Grandmothers' Necklace

Two poems, one about each of my grandmothers, have been published in Grandmothers' Necklace, to be released in early February 2010. Grandmothers’ Necklace is an anthology created in honour of grandmothers. Over 60 award-winning male and female professionals, and some gifted non-professionals, writers and poets of multiple racial and socio-economic backgrounds from across Canada, the United States and Ireland have donated gems to it. Joyous and wistful, hilarious and serious, the collection is too rich to be scanned all at once. It is divided into three units: About Grandmothers, Being A Grandmother, and Aging and Intergenerational Relationships. Appreciate it a few treasures at a time.

Pictured on the cover are Gillian Federico, Mary Anne K. Moran, Jean Ostrom, Kathleen Gibson, Dianna Robin Dennis, Jean Turnbull Elford, African Grandmother and grandchild from SLF resources, Judy Maddren’s Nana, Glynis Belec, Winona Baker, Linda Patchett, and Terri Elders.

A few of the authors not on the cover: Phil Callaway, L. June Stevenson, Kathe Rogers, Ann Ritter, Marcia Lee Laycock, Denis Taillefer, Judy Maddren, Sandy L. Hazell, Ruth Zaryski Jackson, C.G. Mordaunt, Ruth Smith Meyers, Matthew Reesor, Carolyn Wilker, and Bella Mahaya Carter.

Through Patricia Anne Elford (a member of the Petawawa Grannies), editor and compiler, ALL profits will go to Grandmothers to Grandmothers, a branch of the Stephen Lewis Foundation, , to assist the grandmothers of Africa. These women aged 40 to 80+ , have lost adult children to AIDS and AIDS-related illnesses and are raising their orphaned grandchildren alone under unbelievably impoverished circumstances.

The first book launch: Saturday, February 20, 2010, at the Petawawa Library, Petawawa, Ontario from 7:00 to 9:00 pm.,

The second launch: Monday, February 22nd, from 1:00 to 3:00 p.m. at The Bean House Café , Deep River, ON, followed by readings, signings, launches in Pembroke, Ottawa, Belleville (Greenley’s Bookstore, possibly February 27th), Toronto, Kitchener-Waterloo and other Southern Ontario communities. Plans are also being made for Grandmothers’ Necklace events in other provinces, in the USA and in Kenya.

Grandmothers’ Necklace Patricia Anne Elford, B.A., M.Div., Compiler and Editor
ISBN 978-1-5542-468-6 Essence pub., Epic imprint, 200 pp $20.00 Cdn, incl. taxes

Where to buy: various independent stores (e.g. Greenley’s Bookstore, 248 Front Street, Belleville, ON; Coates Laser Engraving, 3584 Petawawa Blvd., Petawawa, ON), on-line: 1) , or 2) , 3) The Church Bookroom . More outlets to be announced.

Although the Stephen Lewis Foundation will benefit most from books bought at launches, readings and signings because no percentage is charged for handling, not everyone can get to these events and orders placed on-line will buy a rich read and still benefit the African grandmothers through the SLF.

Monitor the media to learn of other launches, reading nights and signings; opportunities to hear some of the first-class writers, new places to buy a copy or two of the book and help the grandmothers of Sub-Saharan Africa as they selflessly, determinedly, fight to meet the daily challenges.

“According to organisers, Sub-Saharan Africa had an estimated 13 million children orphaned by AIDS in 2006; this number is expected to reach 18-20 million by 2010. Amidst the overwhelming needs, grandmothers have stepped up to take on the care of children left destitute and alone. With hardly any resources, the grandmothers of Africa are at the heart of the community response to the AIDS pandemic. In some countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, between 40% and 60% of orphans live in grandparent-headed households; the vast majority of them are cared for by grandmothers. “

From the Communication Initiative Network

Experiencing Memory

I have been thinking about how I experience my memories.

If I close my eyes, I can picture my old Charles Street neighbourhood as it was in the 1940s. My house is still standing, though altered, and transformed lately into The Gourmet Burger. The urban streetscape has changed drastically. In my mind I still see the row of narrow attached houses across the street, with English basements and steps up to the front stoop. I see the lane behind the stores on Yonge Street. I see the Sweet Caps sign painted on the brick wall far above the little grocery store at the corner. I see the chunky apartment building at the corner of St. Nicholas, a woman tossing coins down to us from the heavy railed balcony. I can visualize different houses on the street, the oversized Romanesque-style Victorian like ours, smaller row houses, and ones with large front porches. I see myself walking to Wellesley Street School, down the cobblestones on St Nicholas Lane, walled with furniture warehouses at the bottom behind Rawlinson’s near Wellesley Street. I even had visual memories stored in my head that I only recognized years later when I was a student at University of Toronto. I would come upon an archway at the end of St. Mary’s Street, a stone facade or a street scene and remember being there as a child. Old photographs whether archival or personal help me to cue and elaborate scenes. Talking to my mother and brother help a little.

My recollection of sounds is mainly an ear for accents in speech. I can be transported back to the rooming house in an instant if I hear a Scottish accent or an Irish ballad. These voices of my childhood have stuck deep inside my head. Other sounds of the neighbourhood can be retrieved when necessary but it is a more conscious effort. Music can be a good trigger for scenes.

I have a few kinesthetic memories of the touch of someone or the texture of a rose petal but for the most part I have to think about these before I write about them. Taking the time to focus on the sensation of touch requires effort for me.

Tastes are not strong memory triggers for me. When they are, the memory is related to a particular scene, e.g. eating a new food, the taste of Ukrainian cooking or my mother’s baking. I almost never eat butter tarts because Mom’s were so good.

