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CanLit's Most Memorable Moms

By 49thShelf
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For Mother's Day, we're putting together a list of CanLit's most memorable moms. Let us know your suggestions and we'll add them to the list.
Roost

Roost

edition:Paperback
also available: eBook
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Why it's on the list ...
Claudia learns that perspective is way overrated.
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Unless

Unless

edition:Paperback
also available: Audiobook (CD) Paperback
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Excerpt

Here’s

It happens that I am going through a period of great unhappiness and loss just now. All my life I’ve heard people speak of finding themselves in acute pain, bankrupt in spirit and body, but I’ve never understood what they meant. To lose. To have lost. I believed these visitations of darkness lasted only a few minutes or hours and that these saddened people, in between bouts, were occupied, as we all were, with the useful monotony of happiness. But happiness is not what I thought. Happiness is the lucky pane of glass you carry in your head. It takes all your cunning just to hang on to it, and once it’s smashed you have to move into a different sort of life.

In my new life -- the summer of the year 2000 -- I am attempting to “count my blessings.” Everyone I know advises me to take up this repellent strategy, as though they really believe a dramatic loss can be replaced by the renewed appreciation of all one has been given. I have a husband, Tom, who loves me and is faithful to me and is very decent looking as well, tallish, thin, and losing his hair nicely. We live in a house with a paid-up mortgage, and our house is set in the prosperous rolling hills of Ontario, only an hour’s drive north of Toronto. Two of our three daughters, Natalie, fifteen, and Christine, sixteen, live at home. They are intelligent and lively and attractive and loving, though they too have shared in the loss, as has Tom.

And I have my writing.

“You have your writing!” friends say. A murmuring chorus: But you have your writing, Reta. No one is crude enough to suggest that my sorrow will eventually become material for my writing, but probably they think it.

And it’s true. There is a curious and faintly distasteful comfort, at the age of forty-three, forty-four in September, in contemplating what I have managed to write and publish during those impossibly childish and sunlit days before I understood the meaning of grief. “My Writing”: this is a very small poultice to hold up against my damaged self, but better, I have been persuaded, than no comfort at all.

It’s June, the first year of the new century, and here’s what I’ve written so far in my life. I’m not including my old schoolgirl sonnets from the seventies -- Satin-slippered April, you glide through time / And lubricate spring days, de dum, de dum -- and my dozen or so fawning book reviews from the early eighties. I am posting this list not on the screen but on my consciousness, a far safer computer tool and easier to access:

1. A translation and introduction to Danielle Westerman’s book of poetry, Isolation, April 1981, one month before our daughter Norah was born, a home birth naturally; a midwife; you could almost hear the guitars plinking in the background, except we did not feast on the placenta as some of our friends were doing at the time. My French came from my Québécoise mother, and my acquaintance with Danielle from the University of Toronto, where she taught French civilization in my student days. She was a poor teacher, hesitant and in awe, I think, of the tanned, healthy students sitting in her classroom, taking notes worshipfully and stretching their small suburban notion of what the word civilization might mean. She was already a recognized writer of kinetic, tough-corded prose, both beguiling and dangerous. Her manner was to take the reader by surprise. In the middle of a flattened rambling paragraph, deceived by warm stretches of reflection, you came upon hard cartilage.

I am a little uneasy about claiming Isolation as my own writing, but Dr. Westerman, doing one of her hurrying, over-the-head gestures, insisted that translation, especially of poetry, is a creative act. Writing and translating are convivial, she said, not oppositional, and not at all hierarchical. Of course, she would say that. My introduction to Isolation was certainly creative, though, since I had no idea what I was talking about.

I hauled it out recently and, while I read it, experienced the Burrowing of the Palpable Worm of Shame, as my friend Lynn Kelly calls it. Pretension is what I see now. The part about art transmuting the despair of life to the “merely frangible,” and poetry’s attempt to “repair the gap between ought and naught” -- what on earth did I mean? Too much Derrida might be the problem. I was into all that pretty heavily in the early eighties.

