Winter writing contest celebrates gifts, life, community

Thank you to everyone who entered our 2018 Winter Writing Contest. This year, we asked you to tell us about “the best gift you’ve ever received” — and you delivered. There were many standout entries, but Evelyn Barsby’s unique and special story, “My Balloon” is our overall winner. Michael Hume’s funny and inspiring story, “Best Gift Ever Given and Received” was selected as runner-up. Both Evelyn and Michael have won gifts sponsored by Ella Minnow Bookstore on Kingston Road and Valentino Assenza, and their stories are printed on these pages. Thank you to our sponsors.

The contest was organized by Beach Metro News, Community Centre 55, and writing coach Patricia McCully, who said, “Thanks to everyone who submitted a story to the contest. I enjoyed reading the variety of stories reflecting gifts that meant a lot to you. Congratulations to the winners!”

Overall Winner: My Balloon

By Evelyn Barsby

It was the spring of 1975 and I was six-years-old. We had been in Canada for four months and I was given the best present ever—a beautiful, multi coloured balloon. I hadn’t yet acquired any toys after having recently arrived with my family with only the bare essentials. A coup d’état had occurred in our homeland and many intellectuals had been taken prisoner by the military regime. My father had been seen as an enemy of the state. After what seemed like a long time for a young child moving from place to place in South America, we had finally come to settle in Toronto.

On this particular spring Saturday, I had been out with my dad at the local flea market to buy some household necessities. As we were leaving, I noticed an older man with a big smile on his face etched with deep wrinkles, standing outside the market with a bouquet of brightly coloured balloons swinging in the wind. My face must have lit up and my father, who had become accustomed to saying no to my frequent childhood requests (there simply wasn’t any leftover money for frivolous things), took out his last coins and asked if it was enough for one of the brightest balloons dancing in the milieu of colour.

He tied it around my wrist and I skipped along, looking up at my newfound happiness. It was a marbled balloon with every colour of the rainbow represented, and I marveled at how beautiful and cheerful it was. I had never seen anything else quite like it. The lines and shapes made from the marbling captured my imagination. I saw a heart and then a tree trunk that led to another flower-like form that lead to what appeared to be a puffy, white cloud. The more I looked at it, the more my imagination found new shapes. I was mesmerized by every inch of that balloon.

When we got to our twelfth-floor apartment, I showed my balloon to my two sisters. At first, I didn’t let them touch it, holding on to it tightly, but soon enough we all began jumping off beds trying to catch it as it would make its inevitable climb upwards. I kept it tied to my wrist on its long tether so I could keep bringing it back down to us. It may have occupied us for hours, as the whole afternoon seemed to pass by quickly, as only childhood time can.

Shortly before dinner, some friends of my parents arrived for a visit with their kids. I drew my balloon in closer once again, not wanting to share it with the other children. I had already started thinking my new possession was in danger of being punctured with too much play and now with the newly arrived interlopers, I hatched up a plan to keep it safe. After opening my bedroom closet door, I carefully placed the balloon inside, tied the ribbon around the door handle and then, ever so gently closed the wooden door to keep it hidden away from prying hands.

I went back out to the living room and fell into the enjoyment of having visitors. Some time passed and groups seemed to form. The fathers went out to the balcony to talk and smoke their cigarettes and the mothers were soon in the kitchen continuing to prepare the meal. Five kids were left to play and entertain each other.

The only boy among us, a five year old, who I quickly deemed an obnoxious brat, had caught sight of my balloon when he had arrived and wanted to play with it. I told him the balloon had burst and we should figure out another game. As we plotted and fell into a game of piggyback rides, my what-was-to-become Nemesis of All Time, disappeared from view. A short time later, he came running out into the living room with my precious balloon. I bucked my sister off like a crazed bronco and ran after him. Finding myself behind Nemesis as he exited the apartment to the balcony, I thought I was too late, but my father was able to retrieve the balloon before it faced its demise. I breathed a sigh of relief; however, my reassurance was short-lived. My father saw the worry on my face, but instead of giving it back to me, he held the balloon and looked up at the late afternoon sky. He called all the kids to the balcony and the moms came out too.

“Have you ever seen a balloon fly?” he asked.

All the kids screamed happily that they hadn’t. My scream was the loudest though. “Noooo!” was all that managed to come out of my mouth. It wasn’t an answer to his question, but a plea to not release my balloon. A mere seconds later, he let it go. Up into the expansive sky it flew and danced away; the breeze carrying it off to new adventures. Perhaps to another little girl awaiting half way around the world, I thought. Tears streamed down my face as it made its way towards the horizon.

“Look how beautiful it is flying so high,” my dad exclaimed. “That is what it is like to be free.” We all watched my balloon float away and disappear as the sun went down.

In that moment, I had never been so upset with my father despite the simple beauty of that single balloon flying off into the distance. It was only years later when I looked back that I saw that afternoon through my father’s eyes. It was one of the first peaceful moments he had experienced in two years. He had been through hell and back. And on that spring day, with his family and his friends at his side, my father had shown us how happy he was that we were all together in Canada, glorious and free.

Runner Up: Best Gift Ever Given and Received

By Michael Hume

On Saturday, September 02, 1961, I smoked my first cigarette. I was 13-years-old.