Smells and memory do interact for me. The smell of lilacs conjures up scenes from my childhood in a flash: picking lilacs, Sadie’s talcum powder, my April birthday, Dad’s digging up clumps and planting them in the backyard. I think of the smell of spices, the smell of baking, and the smell of certain foods. A lot of memories come flooding back given the right scent.

I experience most of my memories visually, like a little movie projector playing in my head. While this is my dominant mode, I do remember some scenes through my other four senses. When writing, I try to scan all five for sensual details.

Thoughts on My Father

On December 5th my father would have been 98 years of age. In his memory I am posting this personal essay.

Thoughts on My Father

by Ruth Zaryski Jackson

The Priest swings the censer in a wide cross over the coffin and discordant harmonies of the Ukrainian Orthodox service fill my ears. Musty incense wafts into my nostrils as six pallbearers carry Dad’s casket out the chapel’s side door to the hearse which will take his body to the crematorium. I weep as I follow. I weep for my father who has left us finally and forever. I weep for the father I had and for the father I missed having.

On the 21st of January, 2000, during the first sub-zero blizzard of the season, my father died. He’d reached the millennium, but his heart stopped three weeks later. He was 88.

We moved Dad to a nursing home only five months earlier when Mom could no longer cope. She nursed him at home for years as his mind became more and more tangled. Was it Alzheimer’s or toxic metal exposure during a long welding career?

In the end his lungs failed him. A smoker from the age of 10, he’d given it up reluctantly in his 70s when diagnosed with a black spot on his right lung. Years later he forgot he’d stopped, started up again briefly, before forgetting again. The damage was done.

Major surgery prevented me from visiting for two months after Dad moved. I saw him only twice before a flu epidemic closed the nursing home to visitors. Before I could return with his Christmas pyjamas, he died.

Our life-long relationship had been distant. We didn’t clash openly, but rarely engaged. I learned early to get on with my life. I was a baby when he left for 18 months to work on construction of the Alaska Highway. He visited just once during that period when I was 14 months. The family story is: as he was leaving again, I held onto him tightly at Union Station, crying and wouldn’t let go. When he returned he found my personality at 2 ½, defined by my mother and the residents of our rooming house.

Born in Galicia (now Ukraine) in 1911, Dad spoke Ukrainian at home, Polish at school and later learned English. His own father had been absent for 7 years during WW1 then the Civil War which followed, and returned when Dad was 10. As his father attempted to discipline and make a man of him, Dad rebelled, and at 16, emigrated alone to Canada. He never looked back, except once, when he cried upon hearing in 1947, his beloved younger brother never returned from the war.

Dad reported growing up in a “reasonably happy” family with 5 siblings. In 1914 WWI broke out, eventually disrupting his schooling and casting a pall over village life. They dodged flying bullets, billeted soldiers, and hid in cellars. He played war games with friends during the quiet times. In the fabric of his early life, fear dwelt below the surface. The tumultuous history of Galicia made Dad a political animal and, given other educational opportunities, he might have become a lawyer or a politician.

Few early photos of my father survive. On his passport, he appears younger than 16, a prominent widow’s peak above hooded eyes and full lips. He looks determined with youthful bravado. In another, he sits on a dock with arms crossed displaying wiry strength, wearing his bathing suit, black socks and dress shoes. In my earliest memory his hair had already thinned. He remained trim and muscular throughout his life, dressed well when he wasn’t working in coveralls and prided himself on tasteful suits and Daks shoes. He wore a Humphrey Bogart-style fedora during the 1940s and 1950s.

“Eric,” he told my son when he turned 16 “I going take you to buy good suit for very good price”.

And he did.

Dad was fiercely proud of his family, but unsure in his role as father. After several missteps, Dad grasped his role as husband, but needed Mom’s guidance to negotiate the nuances of living. He understood “bringing home the bacon” but left child-rearing to Mom.

“Wait till your father gets home!” she’d warn us when she reached her wit’s end.

I resented Dad’s willingness to strap us on her word alone. In my youngest brother Dad found a mirror image of himself and quickly judged and disowned his son. Despite Mom’s attempts to mediate, Dad stubbornly held fast to his disappointment.

As a friend, his loyalty to those from his village exceeded all expectation. A dying friend moved into their living room and my parents cared for him. My father, as Executor, carefully carried out the man’s wishes, dealing with a resentful wife and daughter abandoned in Ukraine. With his white-collar neighbours, he offered manual skills and connections to the trades. With his grandchildren, he was affectionate and playful, the way we’d wished he’d been as a father.

As I listen to the eulogies, I try to reconcile others’ perceptions with the man I knew. He seems loved by many, but as a child, I often wondered if he loved me. He never expressed it until one day I pressed him, fearing he might not survive an ulcer operation.

He held Old Country prejudices yet in his neighborhood he got along with everyone. Religion was a touchy subject. Raised Greek Catholic, where church formed the basis of village life, he resented Poland’s attempts to convert them to Roman Catholicism. He had a love-hate relationship with Poles, yet some of his friends were Polish. I never knew him to attend church except on rare holidays yet, as death approached, he announced he wanted the full Ukrainian Orthodox funeral service: cantors, incense and all.

When I reflect on my father today, I wonder what of him I carry inside? Physically, I resemble my mother. Inside, I hold some of his tendencies: loyalty to friends and family, responsibility and stubbornness. We also share similar opposite traits: sociable and introverted, nervous yet confident. Perhaps I am my father’s daughter after all.

