Tag Archives: family life

Guest post: Carrie Snyder on the many stages of reading

Part 7 (wow!) of a growing series on Blog of Green Gables, When Writers Read Kids’ Books. I’m thrilled to welcome Carrie Snyder, most recently the author of The Juliet Stories, writing here about “subtly sharing with my children the joys of literary criticism.”

Nighttime reading at Carrie's house

When I was pregnant with my first child, my cousins threw me a baby shower. One of the questions asked was “What are you most looking forward to about motherhood?” and I didn’t give it a second thought: “Reading to my kids.” I’d studied children’s literature in university, and as an adult shamelessly collected and read “young adult” books long before it was a popular trend. I couldn’t wait to share my love of reading. What I couldn’t have guessed was how many layers of discovery such a simple pleasure would bring.

I have four children, currently ages 10, 9, 6, and 4. Together, we’ve gone through many different reading stages; in fact, our reading patterns seem ever-changing, much like the children themselves. As soon as I think I’ve got something figured out, they go and grow some more.

Jelly Belly bit with a big fat bite, Jelly Belly fought with a big fat fight, Jelly Belly frowned with a big fat frown, Jelly Belly stomped and his house fell down.

I began reading to my eldest when he was extremely small. Too small, really, to comprehend, but I just couldn’t wait. He quickly grew to love books. We often read lying down with him snuggled on my chest, me holding a book with arms outstretched over our heads. His sister arrived 17 months after him, and she was immediately brought into our reading experience. Now we squeezed together in a comfy chair, my eldest bringing me selections while his sister nursed. My son was about two years old when we discovered that he had memorized entire books. He could complete the rhymes in Dennis Lee’s Jelly Belly. He could finish the sentences in Marthe Jocelyn’s A Day with Nellie.

Strange, then, when I realized a few years later he’d forgotten them all. Somehow I’d thought he’d know those words by heart forever.

By the time my son turned four, and his sister just two-and-a-half, I’d ambitiously begun reading them chapter books. I couldn’t resist diving deep into the classics I’d loved in childhood: Charlotte’s Web, Pippi Longstocking, even The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. We read before bed, for half an hour or often longer. When their sister was born, nursing time again became reading time. But when she reached the grabbing age (seven months? eight months?) reading time suddenly became a trial for all of us. The older kids were frustrated by their baby sister’s interruptions and impatience. The baby sister wanted to eat/rip/otherwise destroy the book (her destruction was indiscriminate—picture books were as liable to be mauled as chapter books). And the library went from haven to hell (at least for me). Chasing a conscience-free one-year-old amongst the stacks is a deeply wearying task.

The year our eldest was in grade one, we stumbled over a new trial in our shared reading experience: learning to read. He was flagged at school for remedial help, and at home we worked together every night, deciphering the simplest texts. I would listen, he would read. What I learned was that my child possessed much greater patience than did I. Slowly, slowly, he put letter sounds together, rolling them out, testing them out, inching toward making them into something coherent and whole: a word. One word. It could take us half an hour to read a book only several sentences long. I had a graduate degree in literature, but I didn’t have a clue how to teach my son to read, not when he hit snags and difficulties. That year, some of our happy bedtime reading time was given over to unhappy forced learn-to-read time; and he did learn to read. But in retrospect, I wonder whether the hurry helped or hurt.

The following year, with another new baby added to the crowd, we read through the entire Little House on the Prairie series. What an experience to share these books with my children; I’d read them over and over as a child and young teen—and how very different their flavour when read as an adult. Pa was wilder, a hustler, an unsuccessful farmer and businessman, clearly skilled at getting in with the right people in order to protect his family in rough frontier towns. And how could Ma tolerate the unstable life they were leading? So dignified and graceful—did she regret her marriage? What were all the parts that had been left out of the story? Some of these thoughts I shared with the children while we read. And that became yet another layer of pleasure to reading out loud: Talking things over. Really wondering. Sharing big questions. Making observations, even critical ones. Subtly sharing with my children the joys of literary criticism.

