Brand building through storytelling

Two bowls of soup: in memory of Val Ross

Ross Val PhotoThe last time I saw my friend Val, she was waiting for me outside the Runnymede subway station, looking exactly like her blithely original self in a long flowing coat, a velvet scarf and a cloche hat that set off her alert, slightly Asiatic eyes. When she hugged me, I noticed her pallor, which could have passed for the sign of nothing more ominous than a sleepless night. In fact she had just had surgery for a brain tumour. They didn’t get it all. She wore the hat to cover her hair, which she’d been told not to wash because of the stitches.

It was just after noon on a raw November Tuesday. The sky was the colour of dirty snow. For lunch we ordered two bowls of hot and sour soup, spiked with chili peppers and lime juice. Like the stories we told, which ranged as usual from the comic to faintly scandalous, the soup preserved the fragile illusion that nothing had changed.

We had been lunching together for more than 30 years. In our first restaurant, a 70s hot spot with red plush upholstery and chrome pillars fit for a disco, Val liked to make a meal of two different soups. She had no truck with convention, at the table or anywhere else. She was just starting out as a freelance writer and I, a fledgling editor decked out in my only blazer, was treating her to lunch on MissChatelaine‘s expense account. The job paid bubkes, but came with two perks: review copies of the latest books, and lunching with writers. Val was my favourite writer—passionate, witty and utterly original. A few things that caught my attention:

She wanted to cover a war (and eventually did).

She was a longtime student of karate.

She had a flair for writing quirky analogies like “Nancy’s white mini sits on the CBC parking lot like a Chiclet on a football field.” (I’m quoting from memory.)

She once delivered a manuscript in which, to save paper, she had stitched two torn sheets together with pink yarn.

The first time Val invited my husband and me to dinner in her cluttered single-woman kitchen, she served grapefruit soup, which tasted every bit as peculiar as it sounds yet was still satisfying because Val had thought, while flipping through an obscure cookbook, “What an unusual recipe! I’ll have to try that one on my friends.”

Many people urged me to leave my job at Miss Chatelaine (which morphed into the more sophisticated Flare, but never did pay decent money). Val was the one who pried me loose for a job at Maclean’s, where she was then making her name as a staff writer. By the time I showed up for my interview, she’d already convinced the boss that I was the woman for the job. “You’re going to knock their socks off,” she predicted.

As luck would have it, things quickly went sour. Val and I went out for soup at a Chinese restaurant with plastic tablecloths and too-sweet daily specials that no Chinese person would dream of ordering. I began to weep into my bowl. When Val beseeched me to tell her why, I told her only that the crisis involved my job. “I promised not to breathe a word about this until it’s all sorted out,” I said.

Keeping that promise is my one regret about our friendship. I actually believed that misplaced corporate loyalty trumped my friend’s desire to help me. I was young, 31, but even so I should have known better.

We went on to other jobs and other restaurants. We raised children (her three, my one). We buried parents. We traveled hither and yon. Then we’d meet for a bracing walk in one of Toronto’s ravines, or lunch at Peter’s Chung King, a noisy little dive where the waiters are surly, the prices rock-bottom and the hot and sour soup irresistible. I used to watch for her byline in the arts section of The Globe and Mail, where she wrote, for my money, the most vivid and perceptive piece anyone has written about Alice Munro. In her spare time she somehow produced two books of non-fiction for young adults: The Road to There (an award-winning history of map-making) and You Can’t Read This, a history of lost and forbidden books.

Like many busy women with jobs and families, she often canceled lunch dates at the last minute. She had promised her boss that she’d take care of something or other, or just be there to cover the desk. “What do you mean, he won’t let you grab a quick lunch?” I would ask. “You’re 50 years old, for God’s sake!”

In a business renowned for spite, Val had no enemies, only admirers. The worst thing I ever heard anyone say about her (and said myself on occasion) was, “She’s almost too nice.” She seemed above the naked self-interest, the shameless jockeying for position, the pragmatic but ultimately dishonourable concessions that characterize so much of much of the working world. Quite simply, she was good—loyal, caring and unswervingly committed to excellence.

At first I saw only her graceful, accommodating side. She reminded me of early Mozart, disarmingly lyrical. Late Mozart has an underlying power that suggests the impermanence of things, and the urgency of celebration. In midlife, Val revealed her own power, which must have been there all along, waiting to be discovered. She loved truth and kindness so much that she abhorred dishonesty and cruelty. I remember her advising me, bluntly and vocally, that a certain person was not to be trusted. Coming from anyone else, this assertion would have seemed like just so much media back-biting. From Val, it was friendship in action.

