Vera Barker and President Kennedy

“It’s my Grandma’s birthday! I pledge to drink wine in her honour too.” 

That’s an email sent to me by Vera Barker’s granddaughter, Heather Anne, earlier today.

“It’s also the day they shot Kennedy but we don’t talk about that anymore,” she added.  “Especially when it is Thanksgiving.”

For nearly fifty years, Vera Barker’s birthday has been a hard thing to toast, overshadowed by the huge news from Dallas. But now Vera’s dead too, ten years gone. If she were alive today she’d be 102. Kennedy would be 95.

As Heather pointed out, it seems that Kennedy’s death is dimmed to near black-out status by the American Thanksgiving and all the damnable hootin’ and hollerin’ about Black Friday sales.

Instead of remembering his death we’re told to head out the door and harass Wal-Mart clerks; stuff the pockets of their corporate bosses up and down the hinterland of our nations.

Where has all the time gone and what have we done with it?

When Johnny was born into that huge Massachusetts family and wealth in 1917,  Vera was seven years old and living with her folks in a modest east Toronto bungalow. Her dad was Harry Gaw but her mom’s name–sorry, we don’t remember her mom’s name.

“It’s probably in my baby book,” said Heather, when I asked, but I don’t want to leave the computer right now to hunt down that particular archive. So we’ll (shamefully!) leave Great-Grandma Gaw out of the story and get back to Vera. Because today is her 102nd birthday and the night of her shared memorial toast: To Vera, to John.

To a life. To a death.

I was lucky enough to actually meet Vera Barker in Heather’s apartment a little over a decade ago. She was blind, couldn’t hear too well, and instantly reminded me of a gnarled Hagar Shipley, right down to her guttural “‘scuse me” as she inched towards her freshly stirred rye and Canadian Club.

Not one for small talk, I still managed to get the good bits.

Vera was a no-nonsense working woman, full of spit n’ fire (Hagar’s words) who  supervised other women in a Toronto ammunitions plant during the war. That’s not her in the picture above but it could have been. The woman on the right, I imagine.

After the war she took a job stuffing filing cabinets with accounts paperwork for the Robert Simpson Co. on Queen Street.  She was always a force to be reckoned with, just like Hagar.

Although several decades apart, we both worked at the same department store. I was in stationary on the ground floor, literally pushing pens, and at Christmas I was stuffed into a hideous red suit as Santa’s helper and planted myself beside the big hairy fella, signing kid’s names on stockings.

Back to Vera Barker.

Just for fun, I googled her name a little bit ago: an oddly reverse-anachronistic thing to do.

Here’s what came up:

A scandal sheet claims that President Obama and Vera Baker, his former campaign aide, had an affair up and down Washington’s seedy hotel strip a few years ago.

“Baker, now 35, worked tirelessly to get Obama elected to the U.S. Senate, raising millions in campaign contributions, in 2004. They grew close since.”

The Vera Barker I barely knew, but whom we will toast later tonight and remember, would have chuckled at this I imagine. Shadowed, always, by presidents.

 

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About Nor

I'm a creative non-fiction writer, with a special interest in memoirs and obituaries--life stories, local histories with flesh & blood anecdotal details. I'm also beginning to create podcasts of people's stories and expanding their audiences. I'm a diarist, an editor, and a political activist. I live in Toronto, Ontario, Canada and spend days tapping keys or staining my fingers in ink.
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