An Anthology of Great Writers in the Toronto Star
By Toronto Star Journalists
Some of the greatest Canadian journalists of today, on some of the greatest writers of yesterday. That’s the conceit that binds Hemingway to Atwood: An Anthology of Great Writers in the Toronto Star. Fourteen current Star journalists, having each chosen a piece by a notable contributor from the past, explain in an essay how that writer inspired them. Star foreign affairs reporter Bill Schiller, for instance, argues that a 1923 news story about a Kingston prison bust “reveals a Hemingway on the road to greatness.” Hemingway to Atwood is a rich collection for lovers of history and the passionate journalism that continues to be a hallmark of the Toronto Star.
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Hemingway to Atwood:
An Anthology of Great Writers in the Toronto Star
Essay by Catherine Porter, Columnist
I have a big, black-and-white photo of June Callwood by my desk. Her incandescent smile greets me each morning, along with the smiles of my family and a few people I’ve written about over the years who touched me and taught me, and became beloved along the way.
I didn’t know Callwood well. But I loved her.
Each morning, her beautifully wrinkled face reminds me that writing and activism are soulmates, and that when I sit here and type, I should use my head and my heart.
Each morning, she quietly instructs me to make time for any good cause no matter how busy I am, and above all else, to be kind.
Kindness was Callwood’s life motto. She was kind in intimate, small ways, arriving at an acquaintance’s door with muffins in the wake of a private tragedy. She was kind in big public ways, creating places that cared for society’s outcast and neglected — AIDS hospice Casey House, Jessie’s Centre for Teenagers, Nellie’s Hostel for Women, to name three.
In the last 40 years of her life, Callwood created more than 50 social justice organizations. That averages one and a quarter a year.
Her easy smile defies that frenzied pace. However did she do it?
Here, in the column about Toronto, we get a sense of what drove her: “the troubling juxtapositions” our city offers to those, like Callwood, who are observant, and the resultant suspended state of frustration, “halfway between horror and tears.” The rich live beside the poor, the full beside the hungry, and while we have the means to offer warm help, we close our cold doors.
Callwood writes of the exhaustion of early motherhood. Her eldest son, Barney, accidentally turned her into an activist by bringing home some kids he’d met in Yorkville — then, almost unimaginably, a rundown neighbourhood of rooming houses. Seeing that these hippies were in fact poor, hungry street kids, Callwood set out to give them a place to live. The year before she wrote this piece, she opened the city’s first hostel for homeless youth, Digger House. Later that year, she was arrested for sticking up for some of the youth during a protest in Yorkville. She spent the night in jail.
To her death in 2007, the fear from that night still haunted her— not that she would be physically beaten, but that, as a woman, her reputation would never recover.
She was sensitive and insecure, despite the bookshelf of awards and honorary degrees and recognitions that came after — starting the very next year, when she was named B’nai B’rith Woman of the Year.
Like most successful women I know, she felt she was an unworthy intruder in her own life, right to the very end.
I met Callwood many times when I was a kid. She was a regular at book launches my mother, a publisher, held in our rambling house. It was always my job to serve the hors d’oeuvres. For years afterwards, whenever we bumped into each other, Callwood would exclaim, laughing, that she didn’t recognize me without my serving tray. Yet she would also always remember the plans I had shared with her. She made me feel special, which was a Callwood trademark.
By the time I figured out who she was and really what she was, it was too late. She had died of cancer.
How I would like to sit down over a warm cup of tea with her now, take that smiling face in my own hands and talk life. Oh, the questions I have for her. How did she balance it all — four children, a successful marriage, her friendships, her writing, her television show which came later, her campaigns, the ironing? With her heart so wide open, how did it not break and how did she pick her causes? What stick did she use to beat back that insecurity so she could accomplish her daunting goals?
This 1969 column is not one of Callwood’s strongest pieces of writing. She dashed it off quickly, it seems, including only a few of the hard-boiled truths that glow in so much of her work. But Callwood rarely wrote about herself, so this piece seems a rare gift. It offers me some hints: she dozed while her kids played in the park. She snatched walks along the lake to meditate on her life.
Her heart soared while she rushed toward the city in her trademark sports car. She sat by the fountain in Nathan Phillips Square. She wasn’t a saint; she was a person like you, like me. Now, when I sit by that fountain, I will commune with her.
Callwood was 45 when she wrote this. By then, she was already a very successful magazine writer, and she had one published book under her belt. Her vibrant second life as an activist was just emerging from its tender shell.
Her private life would soon change radically. That 8-year-old son, Casey, died in a motorcycle accident 12 years later. Then Barney was left partially paralyzed by a brain operation. And before either of those tragedies, her daughter Jill was smashed by a cement truck while cycling down University Ave.
So, reading this piece feels like watching a horror film. I want to shout warnings to the younger Callwood — spend more time in Kensington with Casey and less in meetings! Don’t worry about the cement flower boxes on University Ave.; soon that street will offer you something very large to worry about.
But from what I’ve learned about June Callwood from her friends, she wouldn’t have changed a thing.
All her personal tragedy only heightened her urge to help others. She found tonic in kindness. Shortly before her death, she told her friend Sylvia Fraser that the one irreducible truth she’d learned over 82 years was that “kindness is good for both the person who gives and who receives.”
Fraser is my godmother. I asked her this past weekend to tell me about Callwood. What was her secret? How did she manage it all?
She told me that her friend June was the Beethoven of energy.
“She used every minute three times,” she said.
I Love this Noisy, Ornery City
Published on the editorial page of the Toronto Daily Star on Nov. 1, 1969
Last November, the Ad and Sales Club of Toronto celebrated its 40th birthday at a luncheon that filled the Royal York’s biggest room. I remember it best for the speech William Allen gave, flatly, almost indigestibly honest about the nature of society today and full of love for the Metro Toronto he then headed. Coming from that deliberately mild man, it was startling and very moving.