1984 age 73

A Working Title For My Memoir

This week I decided on a working title for my memoir: Missing Sadie, Missing Myself: Memories of a Childhood. Following the advice of one of Nina Amir’s guest bloggers on, 'Write Nonfiction in November' (she does post all year long), I even added it as part of my email signature. By promoting my book before it’s finished, let alone published, I hope to interest future readers.

Brainstorming possible titles or phrases forced me to focus on my central themes. Was my book about following Mother’s dream or was it about how an immigrant family assimilated? Was it about losing myself or finding myself?

I shared my ideas with my writing group. They gave me their suggestions and I settled on the one above. I like it. The Missing Sadie part expresses my longing for my childhood home on Charles Street, the rooming house with its cast of characters who were like my extended family. The Missing Myself part expresses my feelings of dislocation in the suburbs and how I lost my grounding when I was yanked from my old neighbourhood. These two parts sum up most, but not all, of my story.

I searched for similar titles on Amazon and found very little about 'Sadie', mostly children’s stories, and nothing about 'missing myself'. The wording is sufficiently different to distinguish the book from self-help books about 'finding yourself'.

The title I chose is not too long or too short. It’s not too cute or too weird. It conveys an emotion. I like the repetition and alliteration. The words focus on the important themes in my story and not on the parts I don’t wish to highlight.

My working title may change later. For now I’m happy with my choice and proud to tell people the title of my book.

Barry Dempster Raises Questions

About 10 days ago I attended a workshop with Barry Dempster who is Writer-in-Residence at the Richmond Hill Library. At the end of a rich session on Telling the Truth, he gave us an assignment which I’ve been grappling with. Here it is:

Write a piece of memoir, prose or poetry, using all of the following pieces of detail:

1. A lover you had but didn’t marry

2. A moment when something happened but you didn’t get to experience it to the extent you wished you had

3. Something you’re afraid of, in retrospect. Did I really do that?

4. One thing that you’ve lost that you never got over

5. Your favourite movie of all time

6. Your favourite smell

7. The first time…..

At first I just brainstormed about each of the points, and then I began to see how the points connected for some of the people I’d identified in #1. Then I began to write about one person.

As I wrote, I realized I was writing about an unidentified Turning Point in my life and about someone who had left a significant imprint. I’d never forgotten this person, but until I began to write, I had not recognized their impact on my development.

The challenge of fitting all 7 points into one story was not easy but somehow they came together as I wrote. I’m not sure where this story will fit into my memoir but I can see that these 7 details were not selected randomly by this master of words and detail. Thank you, Barry!

Turning Point vs Story

Last week I participated in a NAMW teleseminar with Linda Joy Myers on Mining Your Memories. Her use of new terms and a unique slant on things left me thinking differently about my memoir. She asked us to think of 10 ‘turning points’ or moments in our lives to form the basic structure of our memoir. Her simple use of the dynamic words, ‘turning point’, instead of ‘story’, suggests movement through the arc of our story. The turning points serve as markers of our progress through events, crises and the climax until we change and the problems are resolved or at least some change is observed.

Using this framework, I mentally reviewed my stories in chapters already written. I considered all the changes that had occurred in my life. I thought about the births of my 3 younger siblings. I thought about special people in my life: roomers who lived with us when I was a child and were like extended family . I thought of the child I was until the age of 9 and how much I changed after we moved to the suburbs. I thought about family secrets revealed when my grandfather died. I thought about the secrets I carried and how that affected me. Now I realize what the theme of my story is and how I need to shorten the time frame and write a tight focused memoir instead of a sprawling life story. The turning points or stories that I choose will be the ones that speak to my theme.

The next step will be to plot my turning points on my time line. Instead of plotting my entire life, I will plot only the first 18 years and see where that takes me.

The Crisis and Other Problems

This week I’ve been bashing on with the first draft of my memoir. Having got unstuck from the transition at the end of the Beginning, I very quickly found myself at the Crisis, the point at which I had no choice about changing my view of myself. The Crisis forced me to leave my carefree childhood behind.

I was jump-started into adulthood, ready or not. I wasn’t ready and resisted by going unconscious – not literally, but in terms of my awareness of what was happening. There was a tiny bud inside me that pushed towards growth and transformation but that shoot was weak at first. Antagonists conspired against its growth. Mostly the antagonists were my ignorance of the facts of life and my resentment towards anyone who tried to help me grow. I always felt they were manipulating me to their own ends. I still resent other people having agendas for me.

Another problem as I was writing: I would keep forgetting what I’d identified, with great difficulty, as my character flaw. I had to keep going back to my notes to remember the most important thread of my story. It still resists being made conscious. If I’m not alert, it quickly slips out of my grasp.

This week the question of the scope of my story recurred. Am I trying to write too much? If the Crisis occurred at age 11 then I need to reach the Climax and Resolution much earlier than I planned. Other people write multiple memoirs. Mary Karr has just published her third and Catherine Gildiner, her second. I keep going back and forth on this point and now I’m back in the camp of shortening the time frame and restricting the story to my childhood. I will keep writing the first draft and see where it takes me.

Into the Middle

After reading Martha Alderson’s article Writers Travel Two Journeys a few days ago on her blog, I realize I’m now clearly in the middle of my memoir. I have finished my freewriting and searching about the transition between the end of the Beginning and the beginning of the Middle. Her tips about ‘the point of no return’ helped me to recognize what for me was the point of no return: moving to the suburbs at the age of nine. I had no control over the move and there was no going back. Much as I’d dream about returning to my home on Charles Street, I couldn’t go home again either metaphorically or realistically. Many things had changed.

