Val Ross had one of the world's great smiles. Its luminosity stands as a metaphor for the illumination she shared through the elegance and intelligence of her writing.
She died, at 57, early last Sunday morning of complications from a brain tumour.
Part of the legacy she leaves behind is her journalism, much of it written for this newspaper, and for which she was nominated three times for National Newspaper Awards, winning for critical writing in 1992.
Journalism, for the most part, is not for the ages; daily newspaper journalism, in particular, is a deadline-driven thing, of the moment and for the moment. But sometimes its practitioners capture (or elicit) a mood, a physical detail, a quote that resonates to become something more enduring. Val Ross's best writing could do just that.
On author Alice Munro and the scene at the Blyth Festival in Huron County, Ont., in October, 1994.
Goderich, Ont. - "Excuse me, but I hear there's a famous lady writer who lives near here," said the man in the Blyth Hall, summoning an alert-looking, sixtyish waitress to his table. "I hear she sometimes comes to this festival."
The waitress nodded her silver curls.
"Would that by any chance be her?" The man indicated a nearby table. A woman sat alone, artistic and dramatic. Wrapped in patterned shawls, the woman held high a fine head of auburn hair.
"I'm not sure," admitted the waitress. She sized up the woman and then, encouragingly, whispered back, "Yes, I think that might be her."
Alice Munro, who was the silver-haired waitress, gives a guilty laugh when she tells this story. ... "I wanted that man to have this vision of a writer with beautiful red hair. I did it because she was so beautiful."
With Munro again, as she runs into Peter C. Newman at Bailey's Fine Dining, in 2006.
Goderich, Ont. - As the remnants of Bailey's crab cakes are cleared away, Munro's tall geographer husband arrives. They flirt; she actually bats her eyes at him. She really enjoys her femininity. Amused, he says he'll wait outside in the car for her.
As he leaves, a second tall man comes over to Munro's table. "Alice! Is this your restaurant too?" It's Peter C. Newman, who has just put his sailboat into Goderich's dry dock for the winter. They chat for a moment, these two Canadian bestselling authors, these people of the book, who just happen to meet on a Tuesday afternoon in, of all places, downtown Goderich.
"Come outside and meet my husband," Munro tells Newman. "That way he can say I've introduced him to a real writer."
Writing an obituary of gallery chatelaine Signe McMichael, in 2007.
Toronto - About 35,000 schoolchildren a year troop through the McMichael Canadian Art Collection in Kleinburg, Ont.
Until recently, a white-haired woman with a taste for artistic scarves would often greet them. Sometimes, she'd stoop down to pick up after them - whisking away stray candy wrappers as scrupulously as if the gallery were her own house.
Once, it was. Signe McMichael was one half of the couple who created the collection of works by Tom Thomson, Emily Carr, David Milne and the Group of Seven, and Inuit and Woodland art and sculpture.
She and her husband, Robert, donated 200 paintings to the public in 1965, along with the house that contained them - known as Tapawingo (Place of Joy) - and the forest in which it sits, about 40 kilometres northwest of Toronto.
"The sense of home that pervades the place today is due to her," said Tom Smart, director of the McMichael. "That kind of feel is her legacy."
On Hobbes and squirt guns, in 1998.
Toronto - Children can be nasty, brutish and short. Their culture palaces, however idealistically designed, often become demolition derbies, with random collisions, blank screens, and broken buttons banged by sticky little fists. Parents must be forgiven if, when they hear the word culture in connection with kids, they reach for their squirt guns.
On Ken Danby's populist charms, in 1998.
Toronto - Ronald Reagan once professed to be a fan. Alan Eagleson has been portrayed admiringly by him. The Franklin Mint published one of his works. For art snobs, these are all fine reasons to dismiss Canada's best-known master of High Realist painting, Ken Danby. So is the fact that Danby, 58, is ruggedly handsome in a narrow-eyed, Robert Mitchum way, genially self-confident, and commercially successful compared to most Canadian paint-daubers. Whatever the serious artsies think, he's doing just fine, as any one of the hundreds of people with an exclusive invitation to attend the opening today of his new show at Toronto's Joseph D. Carrier Gallery will attest.
Discussing lawns and order, in July, 1998.
Montreal - Lawns are like human breath: ambiguous areas where the outside flows into intimate space, where interiors greet the external world. A mangy lawn is like some poor fool who opens his mouth to smile hello and reveals missing teeth or parsley stuck in the dentures. Front yards that sport thistles and crushed tin cans, like bad breath, send the world a message of negligence or insulting indifference. Green velvety perfection may impress some people, but others will interpret such lawns as banal assertions from anal retentives, the sort of people who overfloss. Then there are people who attempt to change the subject, replacing grass with stones or multicoloured gravel. They don't get it. They don't understand that the lawn is a declaration of solidarity with North American ideals.