2. After that came “The Brightness of a Star,” a short story that appeared in An Anthology of Young Ontario Voices (Pink Onion Press, 1985). It’s hard to believe that I qualified as “a young voice” in 1985, but, in fact, I was only twenty-nine, mother of Norah, aged four, her sister Christine, aged two, and about to give birth to Natalie -- in a hospital this time. Three daughters, and not even thirty. “How did you find the time?” people used to chorus, and in that query I often registered a hint of blame: was I neglecting my darling sprogs for my writing career? Well, no. I never thought in terms of career. I dabbled in writing. It was my macramé, my knitting. Not long after, however, I did start to get serious and joined a local “writers’ workshop” for women, which met every second week, for two hours, where we drank coffee and had a good time and deeply appreciated each other’s company, and that led to:

3. “Icon,” a short story, rather Jamesian, 1986. Gwen Reidman, the only published author in the workshop group, was our leader. The Glenmar Collective (an acronym of our first names – not very original) was what we called ourselves. One day Gwen said, moving a muffin to her mouth, that she was touched by the “austerity” of my short story -- which was based, but only roughly, on my response to the Russian icon show at the Art Gallery of Ontario. My fictional piece was a case of art “embracing/repudiating art,” as Gwen put it, and then she reminded us of the famous “On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer” and the whole aesthetic of art begetting art, art worshipping art, which I no longer believe in, by the way. Either you do or you don’t. The seven of us, Gwen, Lorna, Emma Allen, Nan, Marcella, Annette, and I (my name is Reta Winters -- pronounced Ree-tah) self-published our pieces in a volume titled Incursions and Interruptions, throwing in fifty dollars each for the printing bill. The five hundred copies sold quickly in the local bookstores, mostly to our friends and families. Publishing was cheap, we discovered. What a surprise. We called ourselves the Stepping Stone Press, and in that name we expressed our mild embarrassment at the idea of self-publishing, but also the hope that we would “step” along to authentic publishing in the very near future. Except Gwen, of course, who was already there. And Emma, who was beginning to publish op-ed pieces in the Globe and Mail.

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Why it's on the list ...
Reta Winters demonstrates both the boundlessness and limits of motherhood as she struggles to keep her own mind and her family together while her eldest daughter weathers a mysterious crisis.
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Everybody Has Everything
Why it's on the list ...
What if fate delivers you the child you've always wanted, and then you discover that perhaps you didn't want a child after all? Katrina Onstad's novel poses difficult questions about what motherhood means beyond biology and whether every woman is really meant to be a mother anyway.
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Malarky
Why it's on the list ...
Not sure there's a CanLit mom more memorable than Our Woman, whose story is a journey beyond the limits of love, an equally sad and hilarious portrait of motherhood. When she discovers her son up to something sordid out behind the woodshed, she becomes so preoccupied with his actions that she finally drives him away from her but perhaps discovers her truest self.
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Summer of My Amazing Luck

Summer of My Amazing Luck

edition:Paperback
also available: Paperback Paperback

A Novel by the Governor General’s Literary Award—winning author of A Complicated Kindness
Lucy Van Alstyne always thought she’d grow up to become a forest ranger. Instead, at the age of eighteen, she’s found herself with quite a different job title: Single Mother on the Dole. As for the father of her nine-month-old son, Dillinger, well…it could be any of number of guys.

At the Have-a-Life housing project–aptly nicknamed Half-a-Life by those who call it home–Lucy meets Lish, a zany a …

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Excerpt

One

Lish had been a lifer even before the trouble started with Serenity Place. She had four daughters, two of them with the same guy and the other two, twins, with a carefree street performer who had fallen in love with Lish’s hands. Perfect for balls, he’d said, juggling them that is. Now jugglers never make cracks about balls, Lish informed me, they just don’t. Lish knew a lot about the theatre, about working a room, drawing a crowd, about blocking and leading, about the superstitions of theatre people. She had always loved the stage. Or the street, or wherever it is that people perform. She had met the juggler in the hospitality suite of the hotel at which all the performers were staying. Volunteering, for Lish, was a good way to meet theatre people without violating welfare rules, and it was a nice break from the kids. This street performer, absent father of the twins, said he loved Lish and suggested that she join him on the road. He could teach her to eat fire, juggle knives, walk on stilts. He showed her a newspaper clipping of himself from The Miami Herald and the headline was “Magic, Music and Tomfoolery,” and then there was a photo of him breaking a chain with his ­chest.

Just like Zampano in “La Strada,” he’d said. Lish was giddy with the proposition and the free booze of the hospitality suite, and so she agreed to join him on the road, on the condition that she could bring her daughters, numbering two at the time. “Not a problem, not a problem,” he said, “they’ll bring in more cash,” and then he made a red handkerchief disappear up Lish’s nose. And, of course, reappear. Something he himself had failed to do after impregnating Lish in his hotel room that night, while her long beautiful hands caressed his oily back and the hot summer night got hotter. Lish found him irresistible with his sad eyes and his ­world-­weary bearing and silly jokes that in and of themselves weren’t funny at all, but when he said them seemed, at least to Lish, to define comedy. And Lish loved to laugh. What was funniest though to Lish was his utter seriousness about ­sex.

