Brand building through storytelling

Bringing it all back home

I thought I never wanted to return to the prairie city where my mother came of age. But it’s where she fell in love with my father, and where she used to struggle with her own formidable mother. Now Winnipeg is where my book tour begins. And I’m keen to revisit my family’s roots.

When I was growing up in Durham, New Hampshire, I used to envy kids whose families took summer vacations. They toured Colonial Williamsburg in miniature three-cornered hats, they marveled at the Grand Canyon, they ate fried clams on Cape Cod. At the very least, they went swimming at lakefront cottage (known in those parts as a “camp”).

PlaneMy sister Joyce and I weren’t so lucky. Our mother took us to Winnipeg, where her academic prowess had become a local legend and her own mother still lived. We stayed at Grandma’s one-bedroom walkup on Rupertsland Avenue in the North End. Every night she rolled out the Hide-a-Bed where the two of us sweated and jostled all night. Grandma was a peerless Jewish cook: borscht, blintzes, an array of buttery cookies and the best roly-poly in town. A sampler on the wall of her immaculate kitchen said, “We must eat to live, not live to eat.” As far as I could tell, it was the other way around at Grandma’s apartment. We couldn’t eat fast enough to keep up with her.

Grandma liked to show us off to her elderly friends, so getting out of her place took persistence. We would ride the bus to Eaton’s to cruise the aisles of a real department store that sold lipsticks in shiny gold tubes and shift dresses like Jackie Kennedy’s. (The stores in Durham specialized in UNH sweatshirts.) If we were good, our mother would let each of us pick out a book at the Mary Schorer book store, a place of wonders. Unlike the no-nonsense book store at home, which served the state university, this one offered row upon row of children’s titles, many by British authors unknown to me. I was much too sophisticated to read about Rupert the bear, but I loved the old-world illustrations and endearing Briticisms. I dreamed of the day when I would meet people who ate scones and drove lorries.

Grandma’s friends and relatives waited their turn to host us for lunch, a glistening lineup of jellied salads on a white lace tablecloth. My mother used to dread these occasions: how would she explain Joyce’s bizarre eating habits without causing offense? A few days in advance, she always phoned our hostess with The Speech: “Now, Esther, rumour has it you’re preparing quite a feast in our honour, but it’s only fair I should warn you that the kugel will be wasted on Joyce. She’s a very picky eater. More than just picky, I’m afraid. She eats only three foods: nuts, grapes and plain broiled chicken wings. No sauce of any kind. And if Joyce’s food comes in contact with any of the offending foods, she simply won’t touch it. All the more of your kugel for the rest of us, of course…”

Esther didn’t believe my mother. Nor did Rose or Miriam or Anne. Whoever heard of such mishigas? “But all children love barbecue sauce!” they would say. Or “A wing is two bites, a breast is so much tastier.” Or “A bite of my kugel never hurt anyone.” Disaster! My mother sighed, my sister pushed her plate away. She kicked her chair, hands folded in her lap—until our hostess of the day made a reluctant dash for the cocktail nuts.

Cousin Ernie never tried to wow us with his cooking. He had a more exotic talent: winning giant stuffed animals on the midway at the Red River Exhibition. He was young, funny and newly married to the impossibly glamorous Naomi, whose sleek updo reminded me of Brigitte Bardot’s. Every year they treated us to a night of rides and cotton candy that redeemed the whole trip.

When I grew up and could choose where to travel, I never chose Winnipeg. I had more enticing places to go: the vineyards of Bordeaux, the Costa Rican rain forest, the hill towns of Tuscany. That began to change as I worked on My Mother’s Daughter. The more I wrote, the closer I came to the heart of a mystery. Before she became my mother, Fredelle Maynard was her own mother’s daughter. She named me in honour of her mother, Rona Bruser, an immigrant from a Russianshtetl.

Grandma had only a few years’ schooling; my vivacious, outspoken mother had a Radcliffe PhD. Yet in Grandma’s presence, she grew tired and peevish. “I wish you’d come home more often,” Grandma would say. To which my mother would reply, shaking her head, “I have a home, Mums! Home is in Durham with Max and the girls.” As far as I could tell, my mother didn’t like hanging around on Rupertsland Avenue any more than I did. I used to resent Grandma terribly for the demands she made on my mother’s attention.

So what if she’d had a hard life? I knew the broad strokes—beaten and scorned by her mother, raped during a pogrom, deprived of her husband by Alzheimer’s disease. But hard luck didn’t make her loveable. I dismissed her as controlling and manipulative. Only when I tried to portray her on the page did I realize I had never really known her. Who was Rona Bruser and why did she feel such a hunger for Fredelle’s attention? It was time to find out.

Online, I checked the holdings of the Fredelle Maynard archive at the University of Manitoba. One item caught my attention: a tape my mother had made at Grandma’s deathbed, in which Rona the First reminisced about her youth. I could have asked the archivist to copy the tape for me, but I felt a sudden urge to hear Grandma’s last words on her own turf.

Winnipeg is where my grandparents married, two high-spirited new Canadians determined to create a place for themselves. It’s where their adored younger daughter Fredelle became the first person in her family to earn a university degree. It’s where a firebrand professor and painter named Max Maynard stole Fredelle’s heart. And Winnipeg is also where, in the final stages of pancreatic cancer, my grandmother spoke for the very first time of the anguish she suffered as a child—and had stoically carried all her life. Of all the wounds to her soul, the most hurtful by far was being rejected by her own mother.

I discovered this in Winnipeg. The tape revealed the vulnerable child in the bustling, powerful matriarch. I went home to rework my portrait of Rona Bruser—and to fall in love with her at last.

On Monday, September 24, my book tour begins in Winnipeg. Cousin Ernie has promised to meet me at the airport (Winnipeggers wouldn’t dream of letting family travel in a cab). Eaton’s is long gone, along with the Mary Schorer book store. So that night I’ll be meeting readers at McNally Robinson’s beautiful, expansive Grant Park store—the most inviting book store I know in this country. Note to Winnipeg friends: the time is 8 p.m., and I’d love to sign your books.

One more thing: while I’m away, new posts will continue to appear on this site. Watch for them on September 25, September 28 and October 1.

Posted by Rona

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