I heard an interview recently on CBC with Salmon Rushdie in which he talks about two archetypes regarding home: the dream of going home again and the dream of leaving home or the spirit of adventure. An inherent conflict exists between the two, between the comfort of home and the journey of the traveler. This pull is at the heart of so many great stories.

The meaning for me in Rushdie’s comments was that my struggle was a universal struggle. If it hadn't occurred when I was forced to move at age nine, it might have naturally happened later in my life. But, then the effect would have been different. In that case, I might have put more energy on the opposite side of the coin, the leaving home for adventure side. My story and perhaps my character would have been different.

But this was my history and this is the story I have to tell. The trick is to make it engaging for others by telling the small personal details while tapping into universal archetypes and themes.

My Mother's 96th Birthday

Jennie age 6 years

Today is my mother’s 96th birthday. This post a tribute to her and her life.

My mother, Jennie, was born October 23, 1913, the fourth child but second girl of 8 children to John and Maria Zarecki. Her Ukrainian parents and two older siblings had emigrated from Repuzhintsy, Bukovina (then part of Romania, Austria) in 1910-11.

Jennie loved school and was very quick but left after grade 6, despite her teacher’s pleading with her father to allow her to attend high school. He was flattered to have a smart daughter but couldn’t afford to send her to high school in Ethelbert, just 20 miles away.

My maternal grandmother could neither read nor write and relied on old proverbs, folk tales and sayings, along with the teachings of the Orthodox Church, to explain her universe. My grandfather was literate and taught Mom the Cyrillic alphabet, read to her and encouraged her to read. Both parents went to church when the itinerant Orthodox Priest was there, but her mother attended even if it was the Catholic Priest or just the local people themselves.

The family of ten lived in a two-room plastered log house built by my grandfather on a homestead situated by what came to be Highway 10, connecting Winnipeg to the south and Swan River to the north. Jennie often sat on the step outside their crowded house and watched cars going by. She wondered where they were going, what they were doing and how their lives were different from hers. She longed to find out what lay beyond the confines of Sclater, Manitoba.

Her older sister Helen married at 15 and had six children in rapid succession. Mom was determined to escape such a fate. She wanted to find something beyond the limited horizons of many of her school friends. Although she was attractive and several local men wanted to marry her, she wasn’t at all interested. She wanted to see other places, experience more than this tiny village offered.

In the one-room school house Jennie attended there were 8 grades and teachers, often only a few years older than some of the students, taught on a permit. Being smart in school had worked against her. Frequently kept at home to help her mother against all tears and protests, she was consistently promoted, and skipped ahead when there was no other student in a grade. She started school, as was the custom, at age eight. By the time she was 12 she found herself in grade 6. She had missed a lot of background in subjects like history and science. That summer she decided, under pressure from her mother, to quit school and work to support the family. She helped her mother carrying water up the hill from the spring for wash day, baking 15 loaves at a time in the outdoor clay oven and looking after her four younger siblings. Sometimes she would work out for another family in the summer for short periods until she finally left home for good at 15. She sent money home and later helped her younger sister to go on and become a teacher. In spite of long hours, low pay, and sometimes tricky situations with her employers, she persevered toward her goal of bettering herself.

Like many young immigrant girls, my mother found work with what she knew: housekeeping. There was a shortage of domestics for upper middle class English speaking people who were accustomed to servants, and had the means to support them. After a few such positions around Manitoba and one in Cranberry Portage with an Icelandic family who ran a café, she found herself working for the Mason family in Regina. She liked them and they were good to her. The Masons had no children for her to manage, only a handicapped adult. After a year the Masons drove back to Ontario and took my mother with them. First stop was their summer home in Muskoka on Driftwood Island, then on to a large house in a neighbourhood of Toronto known as Rosedale. Here she cooked, cleaned and absorbed the values of a class beyond her roots. She learned to polish silver and set a large formal table. She learned that individual bedrooms were the norm. She learned that men treated their women with reserved respect. There was no going home now.

In 1936, while working in The Pas, Manitoba, she had met the man who was to become my father five years later. At first she was only amused that he had the same last name as her and her friends teased her that they must be cousins. He followed her to Toronto and pursued her until she changed her mind. She was nearly 26 when she married my Dad and decided to run a rooming house in downtown Toronto. I was born 2 years later.

Jennie gave way to Jean as she matured. Jean was a tall slim young woman with high cheekbones like her Dad. Her fine white-blond hair as a child was a soft light brown now. She had clear blue eyes and a pleasing smile. She was more confident after learning how the upper classes lived and got along with all types of people. In photographs of her from my childhood in the 1940s, my mother appears as a stylishly dressed attractive young woman.

“The cheap clothes just didn’t fit me properly and your Dad thought I should always buy what looked the best”.

She never skimped on quality.

My mother had no experience with a rooming house but at the suggestion of her friends saw it as an opportunity to improve their lot. She quickly answered an ad in the newspaper to rent a house. Rooming houses had to have rules. And rules had to be enforced. There were curfews. Women could not have male visitors overnight. There was one bathroom for the entire house, though the bathtub was in a separate room. No alcohol was permitted. She learned quickly how to judge people and take action. Roomers who broke the rules were out by the next week.

Four months after I was born, my father announced that he’d got a job working on the Alaska Highway building project. He left my mother with a new baby and a three-storey rooming house to look after. At that time my parents lived in two rooms and rented the other 7 rooms to single men and women for between $5 and $7 dollars a week. She did all the cleaning herself and only sent out the sheets to Home Laundry on Harbord Street. My father said he knew she could manage. She knew she could too, but maybe she didn’t want to. A year later he returned for a month’s holiday. When I was 15 months old, he took the train from Union Station to return to his job in Alaska for another 5 months. The family story is that I screamed and held onto him. I didn’t want him to go. Neither did my mother but I don't think she ever said so.

