never gave up her Christmases. Why should she?

In 1994, Alice invited Barbara and me to her apartment for Christmas Eve and then back for dinner on Christmas Day. (My parents came too.) Barbara’s father died in November of 1995, and there was no way we’d leave Alice alone for Christmas after that. Christmas Eve at her apartment followed by dinner on Christmas Day in one of Toronto’s finer hotels became our new tradition. After my father died, my mother sometimes joined us. It was always very nice … but Barbara and I did miss the movies!

Xmas
Christmas dinner at the Royal York Hotel, 1999.

After moving to Owen Sound in 2006 (Alice moved up here about 18 months later), we were all invited to Christmas with friends a time or two, but as Alice’s health declined, Barbara and I began making Christmas dinner for her at our house. Even after she passed away in 2012, we continued to make a small Christmas dinner for ourselves. We didn’t exchange gifts, but I always made Barbara a Christmas stocking. It usually consisted of some chocolates, an orange, and a special-edition magazine. Not much, but she looked forward to it each year. I did too. It’s definitely going to be strange this year without that.

So, Happy Holidays everyone and may 2019 be a better year for us all. I’ve been very touched over the last little while by the reception these personal stories have received. I don’t know how often I’ll keep it up going forward. My feeling is, I won’t write much about sports – unless someone is paying me to do it! – but I will continue to write, so you never know what you might see in these pages.

Us in the Early Days

Today – December 12, 2018 – marks four months since Barbara died. It’s nine months to the day she was first diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. It’s hard to believe. (An expression Barbara always liked was: “Time flies like an arrow. Fruit flies like a banana!”) But, I guess, if I’m really being honest, the hours mostly seem to drag, even as the days race by.

So, how’m I doing, you may wonder? Fine, I’ll tell you … because, in the big picture, I believe that’s true. But it’s been hard. It’s not so much about being sad or lonely (which, of course, I am). It’s that it’s all so strange. And so permanent. Some days are worse than others, and there’s no real rhyme or reason. (Riding alone in the car is often hard.) I’d been attributing my recent melancholy to the darker days, colder weather and the holidays, but a friend who lost his wife to cancer several years ago mentioned that after three months, the “have to” tasks have mainly been done, and you really begin to realize what’s changed. I suppose it’s all of those things.

But the point of this isn’t  to be maudlin. It is, in fact, to make a point…

Many of you have been a tremendous help to me in ways large and small. And, of course, I can’t speak for everyone who’s experienced a loss. Still, I have noticed some things. My advice to those who may feel awkward around the bereaved would be this: don’t be afraid to talk to them. Yes, it can be hard to know what to say, but even something as simple as “we’re thinking about you,” has been nice. If that seems too general, try asking a specific question. For me, you can ask me anything. Talking about it all has been very helpful. For others, a simple question like, “What’s your favorite memory?” (although, for me, it’s hard to pick just one!) or “How did you two meet?” (or an appropriate equivalent) might be better.

And that’s my long-winded way of getting around to the story of how Barbara and I met.

 Launch
This is the first picture we have of the two of us together,
at the launch for my first book on November 1, 1992.

Many of you know the story already, but a lot don’t. I won’t go into too much detail, but we met when Barbara was hired to edit my first book, the novel “Hockey Night in the Dominion of Canada.” She was a strange choice, as to that point Barbara had only worked on non-fiction. But Barbara and Malcolm Lester, who would publish the book, had become friends over a mutual love of classic American Westerns. Something about the “men in a men’s world” aspect of my story (I would come to refer to it as an “Eastern”) made Malcolm think Barbara would be good for it. I certainly think she made the book better, yet I know she had her doubts. But we had so much fun working together! And talking together. We just clicked. Despite the many differences in our backgrounds (not to mention the 16-year age gap), we saw things the same way. Right from the beginning, we were finishing each other’s sentences. So often we seemed to know exactly what the other person was going to say even before they said it.

That never stopped. It’s what I miss the most.

I still talk to her. Sometimes. She’s yet to answer.

Anyway… as I’ve written before, it was Malcolm Lester and Lester Patrick who brought us together. Lester Patrick was the star of my story, along with other real-life hockey pioneers Frank Patrick (Lester’s brother),  Newsy Lalonde and Cyclone Taylor. Barbara’s knowledge of hockey was pretty limited at the time. She was raised by two parents from Montreal, and her understanding of hockey was, “Canadiens, good. Maple Leafs, bad.” But Barbara loved history, and historic photographs, and soon she could pick out Lester Patrick in a picture from just about any period of his life.

Three
That’s me, Lester Patrick, and Doug Gilmour … all about 29 years old in these photos.

Barbara was even less of a baseball fan before I took her to her first game, but in the first two years that we were together the Blue Jays won back-to-back World Series and the Leafs reached the Conference finals in two straight seasons. She thought being a sports fan was easy. You just cheered for winning teams! So, in addition to Lester Patrick, she quickly became a big fan of Doug Gilmour. Tom Henke and Paul Molitor too.

When we were working on Hockey Night, I often brought her pictures of the players and other things I’d found in my research. Shortly after the book was launched, we went together to Ottawa and Renfrew, where most of the story takes place. The pictures that follow are among the very first ones in our first photo album together…

Parliament
Barbara’s father was in the army and she moved A LOT in her early years.
She lived in Ottawa from ages 10 to 22 and met her first husband there.
So she’d been in the Canadian Capital many, many times…

Ottawa
… but she hadn’t seen the places I would take her! This is the O’Connor House at Nepean
and O’Connor in downtown Ottawa. (Not sure if it’s still standing.) I was pretty certain this had originally been the boarding house where Cyclone Taylor lived when he first came to Ottawa in 1907. I stayed there when I was doing research, so we went to see it.

OBrien1
The O’Brien Apartments on the main street in Renfrew had once been the
O’Brien Opera House. (M.J. O’Brien, who financed the team with his son Ambrose,
was the true millionaire of the Renfrew Millionaires hockey team.) That’s Barbara
you can barely make out standing in front.

OBrien2
The tiles on which Barbara was standing date back to the year the Opera House opened.

Ritzas
Barbara is sitting with Margaret Ritza and her husband Larry. Margaret was the granddaughter of M.J. O’Brien. Larry’s father ran a pharmacy in town and was involved with local hockey right back to the days of the Millionaires. He was pleased to see that his father had a small part in my book. The Ritzas ran a B&B in their home and they were very helpful in introducing me around Renfrew when I stayed with them on my research trips.