WHY WAKES ARE MORE FUN THAN JUST THE BOOZE
I once wrote a column like this that not only mystified some faithful readers, it prompted friends to wonder if I hadn't gone a little weird after thousands of columns.
But I do like to discover and trace the connections between strangers and did so even before I found out about the theory of Six Degrees Of Separation which is credited first to Hungarian Frigyes Karinthy in 1929.
There have been movies, a Broadway play and TV shows built around the idea, and there was even a strange offshoot tracing actors to Kevin Bacon.
Basically, you are supposed to be able to connect every person in the world through just six people. There have been attempts to prove it mathematically but I content myself with a few surprises where I linked strangers even when they came from different countries, not just the same province.
The theory is one reason I go to wakes. I get to enjoy old friends and avoid older enemies. And then there are these surprises, people you never imagined knew the deceased.
The memorial service for Hartley Steward, the solid publisher and fine writer, was being held outside Collingwood near water and golf, suitable because that was Hartley's happiest habitat for 72 years.
It was scheduled from noon to three, so I knew I couldn't be there to savour acquaintances because Mary had an appointment at 11 at that giant parking lot also known as Sunnybrook Hospital.
For once in the Downing ordeal of sitting around countless medical offices, the surgeon checking up after an operation was on time and quick. So we were slipping back along Highway 401 when I decided that getting to the memorial was doable without speeding insanely.
Mary and I arrived just as the speeches ended under the direction of Ron Mitchell. Darn it. But the banquet room was filled with familiar faces, and the nice vista out the big windows was of waves and boats. I could imagine Hartley taking time out from playing a lofty game of golf to admire the setting and say that his Mary had done just fine.
Mitchell is a perfect example of the Degrees theory. His boyhood home backed on Doug Creighton's. He started as babysitter for the three Creighton boys and ended up decades later sweating through an exam at the ripe age of 60 to be in the insurance business with the oldest, his buddy Scott. In between, he worked for Doug and with Hartley as a general manager and publisher.
So, you say, that's conventional. Except then the Degrees click in. Up came at the memorial, to my surprise, Val and Jerry Linton, who I last saw at a condo pool in St. Pete's Beach talking with Tony O'Donoue who ran for mayor against David Crombie. Turned out the Lintons are honourary aunt and uncle to Mitchell and through him were at Hartley's wonderful parties.
Up came Peter Clark to visit, who had been in the plastic board business in Mississauga with Mitchell. Before that, I knew him around City Hall as the long time head of the Metro Licensing Commission. We used to chat because my first real summer job was selling incredible expensive men's shoes, and, of course, Peter, of the Clark Shoes family, knows all about expensive shoes like Dacks and the old Scott and John McHales.
Stalking around the room, anger radiating like sweat from a horse that has just galloped for hours, was Mark Bonokoski. Bono was still on a high, or a low, from the election where he had been working with the Tory leader. I considered it safer just to say that I believe Ontario voters are nuts.
Andy Donato was sunny in an Hawaiian shirt and a new goatee. (The dress code must have been kicked out the door. ) You see, that's the advantage of being a talented and acerbic cartoonist. When disaster hits and the Liberals undeservedly win, you can content yourself with all the targets who keep crowding into your sights.
Of course we repeated the old stories. That's what writers do. So I told again about how Hartley's second wife, Mary, had told me how impressed she had been when she had met me the year before. I confess I swelled a little and then asked why. Because, she said, you were the only journalist I knew who owned his own tux. How, I stupidly asked, did you know it was my own tux? Because, she said, it didn't fit.
Hartley the romantic had a nice but sometimes confusing relationship with women, including five wives. Then there had been his early interesting relationship with Maggie Siggins, the author of at least 10 books, including the one on Riel who won a Governor's General award.
(It was certainly a golden time for Ryerson journalism since Hartley, Maggie, Ray Biggart, Kathy Brooks, Paul Heming, Glen Woodcock et al came out of the class of '65. Few classes can match their exploits, including the time as a junior Tely editor when I sprung three of them out of jail for being so drunk, Ryerson would have expelled them if it had been discovered.)
I complimented Ron Base, who keeps churning out interesting detective tales set in Florida, for a good blog read on how Hartley had urged him to come visit in London when he was at a low point in his life. And then there was Lynda Schwalm, who practically invented newspaper promotion in our city, who was once married to Ron, and Jack McIver whose sister had pulled that tux gag on me, and Tom MacMillan who should have been running the Tory campaign, and strangers who said they had read me and knew a mutual friend and ....
Well, you get the point, I hope. We all talked fondly of the passing and hopefully about the future.
For some of us it was a little like the gathering of alumnae. Why many of us go to the same doctors that Hartley did.
Then back to Toronto at a much slower rate. I didn't cut across country but took the lazy man's route to 400 at Barrie. And I drove the roads where exactly four days later, a tornado left hundreds homeless and with shattered dreams.
A raging reminder that I should spend more time chatting with friends and making new ones. Life can change in just seconds.