She continued to work hard after my Dad permanently returned to Toronto from Alaska. Instead of putting his money toward a new house, he announced he was going into partnership on a garage business. My mother thought this was a mistake not only because she wanted a new house, but also because Dad didn’t really trust the guy he was going into business with.

"How can you be partners with someone you don’t trust?"

He thought you could and lost about $30,000, not a small amount at the time. She continued working on depositing five, seven or ten dollars at a time into her Dominion Bank account at Yonge and Hayden Streets all through one pregnancy, a miscarriage, then another pregnancy and several surgeries. She was determined to achieve her goal of raising her family in a nice house.

Living on Charles Street was always a temporary arrangement for my mother, a way of moving towards her dream. She never wanted to raise her family there, only earn enough money to be able to buy a nice house in the suburbs. Nice meant new and clean. My father, who had been born in Europe, didn’t really understand. A house was a house. And what was wrong with living in a neighbourhood with others from the old country or other recent immigrants like himself? Mom quietly persisted until she brought him around to her way of thinking.

My mother’s best qualities are that she is always interested in people and positive. She never sees the glass as half empty, has a sympathetic ear for others and always looks on the bright side of life. She had seen the bad and the ugly in her childhood and chose not to dwell on it. She married a man who was essentially good and would never strike her. He took a drink sometimes with friends but never had ‘a drinking problem’. They both wanted a nice family and got it.

Her worst faults? This list changed as I matured and began to view her through different lenses. As a child I thought she didn’t understand me. That was probably true. I was bright, energetic and precocious and she was worn out with two, then three younger siblings and a miscarriage in between the boys. As I grew up, I realized she probably did understand me, but didn’t know how to communicate that to me in a way that I would be open to. As a young woman struggling to be independent, I thought she was self-sacrificing, too anxious to please men, too deferring to Dad. Later I realized it was her coping strategy to keep things running smoothly, especially as Dad aged and developed Alzheimer’s disease.

After my Dad died, Mom and I became friends in a way that we couldn’t as long as she had her role to play. What makes her happiest is being alive to see her family grow up, to have an open relationship with her grandchildren, to meet her 2 great-grandsons in 2005 and this, her 96th, year to greet her first great-granddaughter. She enjoys most being a part of their lives and offering, if asked, the wisdom of a life well-lived. It makes her sad when there’s conflict in the family: between her sister and her children, between her niece and nephew. She rarely expresses anger though I noticed impatience with a doctor who failed to recognize her intelligence and alertness in explaining her health problems a few years ago. She loves most visiting with her family and then thinking about it all later. What she hates most is snobbery, condescension, aggressiveness and the loud expression of anger. Jean, in her childhood, learned to value the quiet depressed demeanor in her father as opposed to his manic violent opposite. She is most proud of her family and their accomplishments and most ashamed of her own father and his abuse of his wife and children. Her secret ambition was to have finished high school and to have worked in a bank. She chose instead to work as a housekeeper and send money home to her sister Anne to help her to finish high school and become a teacher. I don’t think she has any deep dark secrets or, if there are, she has buried them so far back in the recesses of her mind that she’s forgotten and they can’t haunt her.

Jean with her great-grandson Julian April 2009

How I Lost My Voice

I’m thinking about the child I was when I moved to the suburbs. I was nearly 10. I remembered the feeling of 10 for a long time afterwards. I was able to tap into those feelings of frustration and powerlessness, sometimes without even trying. But now when I try to get back to my 10 year old voice, I struggle. When did I lose the ability to transport myself back? What caused me to stop remembering? How did I lose that connection to what’s been called my ‘inner child’? Where did I lose my child’s voice? These are tough questions that I really don’t want to delve into.

I once read the advice: write toward what you want to know using all your senses. I forget whose suggestion it was. So I will try to write towards my child's voice and tell the stories, some of them already written, in the voice of that child. Maybe by writing my way into the character who is me, I will rediscover that part of myself.

I start with the new house and put myself in it. Now what? Just start writing. Something. Anything just use all your senses. Here goes...

I’m not sure when this is. I can see us around the kitchen table. I can feel the vinyl sticking to my legs on the kitchen chair. We're having supper. Mom is standing with her apron on, back to the stove serving pork chops from the old frying pan that fell off the Eaton’s truck on the lane behind our house on Charles Street. I remember when it happened but the boys don’t. They remember nothing of our old life on Charles Street. Dad is chomping away enthusiastically on his food while Jim has just polished off his potatoes and is asking for another helping. I glare at my brothers and Dad eyes me from the other end of the table. Mom doesn’t notice and doles out seconds to Jim. There’s not much conversation just 'pass the butter' or 'I need a spoon'. Mom’s face is flushed and she cuts her meat while the rest of us scrape our plates. No one asks me about my day. No one asks me if I’m happy here. If I offer something about school, my parents listen with interest but only if it’s positive. When I complain about a teacher, Mom runs to his defence and points out all I have to be grateful for. I quickly learn to bite my tongue and keep it all inside.

My Voice

I am tired of hanging out at the transition between the Beginning of my memoir and the start of my Middle. I’ve written pages on various scenes I remember but nothing feels right. It feels like an external description not an engaging story to grab the reader.