But I’ve also shared with them the somewhat brusquer task of literary discernment. Over time, my tolerance for badly written children’s books has seriously waned. There are simply too many wonderful books to waste time on the ones that melt brain cells. At the library, my youngest children are often drawn to books that feature familiar characters from kids’ shows or movies (like their siblings before them were too, when they were younger). They’re suckered in by marketing techniques unrelated to literary value—sparkly covers, fairy wings, moving parts. I don’t blame them for being fooled, as pre- and early-readers. But I refuse to participate in the fooling. Why pretend a book based on a television character is as rich and wonderful as, say, the simple line drawings and moving text of Arnold Lobel’s Frog and Toad books?

It’s not that I won’t suffer through the occasional insipid Dora, or preachy Berenstein, or write-by-numbers Disney offering, but I choose not to hide my interior editor. If I don’t like something, I will name it. The plot doesn’t make sense. The art doesn’t fit with the story. Or I will ask them to think about it. What is this story really trying to say? What is it trying to sell us, and why? When my eldest was going through a Tonka book phase, around age 4, he loved and would request my made-up version, a silly riffed monologue in which I expressed my intense boredom with the ridiculousness of the text presented on each page. Life is too short not to make it interesting.

I read less to my children now than I once did.

I write that sentence with a mixture of guilt and regret, and pride. I read less to them because our evenings are stacked with extra-curricular activities. I read less to them because I am busier myself and we don’t always have time, or make time. But I also read less to them because they read more to themselves. Reading is so ingrained into their daily lives that bedtime would not be bedtime without a book (we don’t watch television; that is not how they’ve learned to unwind). The older ones go to their own beds with their own books. Very recently, the two youngest, who share a room, have begun reading together before lights-out—the big sister reading to her little brother. And he has just begun memorizing and sharing books, “reading” to us, painstakingly pointing to the words as he says them.

A few more lovely things about this stage we’re currently in (I will write them down quickly, before it all changes once again). One is that if I pick up a picture book and sit down with the younger children, the older children drift in to listen too. By the end of a good reading session, going through the library bag, there will be five of us squished together on the couch. I love that being read to is a pleasure my children have yet to outgrow; I hope they never will.

The other is hearing one of my children say, “I don’t know what to read,” or even, “Mom, what should I read?” What joy to go to our shelves—filled with books that I’ve collected over many years, many of them pre-dating my children—and to search for a match. What deep soul-soothing happiness to find the perfect book to answer my child’s need at this moment in his or her life. It’s like being asked for advice that I feel qualified to give. And that’s a relief. Because when it comes to parenting, I’m swimming in the dark and probably always will be. Books—now books, I know.

Carrie Snyder is the author, most recently, of The Juliet Stories, published by House of Anansi. She lives in Waterloo, Ontario, with her husband and four children where she writes, cooks, runs, and reads. She blogs as Obscure CanLit Mama.


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School of dark socks, school of dark thoughts

grade 1

Dark socks hide the dirt, but might make for sad expressions

School was a long time ago now for me, as the picture attests. But somehow, every year, the back-to-school feeling twists in my belly. The smell in the air at this time of year; the end-of-summer breeze; the flowers forming their seedpods. Everything reminds me.

Zipping up my daughter’s stiff new pencil case takes me backwards in time and makes me think of the dark socks I wore when I really wanted white ones, and the chemical smell of the Xeroxed handouts with number puzzles on them that I didn’t understand. Too afraid to say, convinced I was already supposed to know, convinced, also, that I would never know, and everyone else would.

The back-to-school anxiety is a hard one for kids to figure out, because it is such a mix of nervousness and sheer excitement. The year (which really does begin in September) is wide open with possibility. At breakfast on the first day, my daughter asked, “What does nauseous mean?” And then when I answered, she said quietly, “I think I might be that.”

