3 min

Meeting across the generational barriers

Edward Kerr
Jun 3, 1931 – Feb 25, 2005

I’m told his graduation picture showed a strikingly handsome young man. I wouldn’t know, since by the time he entered my consciousness, he was “old” and I was young.

Ageism is insidious, especially in those under 30. It only occurred to me that he had the charisma, and tobacco tan, of a stereotypical senior journalist. I felt that his craggy face would not be out of place hovering above an upright Underwood typewriter, wreathed in smoke and whiskey fumes, shouting to someone to “stop the presses.”

No doubt Ed developed his cynical gaze with good reason. How else could he have survived many years spent in the nuclear industry? He worked at Chalk River, where my parents met him in that mythical age “before you were born” – and ended his career monitoring materials compliance with the International Atomic Energy Agency. But along with cynicism, Ed’s sense of humour was equally developed. My mother remembers only one time his gentle humour left him – she’d voiced her assumption that the IAEA surveillance cameras were tamper-proof. His reply was delivered with an uncharacteristically chilly tone, “Never ‘tamper-proof’ – only tamper-resistant.”

It was clear to me that my parents held the Kerrs in high regard – they were always at the top of the “to be visited” list whenever the vagaries of expatriate living allowed our paths to cross. Ed and Margaret, Mr & Mrs Kerr to me of course, never really registered on my child’s mind. They were just another set of boring adults whose visits were good excuses to visit (or pilfer) the parental liquor cabinet. Their kids were older than I was, so we never clicked growing up. (Meeting them as adults, I’ve wished that we lived close enough for friendships to thrive.)

I graduated from high school, returned to Canada for university, became politically active, came out, and became more politically active. Somehow, parents – and their friends and age-mates – became, if not the enemy, at least people to be doubted and ignored. After all, they were “old.” Old meant conservative, stodgy and boring, as clearly as queer meant young, vibrant and desirable.

Understandably, then, I was underwhelmed to hear that Mr Kerr would be in Toronto, and wanted to take the opportunity to say “hello.” Only the fact that running around from protest to protest doesn’t pay many bills – and that he was offering to buy lunch – cemented the date. I spent some time wondering whether or not my parents had outed me to him – and whether or not I wanted to out myself. Might he leave before the bill was paid if my queerness offended him?

As it happened, that busy activist lifestyle caught me up. I found myself grabbing a jacket and running down the stairs to meet him before I’d come to an answer. We shook hands, settled on a destination and did all of the pro-forma “How’s your relative/ job/pet?” questions in what seemed like only seconds. Lunch stretched ahead, and I, imagining an unendurable period of stilted conversation, wondered whether this was really worth a free meal.

It took me a moment to realize that he’d asked a question. “So, what can I do?” I couldn’t quite parse it; what could he do for/to/ about what? In reply to my dumbfounded look, he pointed to one of the (many) political or topical buttons adorning the jacket I’d grabbed. The bright lavender one. The one that, paraphrasing some dead American, stated, “Ask not what a lesbian can do for you, but what you can do for a lesbian!”

Planning on growing up to be a famous science fiction author – I’m not there yet, but, at 39, I’m also still planning on growing up quite a bit more – meant that imagining the unlikely has always been a specialty of mine. Aliens? Easy; Unicorns? Not difficult; Compassionate conservatives? A stretch, but I can do it for about 90 seconds at a time. A more graceful way for a 50ish archetype of the genus straight, white man to welcome the opportunity to share time and space with a 20ish archetype of queer, brown woman? I’ve never managed to figure one out.

Lunch was far too short.

Ed, no more Mr Kerr, drifted through my life (or I through his) several more times after that. He’d be in Toronto, or I’d be in Vienna with one or more of my parents. Of their many friends from the international organizations for which they worked, he was one around whom I relaxed.

On Fri, Mar 4, I was among those both at Ed’s favourite restaurant in Vienna, and various other places around the world, who raised a glass of wine in his memory. Many remember that he spent much of his working life trying to keep the world a safer place in the face of those who would divert nuclear materials to make weapons. As for me, I will mainly remember that his grace and wit made the possibility of tolerance and friendship across generational and other barriers a reality.

God’s speed, Ed, und zum wohle bei den himmlishen Heuriggen!