He didn’t say a word or crack a smile throughout, and Lish had to pretend that a snort of laughter she let escape while he focussed in on the homestretch was really an uncontrollable gasp of pleasure. She had hoped he’d think it was her unusual way of expressing herself while in the throes of passion. Snorting. But she wasn’t sure. In any case, it didn’t matter. The next morning while Lish slept sated and pregnant with not one but two of the busker’s babies, he made himself, along with Lish’s cotton purse, disappear for good. Lish said he had left a note that said “Catcha on the flip side.” Can you believe it? Lish said his juggling was much better than his ­writing.

For a while Lish wondered if her snorting had made him leave, but really she knew that it hadn’t been her, it had been the road, and there was nothing she or anyone else could do about it. Some people were just like that. All the road had to do was look up at them and they were gone. Poof. And so it was with the father of her twins. She wished she had found out what his name was, but hey . . . Lish was the kind of person who enjoyed telling this tale to people. It was romantic, reckless. And if the twins asked about their dad, she could build him up for them, make him a hero, a rogue, a poet, a jester. Once I pointed out to Lish that the twins might like more details, some fleshing out of the story, maybe an address or a present on their birthday, a postcard. Lish said, “Maybe. Maybe not.”

I know that Lish still kept a big silver spoon room service had brought up to the hotel room the night she and the busker got together, and the twins, when they were old enough, took turns using it to scoop the natural chunky peanut butter Lish bought at a health food ­co-­op. They’d say, “It’s my turn to use Dad’s spoon.” And Lish would smile and hand it over. Who knew what she was thinking. The older girls had a dad they saw fairly regularly and for a while were willing to let the twins use him as theirs, too. But the twins didn’t want him. They were happy enough with their ­own.

I should tell you right now how I got to where I am: single mother on the dole, public housing, all that. It wasn’t a goal of mine, certainly. As a child I never once dreamed, “I will be a poor mother.” I had fully intended to be a forest ranger. Now I realize there just isn’t enough human contact in that field for me. But then, look where human contact got me. They said I hadn’t grieved properly over my mother’s death. That was the reason I became promiscuous, they said. They said I snuck out of my bedroom window every night because I needed to forget. I needed to forget, they said, because I couldn’t bear the sadness of remembering. That’s what they meant by grieving properly: remembering. Remembering everything and reacting to it and releasing it. There was more to it, but I can’t remember what it was, ha ha. So I’m not proud of it or anything, but it happened. And it’s how I got to where I am. ­Half-­a-­Life Housing. Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, city with the most hours of sunshine per year (that’s another thing they say).

––

Somewhere along the line I became pregnant. With Dill, my son who is now nine months old. His full name is Dillinger. I don’t know who his father is. Like Lish says, if you eat a whole can of beans, how do you know which one made you fart? I don’t think it’s the caretaker at my dad’s church, because Dill’s hands are very big. Those huge hands were the first thing I noticed about Dill. The caretaker, on the other hand, had very small hands. I remember, because after we’d had sex leaning up against the pulpit, he wandered over to the organ and started playing “Midnight Special.” I lay on top of the organ, naked as a cherub, and I remember peering down at the caretaker’s hands as he played. They were small and cupped and soft like a baby’s. So I’m quite sure he’s not Dill’s father. And, to tell you the truth, there were eight or nine other guys I was with at the time Dill was conceived, and most of them have faded from my memory. If I ever did know their names, I’ve just about forgotten them. At least I’ve tried to. And all this because I didn’t grieve ­properly.

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Room

Room

edition:Paperback
tagged : literary

To five-year-old Jack, Room is the world. It’s where he was born. It’s where he and Ma eat and sleep and play and learn. There are endless wonders that let loose Jack’s imagination: the snake under Bed that he constructs out of eggshells; the imaginary world projected through the TV; the coziness of Wardrobe, where Ma tucks him in safely at night, in case Old Nick comes.

Room is home to Jack, but to Ma, it’s the prison where she’s been held since she was nineteen—for seven long years. …

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February

February

edition:eBook
also available: Paperback Hardcover
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Why it's on the list ...
A reader suggest Helen O'Mara, and it's a great suggestion!
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Three Day Road
Why it's on the list ...
A reader suggests Auntie from Three Day Road, another honorary mom.
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