A few minutes after our discussion, my daughter went upstairs to brush her teeth, and my husband came down. He is a teacher, and has been one for many years. But between bites of toast and sips of coffee, he grimaced and said, “I’m nervous.” Later still, I heard from a friend who teaches at the graduate level, and she, too, confessed her queasiness. On a certain level, she said, it was performance anxiety. But it went deeper than that too — back through the fogginess of déjà vu to that more specific memory of school jitters. The years of schooling are so ingrained in us that the feeling never really leaves.

As a reader and speaker, I can relate to performance anxiety, and I know that if it doesn’t paralyze you, it can actually spur you on. But at a more basic gut level, I can also relate to my “nauseous” daughter, and everyone heading back to school. School puts us in a context: us among them. We stand out so strongly to ourselves that we can’t possibly imagine how we will fit in. The questions spin, and tangle with our nerves. What will they think of me, how will I know where to line up, what if I have to go to the bathroom, what if I need a partner and no one wants me, why do I have to wear dark socks, what’s in my sandwich and why isn’t anyone else eating yellow jam? One more question comes to mind. Why are we so afraid of each other?

I think the best definition of courage comes from L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. (I loved this book as a child, but have to admit as an adult that the movie is even better.) When the Cowardly Lion finally finds himself in front of the wizard, he still doesn’t realize he’s had what he seeks all along. “There is no living thing that is not afraid when it faces danger,” the wizard tells him. “The True courage is in facing danger when you are afraid, and that kind of courage you have in plenty.”

Dorothy meets the Cowardly Lion, from the first edition, 1900, by WW Denslow

Dorothy meets the Cowardly Lion, from the first edition, 1900, by WW Denslow


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Open here and start

writeI recently rediscovered a pile of old stories and drawings I’d made when I was about the age my daughter is now. She, too, loves to make “books,” and whenever we end up in a conversation with someone about the fact that I am a writer, she pipes up, “I’m a writer too.” Sometimes we take one of her homemade books to the library, and sneak it on to a shelf, as in Daniel Kirk’s Library Mouse, in the hopes another reader will discover and enjoy it. It strikes me that she is very conscious of the book itself, not just the story it contains. She’s aware of the author and, when applicable, the illustrator. She talks about the cover and the flap that protects it (and wraps her own creations in plastic so they won’t stand out from the rest on the shelf); she’s aware of the chapter titles and the page numbers, and she loves bookmarks.

Some of my own first books contain instructions:

bk1before moving into the actual world of the story. This particular example comes from my version of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Ugly Duckling, and it’s interesting for me to see that such a story continued to fascinate me for decades. One of these days I will post a more updated version of The Ugly Duckling, about a boy who runs away from home. But for now, here is my first try, circa 1972.



bk4I love the line “it wasn’t a chicken at all” — actually I used it again later, but more about that another time. I also love the red checkmark at the end — how good it must have felt to see that. The equivalent of a great review these days, or a kind letter from a reader.

Lately, as September approaches, I’m excited for my daughter to start Grade One and be in school full time. She is in for so many adventures, and I get to watch all of that unfold. September has that odd mix of beginning and ending about it — a melancholy feeling and a wide open sense of possibility at the same time. It’s strange how that lasts, for so many people, into adulthood.

I’m looking forward to my own “open here and start” when she is off to school, too. Although I’ve written all through the last six years, I’ve had to use pockets of time and wee hours (again, like Library Mouse, who works through the night in the school library, experimenting with various genres). I remember cradling my newborn on my lap while I tinkered on the last drafts of Origin of Haloes. And nearly falling asleep at my desk during The Occupied Garden. Now the days will be clear and consistent; structured. But as is the way with milestones, there is something lost here too.



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Inspiration? Fred Flintstone, I think I owe you…

Mary with a transport roaring by

Mary with a transport roaring by

A good friend tells me she credits her Catholic upbringing for her decision to become an artist. Though Catholicism is not a part of her adult life, it loomed large in her childhood, and she was in awe of the stained glass images in her church, and later the biblical images that form such a vital part of art history. I understand this a little, though as an outsider. I love many of those images too, the grand ones and also the humbler ones. My husband and I were taken with a TransCanada Highway madonna we spotted some years ago, somewhere between Mattawa and North Bay. We snapped dozens of pictures of it.