I ponder my options.
• Go deeper
• Find the thread
• Omit the irrelevant
• Change the voice

Ahah! The last one: change the voice. Maybe I need to retell my stories in the real voice of that 10 year old girl whose world has been changed irreversibly by moving to the suburbs. But I thought I was using her voice. I thought I was putting myself back in her shoes. When I compare the two stories, I realize how I was mistaken. See sample paragraphs below:

Story 1 as originally written:
I thought it would be nice to have a new house. But outside it was so dusty and the street was a construction site every way you looked. The streets were empty and there were fewer kids my age around. Inside, my mother seemed to be obsessed with cleaning and polishing and dusting everything. Washing, ironing, the beds, cooking. Again, as the oldest, I was supposed to help.

Everything was so far away here. To go to the store for something was a 15 minute walk each way. In the city there was a grocery store just across the street on Charles.

Story 1 rewritten in the voice of a 10 year old girl:
Mommy said it would be so great to have a new house but I hate it here. I can see nothing but trucks and dust everywhere. There’s no one to play with either! They’re all babies here! All Mommy wants to do is polish the floors and fix up her house! She’s busy dusting and cleaning all the time. Why can’t she pay attention to me and talk to me? She only talks to me when she wants help.

There’s nothing here! The stores are so far away it takes me 15 minutes to walk one way! On Charles Street, I only had to run across the street to get something.

The second version comes alive in the child’s voice. I find it harder to write in her voice. The adult in me judges her petulance and neediness. But this is exactly what I need to write, in order to engage the reader’s petulant inner child. I’m going to try it from now on.


I am finally back at my desk after a crazy 2 weeks of literary events, birthdays, getting braces on my teeth (at my age!!) and buying a new car. I have been well and truly distracted from my writing.

When I read back over my last freewriting I realize I was stuck at the transition in my memoir between the end of the beginning and the beginning of the middle. I’m still hanging out at that point. Was the move to the suburbs the end of the beginning? Or was it the beginning of the middle of the story? I don’t need to answer that question right now but what I do need to understand is how significant the move was for me and my developing self. I need to go back over the incidents I do remember from the move and tease out the details that tell my story. For example, I remember phoning my friends a couple of times in Toronto. I don’t recall much of the conversation, just a vague sense that it wasn’t very satisfying. I need to dig deeper here. Much deeper. So back to the freewriting!

Moving 'Fearward' in My Memoir Writing

The idea of moving not just forward but ‘fearward’ in writing is not mine. I first heard about it from a friend and read about it in Barbara Turner-Vesselago’s book. She says to go towards what holds the most energy for you. Even if something frightens or repels you, push through your fear and keep writing.

I try to apply this idea to my present search for a thread in myself, in my development. The thread around which I will tell my story. The thread of the plot i.e. the evolution of my character development in my memoir.

I examine my story and see that a shift in me, even my whole personality, occurs when I was nine, after we move from downtown to the suburbs. So I begin writing about that time, digging deeper into memories and feelings. Strangely, I don’t remember much, but I push on. I am still working on this.

What have I found, so far? I quote from my freewriting:

The things that I brought with me were only my dolls, my clothes and maybe a few books. But so much was left behind: all the furniture, Dad’s courting letters to Mom in the basement, so many intangibles, the warp and woof of my life on Charles Street that I never knew I would miss. The urbanness of it all. The sounds and smells of downtown and the inside of the rooming house e.g., Miss Tweedie’s toast, Mr. Taylor’s oil paints, the sound of coal falling into the bin, the clop clop sound of the horse hooves, the taste of the ice chips, the street call of the rag ‘n bone man, the sound of the street cars in the distance, the sound of the dishes clattering in the kitchen behind a small restaurant around the corner on Yonge Street when they had their back door open, the Scottish accents of Sadie and Miss Tweedie, the Irish accents of the Keenan brothers. The feel of Sadie’s lap though I‘d long outgrown it. The feel of the rough wooden steps on the back porch, the feel of the morning sun on my face, the sound of the birds chirping. The sounds of the other people in the house. How do you know you’re going to miss all of that? You don’t. You take it for granted as the texture of your life. But it is more than that. It is the scaffolding of your life, without which you falter maybe even fall. It’s the comfort of knowing your place in the world. Of feeling powerful in your place. Of having a predictability in your place in the world. I hadn’t tired of it. I hadn’t felt bored. I got up in the morning anticipating the day with eagerness if not always joy.”

What this piece reveals is that I lost everything when we moved. I lost myself.

Character Flaw

This week I’ve been thinking about my character flaw: what it is about me that changes and evolves throughout the story I am telling in my memoir. Maybe ‘character flaw’ is the wrong term. It sounds negative and is not something I can easily identify in myself. Maybe it’s better to think of it as the thread that consistently runs through my life. The thing that may have got me into trouble or stopped me from achieving my goals.

I find I’m in murky territory here. It’s difficult to go back to those times in my life and examine myself honestly. Maybe I have grown a thick skin or buried some of the stories that reveal sides of myself I wasn’t proud of. Was it when I got into situations with bad friends? Was it when I made decisions in school to avoid what I wasn’t good at?

When I think about this, I find I have rationalized some of my failings. To myself I have said: Well, if only you’d had more support, you wouldn’t have got yourself in to this situation. If your mother had done X, then you would have not done Y.

I have also done a lot of thinking and intellectualizing over the years about certain issues in my life. Was I ambivalent about success? Were my feminist values at war with my traditional values? Was I looking for a father figure? That’s not the same thing as connecting emotionally with the issues.