Doubting the advantages of CD-ROM books, in 1997.
Toronto - I'm crouched amid the wrinkled clothes and loose homework of my favourite 14-year-old nerd, peering at his computer. He inserts a CD-ROM ( Beethoven Lives Upstairs, a popular year-old product from The Children's Entertainment Group of Toronto) into the drive. "It's neat," he promises. After bee-like digestive noises, the computer screen coughs up an image of a book.
And what a book! The illustrations move! They're really scenes, the size of a credit card, from the Beethoven Lives Upstairs video. (Still, I grumble, the image is fuzzy; I prefer the video.)
My nerd guide clicks expertly through "book" pages - an abbreviated version of Beethoven Lives Upstairs by Barbara Nichol (I'd rather read the book's full text) until we reach the game he likes best. Click! A tiny piano keyboard appears, with baby versions of some of Ludwig van's greatest hits - Ode to Joy, the theme from the Pastoral. Clicking on each key, he "plays" the "piano" and provokes the computer to react, with rude noises and graphics, by deliberately hitting wrong notes. This is great for kids who don't have a piano. Me, I want to hear a real piano.
Paying a call on Joan Chalmers and Barbra Amesbury, in 1996.
Toronto - A dog turd lies on the floor of Joan Chalmers and Barbra Amesbury's newly renovated midtown Toronto living room. It was deposited by one of the couple's two excitable Jack Russell terriers, in front of several large canvases stacked against the wall, near a hand-crafted dining-room table Chalmers commissioned from Canadian artisan Michael Fortune.
Both women - the stately, aquiline-faced Chalmers and Amesbury, who looks like a leggy tennis star and talks a mile a minute - notice the small object. But for now, hospitably intent on welcoming a journalist to their home, they let doggy turds lie.
Talking pop psychology with Avie Bennett, in 1991.
Toronto - "Ideas for these books come up in [McClelland & Stewart]editorial meetings," says publisher Avie Bennett. "I guess it's a function of age; I say, 'You gotta be a moron to read a book like that,' but the younger staff all say, 'Great idea.' " Bennett is talking about a publishing phenomenon known as recovery books. Part pop psychology, part spiritual thought-for-the-day, they range from simple-minded to scholarly and deal with such traumas as drug addiction, being the child of a dysfunctional family, workaholism, sexual addiction, "negaholism" and just plain feeling like an inadequate human being.
And perhaps, this once, the wise elder should listen to the younger generation: Recovery lit is booming. Since the late 1980s, American authors such as Melody Beattie ( Codependent No More), John Bradshaw ( Homecoming: Reclaiming and Championing Your Inner Child) and Scott Peck ( People of the Lie) have moved into penthouse positions on The New York Times bestseller list for months at a time.
Sharing a meal with Margaret Atwood, in 1991.
Toronto - "I've always been funny. I think I'm becoming more cantankerous. I'm finally getting full licence for it. Apparently eccentrics are happier people. It says so in today's Globe."
Everyone in the restaurant knows who the speaker is. A small pale woman with a big hat, wicked, sibylline smile, preposterous earrings. Margaret Eleanor Atwood, 51, poet, novelist, nationalist, icon.
Some of the diners may know that she is the author of 25 books published in 25 countries in 20 languages, with a new collection of short stories, Wilderness Tips, coming out next month. Or that she was cited in a recent Economist magazine survey of Canada as one of the few exportable products about which the country can boast. One or two might have heard that earlier this year she delivered the Clarendon Lectures at Oxford, explaining Canadian literature to the English. Or that eight months ago, the Modern Languages Association, North America's most influential congress of literary academics, gave affiliate status to the University of Tampa-based Margaret Atwood Society, which ensures that four scholarly papers devoted to her work will be presented at its annual general meeting.
But none of the patrons pesters her for an autograph or even rubbernecks to see what she is eating (a grilled eggplant sandwich). Perhaps they are appropriately Canadian in their reticence; perhaps, because she is famous for being aloof and withering and caustic, we are all a little intimidated.
Today, however, she is very human. Concerned about the state of the country and the disappearance of a child on the Toronto streets (horror is never far from Atwood's mind). Looking forward to spending a year in the south of France with her family, writer Graeme Gibson and their daughter Jess, 16. Amiable, full of dumb jokes ("How many Canadians does it take to change a lightbulb? One. Of course") and bits of chatty advice (to writers: "Never throw anything away"). She reminds you of someone you met years ago, someone you'll remember in a moment.