But I think in all honesty that what drew me to the sight — what prompted me to want so many pictures of it — was the landscape around as much as it was Mary. The landscape of my childhood has been one of my biggest inspirations.

Deep River

A while ago another friend told me he believed he’d become a writer because of his Christian upbringing, steeped in Old Testament stories and psalm singing. He remembers being transfixed as his father read the stories aloud, and wanting to shout out to warn one character about another.

After these two friends revealed their thoughts to me, I got to thinking about about inspiration. This man’s siblings did not become writers, and the woman’s siblings did not become artists. What makes one sibling hang on every word of a dramatic story, or gasp at brilliant stained glass, while the others find their passions elsewhere? And what made me become a writer?

Religion was more or less absent from my home, but I remember the lurching feeling my writer friend talks about, because I had it too, though I experienced it reading children’s books and playing games and watching television shows and playing Barbies alone for hours on end. When I look back, I see this as the beginning of my love for storytelling, and my curiosity about the way the layers of stories unfold.

I remember feeling sick watching The Flintstones. The half-hour stretches were almost unbearable, partly because Fred’s meanness disturbed me, but also because the episodes always revolved around a misunderstanding — such as when Barney bought a ring for Betty, Fred hid it for him so it would be a surprise, and Wilma found it and thought it was for her. It was agonizing to watch, since I could not see my way through to the inevitable resolution before it actually came. Even the music that opened the show gave me that gnawing in the pit of my stomach that told me something was about to go very, very wrong.

None of this meant I didn’t want to watch — it meant I needed to watch, to see the story come full circle.

And I would imagine my own stories too, both by writing them down and acting them out with Barbies. I mentioned in an earlier post that I liked to play on my own because it gave me the freedom to take the story in any direction I chose. I took it very, very seriously. In a sense, I guess my days now, tucked away in my office writing, are a logical extension of those earlier times.

Writer's Room by Jeff Winch

Writer's Room by Jeff Winch

And that reminds me of Charles Darwin, who tells in his Autobiographies of his boyhood love for beetles. “I will give proof of my zeal: one day, on tearing off some old bark, I saw two rare beetles and seized one in each hand; then I saw a third and new kind, which I could not bear to lose, so that I popped the one which I held in my right hand into my mouth. Alas it ejected some intensely acrid fluid, which burnt my tongue so that I was forced to spit the beetle out, which was lost, as well as the third one.”

Some of us find our passions early, and I feel lucky to be in that group. I knew from a young age that I wanted to write, and so I wrote — very badly at first, for a long, long time (sometimes still). But I didn’t stop. I was always hooked. It wasn’t enough for me to read other people’s stories; I had to make my own.

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The view from inside the photograph


My husband, daughter and I were among the many subjects who posed for Regular 8, a new series of photographs by Sara Angelucci, shown as part of Contact 2009 at Wynick/Tuck Gallery here in Toronto. What a thrill it was to be part of this process, since for us it was recreational: we were playing dress-up and wandering around in beautiful locations, and also having a good old-fashioned family outing.

The series pays homage to the home movies of the 1950s, when middle-class families took to capturing their memories in motion, on 8-mm film. These staged scenes, though, are frozen moments replicating the end of the filmstrip, which in those days was punched with a Kodak number to identify the film. The numbers were made up of dots that show white and luminous on the resulting image. As Sara writes, they point to many things: “stories and people who are long forgotten; the invention of the image of the happy family within the staging of films; a time and technology which have passed; and transcended cultural values.”

As a frequent model for these shoots, I saw the photographs, in a sense, from the inside, and was struck by the way dressing up in the clothes of another era affected me and the people around me. I carried myself differently in these outfits. I felt more delicate, more refined, also strangely precarious – as if I was holding myself together, less like June Cleaver than Kim Novak in Vertigo. Someone with something to hide.