The pack was hidden in a tin can, wrapped in plastic and buried in a dump used by cottagers on Mazinaw Lake. That may seem like a lot of trouble to go to for a smoke. But smoking required clandestine measures then. What if my mother found out!

My mother, a pack-a-day smoker, had threatened to cut my allowance if she found out I smoked. “I’m not paying for your cigarettes!” she warned me.

Today, smokers are pariahs. Not in 1961. Smokers in movies and ads were suave, cool, sophisticated, tough. The Marlboro Man was the quintessential macho smoker. Celebrities endorsed cigarettes. Roger Maris hit 61 home runs in 1961, breaking Babe Ruth’s record. He smoked Camels, “real cigarettes,” said a magazine ad.

Few places prohibited smoking. Hospitals allowed smoking, as long as a patient was not on oxygen or in surgery. Every office desk came equipped with a phone and an ashtray. My high school allowed smoking in the cafeteria at Friday night dances. Try to imagine that today.

So, back to that dump, out of sight of prying eyes that could rat me out to my mother. I lit up, and it quickly became apparent that something was wrong.

My smoke billowed out in an indistinct cloud. This was not cool!

My smoke did not come out in that elegant, thin grey stream, a look that imparted to smokers an aura of contemplative sophistication and control. Why?

That night, still trying to master the ‘art’ of smoking, I was at a party. Everyone, it seemed, but me knew how to smoke. At one point, two girls smoking with elegance were derisively smiling—smirking!—at my clumsy attempts to smoke with finesse.

And then, a revelation: all these cool smokers were inhaling. Inhaling smoke into their lungs … deliberately! My mouthful of smoke came out as an indistinct cloud; the smoke in their lungs came out with refinement.

So I inhaled … and coughed and choked. Now, a wiser person would have drawn the obvious conclusion: deliberately filling my lungs with smoke is a bad idea. What sane person would do this?

The insanity of smoking is that in willingly filling our lungs with smoke, we engage in a behaviour that we would otherwise know is life-threatening. But I persevered, overcame the choking and coughing and became a real smoker.

At first, I was an occasional smoker. The few cigarettes I smoked were either OPs (Other People’s) or stolen from my mother’s pack—but only if she was unlikely to notice one missing.

Six months passed before I bought my first pack of cigarettes: Pall Mall. (Real cigarettes—Camel and Winston—were not then sold in Canada.) Hiding a pack of cigarettes at home was risky, so I smoked the whole pack over the course of an evening. Several years would pass before I again was a pack-a-day smoker.

And what harm was it doing? In the early ‘60s, the greatest harm from smoking was the (absurd) belief that it stunted our growth. Not true, however!

The Surgeon General of the United States released a monumentally significant report in 1964. Smoking, the report concluded, causes lung cancer, cardiovascular disease and emphysema. Wisdom again dictated that I should quit.

But I was 16 and with that arrogant adolescent belief in my own immortality. Only old people got cancer, heart disease and emphysema. Besides, as The Who proclaimed in “My Generation:” “I hope I die before I get old.” (I long ago recanted that belief.)

By 1972 I was smoking two large packs a day: 50 cigarettes. I was indifferent to or willfully ignoring any effects those 50 cigarettes were having on my health. But two people who cared about me were not. “Do you know you wheeze when you breathe?” they both had asked. They were adamant that I should quit. I said I would.

But smokers lie to themselves and others: “I can quit when I want to!”

Eleven years, 9 months and 28 days after I smoked my first cigarette, I got married. My bride remained concerned that I wheezed when I breathed. I continued to smoke; however, something was changing. My belief I could quit whenever I wanted had been based on a certainty: I controlled my smoking.

But an uncertainty was nagging me; maybe I’m no longer in control. What if the cigarettes were? And I don’t like being controlled.

By September 1975, I’d been a smoker for 14 years. It was time to take back control. That I “would” quit smoking was an empty promise; it was time to say and mean “I will quit smoking!”

My wife’s birthday is September 27. That year there was something she very much wanted. Unfortunately—and I have forgotten exactly what it was—every store in Vancouver was sold out. New orders would not be filled for at least a month. So her birthday present was like my quitting smoking: something that “would” be. And that’s not good enough!

We had a dinner reservation that night at one of Vancouver’s finer restaurants. As we were leaving for dinner, I opened my second pack of Rothman’s, took one out and lit my 26th cigarette of the day. Then, in that moment I knew I had a gift that would keep on giving to both of us.

“When this pack is gone,” I said, “I’ll quit smoking.” (I was too cheap to toss a whole pack of cigarettes.) And I had said, “I will” not “I would.”

Around noon the next day, I smoked the last cigarette in that pack. It was the last cigarette I ever smoked.

Quitting smoking was the best gift I ever gave. It’s the reason why I’m here to tell this story, and why I don’t wheeze when I breathe.

Honourable Mentions

  • “The Gifts” by Gloria Gauthier
  • “The Powerful Gift of Community” by Barb Phillips
  • “Lee’s Gift” by Emma Reid
  • “The Gift of a Cat” by Jacky McCurrie
  • “The Best Gift I Ever Received: My Life” by Sharman Wilson


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