That last Tuesday in November, I walked her home from the restaurant. I wanted to hail us a cab, but she wouldn’t hear of it. Thank goodness: the ride would have been over in a flash. Instead we strolled and talked for a good 20 minutes, with our coats blowing behind us like wings. She had just enough energy left to brew us some tea (I was not allowed to help) and show me her desk overlooking Grenadier Pond. On the desk lay the nearly finished manuscript of her last book, an oral history of Robertson Davies (to be published this fall by McClelland & Stewart). I could tell from her smile that she knew had outdone herself.

I thought we would meet again, or at least speak often on the phone, but her physical strength faded quickly. We stayed in touch by e-mail. Her messages were brief and typo-ridden, painstakingly composed with one hand because the tumour had disabled the other. Quite a few of them alluded to poems she was reading (30 years of friendship, and I hadn’t even known that Val shared my love of poetry). We began exchanging links and quotations.

Toward the end, striving for cheer, I observed that the days were getting longer. How could spring be far away? She responded, “I know there is a lot of pain in this world but I am also gaining a kind of comfort sensing more and more just how vast it all is and yes, spring is coming. As Gerard Manley Hopkins says, there lives the dearest freshness deep down things.”

She remembered details of my life that I don’t even remember myself. According to her, I once dreamed of launching a fiction magazine. Alex Haley has said that every death is like the burning of a library. She would have liked that analogy. After all, she was an expert on the burning of libraries. She literally wrote the book.

When I think of Val, I breathe in the dearest freshness deep down things. I always will.

To read a brief excerpt from Val’s history of forbidden books, click here.



Posted by Rona

Previously posted comments:

February 18, 2008 at 6:06PM

Hi Rona: I’m very sorry to hear about Val’s death. I didn’t know her nearly as well as you did, and I hadn’t seen her for – goodness, is it really 20 years? – but she was the most encouraging and simply the nicest of the editors I worked with in my couple of years at Maclean’s. It’s so sad that her life was cut so short. Your tribute is touching and must have been difficult to write.

All the best, Yvonne

February 19, 2008 at 3:03AM

Thank you for writing this. Our darling Val is on my mind all the time as well; she was, to quote another friend, “the perfect person.” We are all feeling such rage and despair; we are all recognizing the gift of the the time we had with her. Thank God we also knew it when we had her with us!

February 20, 2008 at 3:03AM

My Dearest Ms. Maynard,
Thank you for introducing me to Val’s wonderful legacy. I can close my eyes and picture her laughing and still healthy and whole, while you two were younger. What a beautiful and remarkable tribute to a much loved and admired friend! I am sorry that I will never have the opportunity to know her in person, but I can get to know her through her works. She died way too young and my heart goes out to her children and family. I just hope that when it comes my time, someone will write nearly as loving a tribute for me.
Take care and God bless,

Vera Frenkel
February 20, 2008 at 1:01PM

rnDear Rona,rnrnI\’m immensely grateful for your tribute to Val. Although Val and I had met on occasion in the past, we had the chance during the last year or two to really become friends, and that friendship was so nurturing, I found myself in the midst of our various exchanges lamenting the years that I?d lost. Your long, mutually supportive and loving friendship was heartening to read about and exemplary, as were most relationships — professional, personal, political, psychic — connected with Val. Thank you for letting me experience it through your words.rnrnVera

katherine ashenburg
February 22, 2008 at 3:03AM

Thank you for writing this, Rona. You go to the heart of Val, and understood her so well.

Nicole Morgan
February 23, 2008 at 9:09AM

Je vais ?crire en fran?ais sachant ? quel point Val aimait cet accent qu’elle n’entendra plus. Les souvenirs affluent et notamment celui de son mariage dans un magnifique jardin. C’etait hier et le temps a pass? trop vite. Nous sommes perdues de vue au fil des enfants, de la vie et de l’?criture et des innombrables probl?mes. Je regrette tant le coup de fil que je n’ai pas donn? ? mon retrour de l’?tranger, le bol de soupe que je n’ai pas partag? lors d’un de mes passages ? Toronto.
Ch?re Val, je ne peux que te remercier d’avoir exist?.
Nicole Morgan

Anne Nelson
June 29, 2009 at 5:05PM

Rona: It has been many months now, but I find myself thinking of Val almost every day. The world is different without her. Thank you for your beautiful piece about her — reading it was almost like spending a few stolen moments in her company. We were lucky enough to spend a little time with her and the family at Bala, where we canoed on Moon River and she nudged me into trying watercolors. Fearless, funny, kind, endlessly creative and tirelessly nurturing to us all. That was our Val.

Rona Maynard
June 30, 2009 at 6:06 AM

Thank you for sharing this memory, Anne. If all her friends gathered for a Val-fest of reflection and story-telling, and each of us spoke in turn, I wonder how long it would take to go around the circle? We could never finish.

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