The image above shows four of us at Niagara Falls, and you would never guess, looking at it, that there were hundreds of people around us, dressed in modern clothing, and gawking at us as we held on to our fancy hats and traipsed along in pinching shoes (largely supplied, by the way, by the quintessential vintage shop Cabaret, whose owners Tao and Elizabeth helped Sara style her shoots). A teenage girl kept smiling at us, and finally worked up the nerve to ask, “Excuse me, are you from England?” I laughed and answered, “No, we’re from the 1950s.”

What does it mean to be from another time? For me it really felt like that. There at the edge of the Falls, we were from the 1950s – we were just visiting, as if by time capsule. We had somehow come and been deposited here, in a small, contained bubble, separate from the rest. The curls of the wrought iron behind us, the sound of the Falls, the fine mist cooling our skin – so many people have these images of Niagara Falls in their family albums. In fact, my husband looked just like his father that day, suited in the hot sun, shoes polished, face whisker-free. He absent-mindedly jingled the change in his pocket, something he never does. There’s an idealism to these photographs, cut through with sadness. These are lost moments, which the camera can’t wholly recapture – but the failure to capture is also what makes them so riveting.

Another one of the participants, artist Suzy Lake, recalled that the dress she wore evoked memories. “Sara picked out only one dress for me to try on. I loved it.… And then during the shoot, the dress reminded me more and more of my mother. My hair was curled like hers, so brushing it out began to trigger more of an identification. Looking at my hand with red nail polish holding the wine glass was both her hand and mine. I was quite young then [in the 1950s], so it was spooky how much I remembered, that wasn’t remembered through photographs.”


The act of being in the photograph is different than looking at the photograph. I remember the day we went skating – there must have been eight or ten of us there that time. Sara had to find a rink without boards and plexi-glass, so the location would look authentic. She was meticulous in choosing not just our dress but the surroundings. We gathered at her house beforehand, and got in costume. And then going out into the day, in downtown Toronto, that bubble formed around us again. I recall being surprised by that – it’s always seemed to me that here you can wear anything and not look terribly out of place, but that isn’t actually true. En masse, we looked different. We went in the early morning, hoping there wouldn’t be too many skaters, but we needn’t have worried, because people gave us space. It was as if with our arrival a boundary formed down the centre of the rink, and our half belonged to another era. It was a sunny, gorgeous, late-winter morning. I remember a woman standing at that imaginary border, watching us. She shook her head and said, “You all look so beautiful.” She must have been witnessing that same sorrowful kind of beauty that emanates from the finished images of Regular 8.


Anne Fauteux, who appears in several of the series’ photographs, recalls getting ready for each shoot, and going out into the streets in character. “It was just like I was out of another time, another reality. Of course, I couldn’t refrain from catching my reflection in the windows, and was so thrilled to see the anachronism with the environment and the other passersby.”

Playing with clothing this way reminded many of us of the power of dress-up. I think of my childhood mornings in front of the legendary Mr. Dressup, and how he could pull whatever was required from his Tickle Trunk – each item the right size, the right style for that particular day, which meant the trunk had to be bottomless. It had magical qualities, but so did Ernie Coombs, in his bow tie and spectacles, a man deservedly adored by generations of Canadian children. His show was simple, with songs, stories, and crafts, but the trunk played a key role; the clothing it contained allowed new worlds to open within the television screen, and so within our own living rooms.

“I used to be a costume designer and a seamstress,” says Anne, “so playing with clothing for characters brought me back in my old shoes – and someone else’s.” It took her further back too, to a time when she would dress up as a different character every morning for school and her fellow students would wonder if she’d be a Russian doll, a genie, or a cowgirl that day. Sara’s project returned her to that state of mind and emotion. And you can see in the images how she loves it, beaming for the camera in flowered bathing cap and lipstick. But this is an honest staging too, as much as it is Anne posing, because we instinctively perform for the camera and for posterity, wanting to be held in time for others to see us just the way we see ourselves.