I’ve concluded that I need to do some free writing about these topics and see what comes up on a feeling level and what memories surface. I’m not trying to write a healing memoir but maybe by examining parts of ourselves that we’ve buried, we can get to a more authentic voice in writing memoir. I’m committed to moving forward or is it ‘fearward’?

Plot in Memoir

When I first heard Martha Alderson in an NAMW Teleseminar talking about plot in memoir writing, I was confused. How could a memoir have a plot? Wasn’t that for mystery or romance fiction? I checked her website and blog and forgot about it until recently, when I was trying to figure out how to structure my memoir.

What was unique about my story, in our family at least, was that we lived in a rooming house for the first 9 years of my life. I was the first born and the roomers were my extended family until we moved to the suburbs. A huge area of downtown – 20 square blocks - was my backyard. At first I wondered if I should just concentrate on the Charles Street stories and try to publish that part on its own.

Then I went back and had another look at the concept of plot. If I only did the Charles Street stories, there wasn’t much plot. “Girl grows up: first 9 years in downtown rooming house.” I examined all the readings and plotting tools Martha has on her blog especially The Plot Planner and the Scene Planner. I read all her tips about plot and memoir. I thought long and hard about the boundaries of my story and how much of my life story I wanted to tell.

The Plot Planner helped me to define the time frame and helped me realize that the Charles Street Stories were only The Beginning of my story. Moving to the suburbs was only the end of The Beginning ¼ of my book. The Crisis came later, in The Middle, and the Climax and Resolution, in The End.

I had to keep my eye on this ball and make sure the stories I include follow the plot of my character development and growth to adulthood. Otherwise, my story will just be a rambling mess of little stories that will fail to engage the reader, even my own children.
Photo: My house on Charles Street, 2009

Braiding and Backstory

Prior to taking a bash at a first draft of my memoir, I spent some time thinking about braiding and backstory as they applied to my writing.

The concept of ‘braiding’ your story line was mentioned in an article by Heather Sellers in the July/August 2009 issue of Writer’s Digest. I kept wondering what my story lines were besides little stories I had written of my childhood. Did I have separate story lines? When I started writing my memoir stories, I remember I was confused about whether I was writing one or three books: my story, my mother’s story and my father’s story. Since I was into genealogy and busy trying to trace my family history and compile a family tree, I had a lot of information and didn’t know how I was going to use it. Braiding helped me to think about these three strands as braids, a weaving of the three stories. I just needed to identify the scenes in each strand of the braid that best told my story in a way that came across to the reader as fresh and engaging.

Backstory is another writing concept that spoke to me as I struggled with my braids. I realized that my parents’ stories were my backstory and if I wanted to tell all three I could only do this very selectively using parts but not all of my parents’ stories. All the genealogy and background could go in a family history but not in my memoir. I needed to include only what is needed in a particular scene to reveal important information about the main character(s) and their history. My parents’ history is my backstory, my grandparents’ history is my parents’ backstory and so on. This seems so obvious now that I’ve sorted it out. Thinking these concepts through has led me to another one: plot. And how do you use plot in memoir writing?

"Butt in the Chair"

Today I begin my fourth consecutive day of putting my “butt in the chair” to draft my memoir. After 3 years of writing stories, taking courses, worrying about other people reading my work, I have finally decided to settle down and write a garbage draft of my book, warts and all.
After so much procrastinating, I have shifted to a new resolve: just get it out. As Martha Alderson says: “Can’t finesse that which isn’t written”. Besides the first draft is only a first draft. The job is by no means over; in fact it may be just beginning.

The hardest part for me about getting down to it is blocking out distractions in my life and making my book the number one priority. It required giving my husband a clear heads-up: “I will be writing my book in August”. I had to clear my schedule of any frivolous activities: the chiropractor is ok but no unnecessary shopping. Meeting with my writing group is ok but not socializing with my friends unless it’s “after work hours” or on the weekend. Helping out my kids during a crisis is ok but lengthly chatting and hanging out is not.

Getting into a daily routine was another challenge. I like to arise slowly and putter around before getting down to work. I like to sleep in and work at night. For this month I am trying to follow a plan to get up early, work in the mornings until around 1 pm then read or do something mindless like gardening in the afternoon when I can let my mind drift and let things percolate.

So far I have written and sorted out stories in the beginning ¼ of my book. Sixty pages double spaced, about 12,000 words. Not bad for a start.

Reading Not Writing

In September 2008 I was thrilled to have a short story published by Hidden Brook Press in a small anthology about Grandmothers, called Wisdom of Old Souls.

The first launch was September 29, 2008 in Chapters in Kingston and about 15 authors were present along with some family members and partners. One even came from Chicago. Some authors attended but did not read. Evidently they only write.

I was asked to read last – alphabetical and also because my old photograph was on the cover and I got to mention that in my preamble. The story was very short only 300 words so, when I was asked to read, I was able to read the entire story with time to spare in the 5 minute slot. Nervously, I waited, listening to all the others read their stories. By the time my turn came, I felt quite composed and easily told a bit of the background and read my story. In the audience were mainly writers, the publisher and friends but a few Chapters’ customers wandered by and listened. I received a lot of feedback from other writers about the photo in particular and how much they enjoyed my story.

This book launch was followed by another one a few weeks later at the Stellar Literary Festival in Oshawa. Held under a tent in a park on a drizzly Saturday, this reading attracted only a handful of diehards, friends and writers. Still, it was a good experience to stand up in front of an audience again and tell my story.