Don Harron, the writer-comic-philosopher, and I had also been asked to contribute some observations about Toronto at the luncheon, for a prescribed two minutes apiece. Don was funny, and kept well within the time limit, and I recall that I was nervous, flowery and spoke too long.
But it had been an illuminating experience for me to consider what I liked about Toronto. I came here as a teenager to work on a newspaper, married here with brilliant luck 25 years ago, had four remarkable children here — and for most of those years took the city for granted.
Then a few years ago I began to see the underside of Toronto that social workers and teachers in slum schools and policemen know, the place where losers live and rot away, and I fell into a slough of disliking the city. I was devastated most by the misery of small children, defenceless in lonely homes, dangerous homes, homes where people detest one another. Such children, as I observed for myself, fulfil the prophecies of textbook psychologists and grow up too worn out to care about themselves, and too often betrayed ever to trust anyone again.
And I was angry that the city and the province would be miserly where it would seem most unforgivable, irrevocably damaging to society’s future and immoral — with those agencies such as the Children’s Aid Societies and Big Brothers who strain beyond their resources to repair and prevent some of the brutalizing of brokenhearted children.
Recently I attended a meeting of Etobicoke citizens involved in The Troubled Child project. They had spent the summer surveying the needs of children in the borough and the meagre help available. One of the women kept saying, “If only people knew. If only they knew how some children live, surely something would get done!” I reflected silently that I’ve been suspended in her state of frustration for a long time, halfway between horror and tears. Like her, I discovered that there is almost no warm help for mothers during the time when they hold the sanity and learning capacity and charm of infants in their untrained and often exhausted hands; and teachers all over the city know that some of their students are hungry, sleepless, badly clothed and frightened to go home, but have no alternative to offer.
So I approached the task of saying some kind words about Toronto at the Ad and Sales luncheon with gloomy reluctance. Without enthusiasm, I began to sort out the separate images of Toronto that I like: The upward thrust between ribbons of light when a car mounts the Gardiner Expressway at night; the black shaft of the Toronto Dominion Centre by day and its golden glory in the dark; the hazy view of the skyline from the Island ferry; High Park in the autumn; the lift of heart you get when you round the corner of the Queen Elizabeth highway in the morning and suddenly see Toronto Bay dancing blue and bright; the Please Walk on the Grass signs on the island; John Parkin’s airport building, glittering like a giddy birthday cake at night to tell the traveller he’s almost home; the places along the lake where you can walk solitary and absorb some of water’s peacefulness; the city halls, both of them — one lyrical and frail, the other covered with crazy ornamentation but full of ancient sanity; the rapturous way that so many Torontonians dress themselves these days, every day on Bloor Street a Mardi Gras; the climbing apparatus in children’s playgrounds, painted primary colors and shaped like dinosaurs and rocket ships.
Somewhere during the catalogue, I came to the dazzling and healing realization that I love this big, dirty, noisy and ornery city very much, and for more reasons than I will ever know.
It is a great city for a woman, with cornucopia department stores and crammed little boutiques smelling of lemon soap and incense. And I loiter, when I can, in cheese shops, art galleries, the Colonnade, delicatessens, the Book Cellar, the reference library on College Street, any office supply store. Britnell’s book store, and at the sidewalk tables at Yorkville’s Upper Crust and the poolside benches at Nathan Phillips Square, to watch on sunny afternoons the regularly scheduled parade.
Toronto is also our small son’s delight. At 8, he is enchanted by shows at the planetarium and the exhibits in the adjoining museum. His favorite, until it wore out or was removed by the deafened curator, was a rubber mat that caused thunder and lightning to commence whenever a child put his weight on it. On Saturday afternoons he goes to children’s live theatre, when it is available, and joins the screams from the audience warning the hero that the witch is approaching — a highly gratifying exercise for a 50-pound person whose normal condition is one of relative impotence.
He also is fascinated by the fish stores in Kensington Market, television and radio studios, Chinese vegetable stores along Dundas Street, ungraded open-plan schools with their Welcome Visitors signs, everything on the Island, the fountains at Nathan Phillips Square, Yorkdale Plaza and Queen’s Park, the High Park Zoo and the Sir Casimir Gzowski Park on the lakefront where we go on the hottest summer days — he to climb tirelessly the high stairs of the snake slide and me to doze and read in the sun.
One day when I was taking him to Riverdale zoo for the first time, we stopped off at Don Jail to deliver a book to a prisoner friend. That evening our little boy was quiet, wrapped in thoughts about the advisability of putting either men or animals in small cages. Toronto offers the observant a number of troubling juxtapositions: Parliament Street slums are not far from Rosedale lawns; matrons emerging flushed from Mr. Tony’s pass teenagers who haven’t eaten in three days; the juvenile detention home peers through its tiny eyes at columns of lurching drunks.
But Toronto in recent years has pioneered some of the outstanding social work, mental health and education experiments anywhere in North America, and I believe wholeheartedly that some day every child in it will have a good life, and every baby born will have someone around who likes to sing to him and kiss his neck. And when that day eventually dawns, I have but one more request of this hulk of a city: Will someone take a bulldozer down the centre of University Avenue, level those tacky concrete flower pots and replace them with trees, fountains and benches? Then line the streets with sidewalk restaurants and let us all toast Toronto with a glass of wine — right out there in the open air.
©June Callwood, 1969. This work is protected by copyright and the making of this copy was with the permission of Access Copyright. Any alteration of its content or further copying in any form whatsoever is strictly prohibited unless otherwise permitted by law.