My husband, Jeff Winch, is also a photographer, and more comfortable behind than in front of the camera. “An interesting thing happens to me when I’m the subject: I become aware of my skin and muscle and, basically, my entire body. I rarely feel that way. I start to think, ‘Am I standing the right way?’ ‘Am I doing the right thing?’ ‘What should I be doing?’”

From his own experience, he knows that the person behind the camera has brought many elements into the frame in search of a perfect image. Sometimes they struggle to get the “moment” on film, and sometimes it comes effortlessly. An actor/participant can help or hinder this process – it’s a delicate relationship. “So I’d watch Sara,” Jeff says, “to see if I could read the shoot’s progress in her face. Does she seem happy and focused? That means it’s probably going well – or does she seem a bit stuck, not sure what to do to reach that moment. If so should I offer to pick up my daughter and point at something in the garden or should I just do it? Maybe I should throw a rock in the lake and if she likes it she’ll ask me to throw another – or take my hat off and scratch my head.”

Catherine Sicot, another participant in one of the group shots, recalls how “natural performers come forward in these situations – people take on personas and throw something out that leads the dance,” and for a while they all go on, knowing Sara is likely getting great material, and then little by little those moments fall away. “You could feel when there was nothing special or interesting happening, and then someone would try something, and it would start again.”

The questions whirl on the subject’s side of the lens – but that’s just the way it works in home movies too, and snapshot photography. As subjects we are participating, picturing ourselves through the lens. Our awkwardness, our self-doubt, our affectations are vital parts of the process.

Sara says the series developed from her love for both photography and film in their vernacular form – in that sense, this work fits well with her other projects, which mine the family archives, but as Catherine Sicot points out, there is an interesting difference here: with this new, staged series, “Sara is working backward. Not using archival images, but creating fake archives – also a fake medium. We see it as if it’s a portion of film, with the frames above and below showing, but these are photographs pretending to be film. And then they are also pretending to be damaged [stamped]. So the work is quite complex on many levels.”

In Sara’s words, each stilled narrative is “a moment on its way to becoming another moment…. One can linger over them, examine their contents, the relationships within them, the passing values, and witness a sense of longing and loss.”

The compelling photographs that make up Regular 8 can be seen at Wynick/Tuck Gallery, 401 Richmond Street West, from May 9 to June 13, 2009.


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On memoir: "As if I were a dead man in another world…."

Charles Darwin, 1816

Charles Darwin, 1816

For a mish-mash of reasons, lately I’ve been reading Charles Darwin’s Autobiographies, which he never intended for public view, but rather for his family. It’s a slim little book, full of asides that give wonderful insight into his character — and also sage advice for writers of memoir.  It begins:

A German editor having written to me to ask for an account of the development of my mind and character with some sketch of my autobiography, I have thought that the attempt would amuse me, and might possibly interest my children or their children. I know that it would have interested me greatly to have read even so short and dull a sketch of the mind of my grandfather written by himself, and what he thought and did and how he worked. I have attempted to write the following account of myself, as if I were a dead man in another world looking back at my own life. Nor have I found this difficult, for life is nearly over with me. I have taken no pains about my style of writing.

When my sister and I were writing The Occupied Garden, we often used personal accounts and diaries in our research — but what we would have given to have found such a document within the family! We were very often frustrated by the fact that we didn’t know what had happened on a given, dramatic day, and it was SO tempting to make something up, as is allowed and expected in fiction. And we would often joke with each other, “Oh didn’t I tell you? I found Oma’s diary….” A little magic book that explained everything and contained the family’s deepest secrets.

Of course such books, when they do exist, are usually not terribly dramatic. That doesn’t make them less fascinating. Wrapped up in our familiar lives, we often forget that what is ordinary to us might be of great interest to our children and grandchildren and so on. Old letters and documents and autobiographical musings from one’s family can be just as mesmerizing as old photographs.