A few weeks later WCDR along with the publisher of Hidden Brook Press held another launch at the Whitby Library. The room was packed with about 100 people: writers, family, friends, WCDR members and library patrons but only 8 – 10 readers. Again I was excited but not nervous as I read my story again unaware that my writing teacher Allyson and friend Cheryl had crept into the back row. The audience was particularly warm and receptive. You could have heard the proverbial pin drop as we read. Several aspiring writers came up to me and asked me how I had achieved publication of a story! I replied: “I just sent it in.” There is an apparent gap between those that write and those that get published. I believe the difference is only in having enough confidence to send it in.

Poetry as Memoir

A few months ago I received an invitation from Patricia Elford to submit a piece to an anthology called Grandmothers’ Necklace. As it was to be published as a fundraiser for the Grandmothers to Grandmothers Project of the Stephen Lewis’ Foundation, I was highly motivated to send something. My problem was: what to send? I could write about my experiences as a new grandmother but those feelings seemed too recent to write about. I had already written and published a short story in Wisdom of Old Souls about a woman who was like a grandmother to me. I never knew my paternal grandmother as she never emigrated from Ukraine and died when I was 6. My maternal grandmother or Baba had immigrated to Manitoba from Ukraine in 1911. We visited her once when I was about 18 months but I have no memory of her, and she died a few months later when I was two. How could I write about them?

I had interviewed my mother extensively trying to piece together my family history, so I had stories she had told me about her childhood and her parents. I decided to write a short poem based on a story she had told me about doing laundry on the farm under primitive conditions. The story tied into many feelings both she and her mother had about their lives. I called it Wash Day. After finishing one poem and feeling successful, I thought about my paternal grandmother and remembered an audiotape my sister had done with my father talking about his life. I listened to it again, especially the part where he talks about his mother then wrote a second poem about her called Knowing You. It too felt right so I sent both poems to Patricia, along with photos of my grandmothers and crossed my fingers.

On the 7th of July, almost 2 months later I was delighted to receive an email that both poems had been accepted.

What I learned from this experience was that memories, the basis of memoirs, can be expressed in many forms. Poetry is a great vehicle for short focused thoughts about a person, place or thing you remember from your past or, as in this case, a memory of someone based on stories you’ve heard. It’s all part of your past and all fuel for your memoir. Michael Ondaatje also knew this when he wrote his family memoir Running in the Family.

About My Writers Group: Life Writers Ink by Cheryl Andrews with help from the Others

Our group of five women first came together as participants in Allyson Latta’s online memoir writing courses. (see: Compelled by the support, encouragement and professional critiquing we learned through those courses, we didn’t want to let go. The Memoir Writer’s Social Allyson organized in September 2008 gave us the opportunity to meet face-to-face for the first time.

When Allyson posted an article on, “Start Your Own Writers Group”, I was inspired and forwarded it on to Anahita Printer Nepton, Gail Rudyk, Mary McIntyre and Ruth Zaryski Jackson.

“I know that workshops … can provide inspiration while they’re going on, but that that inspiration can disappear in a poof once they walk out the door (real or virtual). A writers group is the logical next step ...” (Allyson Latta 9/30/2008)

It certainly was the logical next step for us, and the article became the basis for our group Guidelines. We took them to a fairly comprehensive, yet informal and relaxed level and haven’t referred to them since. The extensive discussion process we undertook about the structure of our writing group was the critical element.

We came up with a name, “Life Writers Ink”. Mary (lovingly) refers to us as the Lifers.

We held our inaugural meeting January 25th, 2009. We prefer Sunday afternoons, once a month and take turns hosting. As Allyson Alumni we have slipped into the writing group format with very few wrinkles!
“Every meeting reinforces my respect for our writing differences and how we learn from each other… I gain so much from your ideas. You energize me again to do more heavy lifting with my pen.” (Mary McIntyre)

During our meetings we read our pieces to each other, critiquing upon request, socialize, discuss and swap books we’ve read recently, share news about upcoming literary events and contests, cheer and applaud successes and pry open the door when one of us hits the creative wall.

“I personally enjoy the side discussions that come up about the latest books we have read and information about any calls for submissions. (Gail Rudyk)

Life Writers Ink is about discovering the courage to explore the furthest reaches of our creative sides and providing encouragement as we move toward publishing. Writing memoir brought us together, and the support we get from the group has provided the incentive to investigate other genres. I’m playing with fiction, Ruth has ventured into the realm of poetry and Gail, humorous vignettes about life and living. Anahita is sharing poignant passages from the journal she kept while watching over her dying father. Mary has found the energy to take on a major memoir project about where she really grew up … the family cottage.

“ … (our) varied styles … keep our creative energies up, fueling new ideas/stories … suggestions are fodder that provides … options and directions that we may not have thought about, whether we use them or not. The variety of styles … helps to keep the blinders off so we are free to grow, develop and express ourselves beyond our abilities.”
(Anahita Printer Nepton)

Email helps us extend the encouraging borders of Life Writers ink. Between meetings fresh pieces get circulated and critiqued, ideas tossed out for input, and progress, roadblocks and angst shared. No one is allowed to go silent for too long.

There’s something extraordinary about the camaraderie of our group. The comfort level with being honest and open as well as supportive and critical is way beyond where a newly formed group might be.

“I … feel supported by the group to move forward and overcome my lethargy… our writing differences stir our creativity and make us better writers. Thanks for your encouragement with the submissions.” (Ruth Zaryski Jackson)

We take courses and participate in workshops. We created this writing group and read voraciously, but ultimately we each have to spend the time writing, the best we can, alone in a room, or “… ass in chair” as Margaret Atwood says.

We laugh a lot. We work hard. We are having great fun, and we are all writing!