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.

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.

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…

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…

… 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.

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.

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

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.

25 thoughts on “Us in the Early Days

  1. Eric,
    Special memories and I was so touched by your article. My thoughts and prayers are with you and your family during this holiday season.

  2. Hi Eric,
    My guess is that the whole writing process, especially when it involves Barbara, is enormously therapeutic. Keep at it, my friend ….. you sound better every time!

    1. I have to admit that writing the stuff I normally have about sports strikes me as kind of frivolous right now … but I am encouraged that I still feel the need to work with words, and writing about more personal things (plus the responses the stories have elicited) has been a great help.

  3. Dear Eric: Beautiful stuff; reminds me in some ways of my wife, Shirley, before she passed away. Toots, as she liked to be called only by close friends and relatives, was an ardent fan, eventually rooting for the Devils when I did games in NJ.

    Like yourself, I feel that nothing is the same without her. I moved to Israel — where she had hoped to settle down with our younger son, Simon — and am living in the room that Shirley had laid out. She was my right-hand lady. Still miss her big-time. It doesn’t go away.

  4. It’s so funny to think that I’m the same age as you in that first photo! Time certainly does fly. Keep the old photos coming!

  5. Dear Eric,
    I am so glad you used your “story” time to share those memories with us. I found it very emotional when reading it. Grace and I have been married 60 years, and she is so much a part of me that I can’t imagine her not being here. But, it will happen one day. And I have prayed she will go first to spare HER the pain of loss. Then I will know firsthand what you now know.
    My heart goes out to you.

  6. Thank you for sharing this. You are a wonderful writer. I love the old stories about you and Barbara. So romantic and positive. Please keep writing. It is a wonderful way of sharing.

  7. I love your writing style, Eric, and the way you tell stories of you and Barbara, so that I feel you are talking directly to me. Thanks for posting that. Cherished memories, for sure.

  8. I’ve read the book and for those of you that haven’t, you should.
    Eric, we met over this book.
    I’ll read anything about my great uncles Lester and Frank, but this book was very special.

    I know very well how difficult it is for you now.
    I’m about one year ahead of you with this.
    Stay strong.

  9. Really nice info Eric. All I ever knew was she told me that you walked in to her office and “she fell” I loved that!

  10. As I have told you before that memories of those we love, told to our relatives, friends and those we meet, keep alive those who have gone. The only immortality we can hope for is to be remembered, fondly. Your writing of Barbara keeps her “here” even though she is not.
    Our daughter, your classmate, has been gone nine years, and yet there isn’t a day that she is not in our thoughts. We have adjusted, but on holidays and holy days we are aware she is not here. Remembering good, and even not so good times, is how we cope.
    Keep writing about Barbara and your love. It eases the pain.
    All the best!

  11. Eric the story is warming as always but I was struck by the navy blue floral dress Barbara is wearing in a couple of your pictures that shows her style even early on of the classic and romantic florals of which she was famous with me lol!

  12. Hi Eric: I enjoy reading your memories of Barb so much, and as someone mentioned, it keeps her memory alive for all of us. It was so nice to hear how you met. Please keep the stories coming Eric. Thank you for sharing them with us. Myrna & Bernie.

  13. Thank you for including me in your choice of people to share these stories of Barbara.
    We are going through difficult times with Parkinson’s disease (Ric’s) and everything about it is a horor show except for the intense sharing that goes on between people facing the unknown. (Our 50th anniversary was last May) Our son Adam has come from Boston this week for a visit. Our daughter Sarah lives nearby.

  14. Eric, I tend to forget that it was a relatively short time after Barbara first came into your life that you came into mine…and vice-versa, as to the latter.
    I wish I had known Barbara but the funny thing is that I have always thought that I did and even now, somehow, I feel that I do, through you…more, through your words.
    One thing that I do know for certain is that yours is one of the great, real-life, love stories that I have come across in my life. The two of you deserved much, much longer together, in life, it seems to me to be so unfair.
    Having said that, I am warmed and consoled by the fact that you remain, seemingly to me, together spiritually even stronger than ever.
    I hope that this bond lasts, in the most optimally positive of ways, forever.


  15. Hi Eric,

    Treasured memories, thank you! Barbara early on told me about your wonderful connection. Oddly enough, she was my student at the time that I was having a romantic adventure with the woman I’ve been married to for forty-nine years!! One day B broke the ice and asked my friend: “Marilyn, are you having an affair with Professor Henighan?” And M had to admit that she was. The affair has lasted a long time! We loved attending your and Barbara’s wedding. Please take care and keep writing!

  16. Eric. Thanks for the stories about Barbara. As you say it’s so difficult to realize she isn’t with us now, except in our memories and your stories. It’s good to hear your side to the “how we met” story, as until now, I’d only heard Barbara’s version. You two had something very special. It’s so unfair that your time together was cut so short, but on the other hand, how many people have such a great love in their lives? I know you realize that but also understand it must feel it wasn’t enough. Keep on sharing your stories so we can all support you in this difficult time.

  17. Affecting story, Eric. Next time you are in Ottawa we should head up to the renovated O’Brien hotel – Ambrose’s old place.

  18. The coupling of hockey and literary skill seems an odd partnership, and yet Eric and Barbara made it work perfectly. He, the man of history and research, and she the wordsmith that could somehow fashion simple poetry out of “please pass the butter.” An email from her was a command to stop all other activity, and you would find the time to read it at least twice. How lucky Eric has been to spend years with her, and how fortunate was he to have her as an editor (though she has been semi-retired for some time). No wonder he has over thirty books that carry his by-line, and how wonderful that their work is timeless. Barbara is with us still

  19. Lovely post Eric! And I just learned something about Renfrew history from you. I have relatives near Renfrew (well actually in Deep River where my hubby Paul was born/raised). I always wondered who the O’Briens’ were!
    And what a cool story about how you & Barbara met. And what is age but a number? I was 28 & Paul was only 21 when we met. Love knows no boundaries….
    And yes, this being on one’s own DOES take getting used to……no doubt about it!
    Always a phone call away for you tho’.
    Sincerely, Sherri-Ellen T-D.

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