Brand building through storytelling

The envelope, please

“I knew your mother,” she said. Everything about her was emphatic, from the angle of her jaw to the colour of her outfit, head-to-toe purple. She studied me with blazing, deep-set eyes. “I’ve brought something for you, a letter she sent me in the 60s. I photocopied it for you.”

She found me in the restaurant at McNally Robinson Booksellers in suburban Winnipeg, where I was about to give a reading. My mother came of age in Winnipeg, a tribal place where the locals support their own. She had been a campus legend who scored unheard-of 100 percents in English.

Maynard Fredelle 1939 (2)Of the hundred-plus people who filled every seat, it seemed at least half could recall some connection to the wunderkindFredelle Bruser. They had heard her quote vast swaths of Milton from memory. They had tried to visit her at home, only to be turned away by her fiercely protective mother (“Not now, Fredelle needs to study”). They had watched her fall in love with a swashbuckling professor and painter named Max Maynard. Nineteen years her senior, he had a notorious weakness for ingenues who dreamed of Truth and Beauty. My mother followed someone named Raizelle, I learned before the reading.

If I’d had the inclination, I might have picked up other tidbits of 65-year-old gossip. But my mind was on the offering from the woman in purple, an envelope that hinted of clues to a mystery. The address sticker in the left hand corner identified her as “Mrs. Deegan.” No first name; in her day married women weren’t supposed to need them.

I looked for her after the reading, but she had disappeared. Well, what could I expect? Mrs. Deegan was surely at least 85; she needed her sleep. Come to think of it, so did I. Back home in Toronto, it was well past my bedtime. But I had to stay pumped for an interview with a radio host called “the Night Hawk.” And so I was barely awake when, alone in my hotel room with a throbbing head and a kink in my shoulder, I finally opened the envelope.

I must have read thousands of letters from my mother. Not just the ones I used to wait for after leaving home, but the ones she sent to everyone else, pounded out on the black L.C. Smith with the slightly wonky touch (later followed by her one luxury, an IBM Selectric). My mother kept carbons of all her letters. Well, not quite all. Not the one she wrote to Marion Deegan on New Year’s Day, 1965. So I had never seen what was essentially a life-changing New Year’s resolution.

My mother, at 42, was going to write a book of “little stories” from her early years as a lonely Jewish child in the string of prairie towns where her father launched and lost one general store after another. She’d just published the first story, “Jewish Christmas.” Good Housekeeping had “mutilated” her tale of longing to share Santa’s bounty and finally accepting her heritage of difference. The magazine had been a steady source of freelance income, but she was looking ahead to other priorities. In the book, she would reclaim her voice. She had already chosen her title: The Blue Remembered Hills, after a poem by Housman.

Even as she planned her first sustained creative work, my mother looked back to her lost career as a university teacher. She had run afoul of barriers to married women (especially those with the nerve to bear children). For two hours a week, she taught an enrichment class to high school students in a nearby town. It was a lucky break, since she had no teaching certificate. But it was nowhere near enough. “My deepest commitment outside my family, and my greatest gift, is teaching,” she told Marion Deegan. “I do intensely believe in the importance of teaching English, which is inevitably teaching taste and judgment and tolerance and style in life….I could live without writing; I cannot imagine living without teaching.”

I never heard my mother say that teaching was her greatest gift. I simply understood this to be true. Like all children, I’d been studying my mother since birth. If I failed to read her moods, I wouldn’t have a clue where my next ice cream cone or outing to the mall was coming from. And so I learned the meaning of every shrug and sigh, every flutter of worry across her adored, essential face. My mother was a secret language known to just two people in the world, my sister and me.

I didn’t really need words to tell me what gestures had already revealed. But once I saw her words, I realized how profoundly they mattered. “It’s okay, Mother,” I told her in my mind. “I understand.”

The book my mother envisioned in 1965 would eventually become a Canadian classic (now out of print), Raisins and Almonds. Many people, not all of them Jews or prairie-born, have told me that the book expressed their own sense of difference, their hunger to belong (that’s a lot of impact for a book of “little stories”). The title harks back to a Yiddish lullaby that her father used to sing, “Rozhinkes mit Mandlen.” She worked on the manuscript between more pressing duties: trying to keep her family happy and cranking out copy for Good Housekeeping. No wonder seven years went by before Raisins and Almonds finally reached the stores in 1972.

Her editor, an eager neophyte named Doug Gibson, would later edit My Mother’s Daughter under vastly different circumstances. Since my husband and I had just retired from senior jobs in magazine publishing, I could afford to focus mainly on the book. If I didn’t feel like cooking, I’d run next door to the take-out shop. My memoir was finished in two years and on the shelves in less than three. How my mother would envy me!

When my mother was stricken with brain cancer, a friend called to console me. She had recently lost her own mother, so I trusted her when she said, “Relationships continue after death.” I’ve since shared her words with dozens of bereaved people, and now I speak from hard-won experience.

While writing about my mother, I could hear the clink of her Mexican silver and smell the peppermint tea in her antique pewter pot. I saw her jaunty green fedora with the grosgrain ribbon and the tangle of beads on her dresser. I heard her in full anecdotal flight-teasing, challenging and making free with the facts. Along the way, I picked up nuances that hadn’t quite registered during her lifetime. Her sense of loss was deeper than I cared to know in those days, her anger more corrosive. It’s okay, Mother. I understand.

I could almost believe I had raised her from the dead, but then the inevitable happened. I finished the book, and my mother slipped away again. So I treasure every reminiscence, every scrap of documentation that can bring her into focus once more.

As letters give way to e-mail, I sometimes wonder how people will reconstruct their family story when most of it is lost in cyberspace. But I guess that’s not my problem. For my mother and me, the conversation goes on.

Thank you, Mrs. Deegan.


Posted by Rona

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