For some years, my mother has been working on her life story — not a book to put out into the world, but to leave behind for us. Of course it’s for her too, and I’m sure the process is immensely gratifying. I get the impression that she enjoys delving into her memory this way, and digging up what she can about the street she grew up on, the school she attended, and the time she chopped the heels off a pair of  pumps to make fashionable flats, and to her dismay, the toes stuck up. I love the infinitesimal details, pragmatically recounted: how much it cost for a hair cut, and what route she and her siblings took when Great Uncle Ernie led their bike-riding excursions.

The internet is overflowing with how-to sites about memoir-writing, geared to the “non-writer” (whose work, while valuable on its own, can often be a gold-mine for the professional writer). In my opinion, excellent advice can be found at Days Road Writers’ Workshops.


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What are you afraid of?


Last night my daughter asked me, “Are grown-ups afraid of anything?” I had just finished reading an article on post traumatic stress disorder, and the story of a war-zone toddler terrified into silence was swimming in my mind. His mother recounted what had happened to him — how he had been mute since the day he saw soldiers kill his father — and in her numb retelling of the events, it was obvious that she was traumatized too, both because of what had happened to her family and because of her son’s ongoing condition. His silence was a constant reminder of her inability to protect him.

But the question remained. “Mom, are grown-ups afraid of anything?” I answered in bits and pieces. To my surprise, it was easy for me to rhyme off other people’s fears. A cousin who is afraid of spiders. An opa who hates heights. An aunt who cowers at thunder and lightning and another at the sound of bagpipes (this last proved curious enough to provide a temporary diversion).

But finally, “Mom, what are you afraid of?” I couldn’t think of anything I wanted to admit to. And then she asked, “What am I afraid of?” And we talked about that for a long time, lying in her dark room. Inwardly I realized her fears are much like my own, but expressed differently. I remember a time she was given a balloon and wouldn’t let us tie it to her wrist as we walked along the street, and of course eventually her grasp loosened, and the balloon lifted up, soaring higher and higher, an irretrievable speck of blue. Until that point, we had never heard her cry so hard.

“That’s not being afraid,” she said, and I gave her the point, but secretly I disagreed. The balloon is a moment, here now, and then gone.mother-daughter2


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Strength, tenacity, and the stranger you know

img-behind-coreng1Last night we did a talk about The Occupied Garden. Our middle sister, Heidi, came along with us. A lot of people say she looks strikingly like Oma in this particular picture.

Had she lived, Oma would have celebrated her 10oth birthday in January, so it’s interesting to see how some sense of her stays alive through this book, but also through the simple fact of a granddaughter looking like her grandmother.

Heidi told me a story just the other day, of an encounter she’d had with a woman who looked so much like Oma that she felt compelled to say something. And when she spoke to the woman, she discovered that the woman was not only Dutch, but had come to Canada in the 1950s, as Oma had. “Just Dutch genes working their magic,” H wrote. I love those moments of familiarity with strangers — sometimes it’s less obvious what the connection is, but you feel it in your bones. As if you know the person.

I’m continually amazed by the stories I hear about women of Oma’s generation. As a child, I had known my grandmother as a reserved, strictly religious woman with a tight bun, big nose, and tube-like polyester dresses. I was astonished to find she had the strength, tenacity, and courage I can only dream of. And hers is only one story.


Oma in Canada, 1951

A while ago I got an email from a man who said that his mother had read our book and wanted to talk to us. “She doesn’t have email,” he said, “because she’s 93. But could you call her?” The conversation we had was lovely. She told me she had lived in Amsterdam during the war, and that she’d given birth to the son who’d written to me by the light of one candle late in the hunger winter. “It’s amazing we both survived,” she said, and I told her how I just couldn’t imagine what that must have been like – that as easy as my life is, comparatively speaking, I was a little paralyzed by motherhood for that first bit. I could hear her shrugging.

“You just do what you need to do,” she said. “You just keep on.” She told me that during the war she had seen people dragged from their houses, crying and screaming. “That’s a sight I won’t ever forget,” she said.

And it struck me that these are the reasons we need to tell stories of all kinds: to put the world in perspective for each other.


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