Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Things that are sent to vex you

My grandmother used to say that "some things are sent to vex you." I never understood what she meant when I was a child, but as an adult and a mother, I now know exactly what she means.

For example:

  • On Labour Day weekend this year, I was in provisions mode, intent on making big batches of chili, muffins and baking to put in the freezer. Our stove element burned out on Sunday evening, leaving me without a stove until we could replace it on Tuesday. It was clearly something sent to vex me.
  • When summer camp ended in September, my previously fully toilet-trained daughter regressed, in part due to a sustained hissy fit that summer camp was over. She returned to relieving herself in her clothes rather than on the toilet, which triggered another round of peeing by my anxiety-ridden black cat. (See All About Pee) We are only now getting back on track, and I still haven't put her back in big girl panties, but we have progressed to training pants again. It was something sent to vex me.
  • On the weekend, we did a few loads of laundry, and I headed outside to pin it on our clothesline. The wind was quite strong, and blew dust into my eye. I went in the house for a minute to try to get the dust out of my eye, and when I returned, the wind had blown our umbrella-style clothesline inside out, collapsing it and throwing the clean but wet clothes on the ground. It was something sent to vex me.
  • And this morning...I have 3 articles due at the end of April, and I'm stymied on finding a couple of simple statistics, and am writing while waiting for permission to quote from a text that is the basis for one of the stories. Tuesday and Thursday mornings, my daughter attends pre-school, and I usually have a good 2 hours of writing time. Today, however, I had to sing at a funeral at our church after dropping my daughter at pre-school. I arrived in time for the funeral, only to find the parking lot full, so I parked on the street. I opened the driver's door, locking it as I went like always, and grabbed my purse and music bag of books to pull them across the passenger seat, the stick shift and the driver's seat to get them out of the car. I had already thrown my keys in my purse...and then decided to go around to the passenger side to retrieve my purse and books from that side...so I closed the door and started to walk around, realizing a nanosecond later that my door was locked...and the keys were in my purse instead of in my hand. I was the cantor at the funeral, and my books, purse, and most important at the moment, my glasses were locked in the car, with my cell phone. I had to leave in an hour to pick up my daughter from pre-school... As I tried to stave off the meltdown, I sprinted up to the choir loft, borrowed my friend's cell phone, and then called my husband to come and unlock the car while I then composed myself to sing the solos. My arms were almost too short to read the music...but St. Cecilia, patron saint of musicians (and apparently, absentminded, busy moms), came through for me and I was able to sing the music adequately. My husband arrived a few minutes later to spring my purse from the car...I'm usually so careful about making sure that my keys are in my hand before I close the door, but I was preoccupied with the other vexing issue of finding the elusive statistic...it was a momentary lapse in concentration...which led to something sent to vex me.
I get it now, Grandma. I get it. Some things ARE sent to vex you.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Book Review-Becoming my Mother's Daughter

I just finished reading an interesting book by Erika Gottlieb. With Mother's Day in the not too distant future, I thought I would post the book review for you. The book is available on Chapters, Amazon and your independent book stores...which you should support ALWAYS!

Book Review

“Becoming My Mother’s Daughter
A Story of Survival and Renewal”
By Erika Gottlieb
Published by Wilfrid Laurier University Press
Life Writing Series
March 2008
$24.95, 188 pp. Paper
ISBN10 1-55458-030-7
ISBN13 978-1-55458-030-9

The search for personal identity is as old as time itself. Who we are, how we have been influenced or molded is a journey that each person undertakes at one point or another in the course of life. In “Becoming My Mother’s Daughter, A Story of Survival and Renewal” Erika Gottlieb frames her search in a fictionalized account of her childhood in Budapest, Hungary during the latter days of World War II. Her search for identity is framed both by her Jewish faith and by her relationship with the women in her family. It is a dichotomy of simple and complex themes enveloped in the recollections of a 6 year old child surviving the Holocaust.

The author assumes the persona of “Eva”, who acts as narrator through the story. Her story and that of her Grandmother, Ethel, her mother, Eliza and her sisters Sandy and Ada is a powerful story of survival. Beginning and ending in the present, the premise of the book is simple: life is mourning. In coming to terms with the losses in life, we come to terms with our life itself. As she comes to terms with her mother’s death, Eva comments: “I know that to keep on living I have to leave her behind. I know that to keep on living I cannot leave her behind. I heed both voices. I am my mother’s daughter.”

Eva’s family runs a successful furniture business. They are respected in the community, fluent in German and lead a comfortable, upper middle class existence. All that changes when the Hungarian Arrow Cross, the Hungarian wing of the Nazi party, takes over in 1944. Overnight the family’s home is seized, the Jewish families are forced to flee or live in ghettos, or are marched to the train station for transport to concentration camps, or to the river bank where they are shot and thrown in the Danube River. Ms. Gottlieb, in the persona of the six year old child, Eva, is not concerned with historical accuracy, and recounts her life in hiding and in the ghetto in the matter of fact and unemotional way of a child. This lack of emotion strengthens the narrative because it allows the reader to be an observer rather than an interpreter of the events. There is no time to mourn the loss of property, materials, or even friends and family members. Survival leaves no time for mourning.

The story is interwoven with symbols of bridges, tunnels and streetcars, but one of the most powerful images that Erika Gottlieb uses is also one of the most simple: a purse. Her mother’s purse is the source of food and medicine, and other things that determine their survival in a barely survivable time: “…Of course…I can hold those fears at bay because on the sidewalk, we’re walking in the shelter of Mummy, our walking shelter…with her heavy yellow handbag, she is our live shelter. In the bag she carries all our food and money ¾everything we can call our own on this earth.” When Eva’s family eventually escape communist Hungary and emigrate to Canada, the battered yellow purse becomes the bridge between the family’s past and present, as it arrives loaded with all the family photos, documents and memorabilia of their life before World War II. After her mother’s death, the purse becomes the key to understanding her mother, and through that understanding, the author comes to terms with how she has been shaped by her mother. “The tie, the lifeline to the past, the tie between the present and past, the present and future. Mother’s oversize handbag, her heavy burden…her daughter’s lifeline. The bag with its old-and-new treasure without which Eva could not continue her journey.” She states further: “Whether or not I want to continue my journey, I was born and gave birth. How can I then deny it? I have to go on…With a child cradled in my arms, I follow my mother, who in turn is following her own mother.”

The strength of “Becoming My Mother’s Daughter, A Story of Survival and Renewal” lies in the contrast between the writing of Eva as adult and Eva as child. The stark, factual descriptions of life in the latter days of war-torn Hungary provide a perfect foil for the more introspective writing of a woman coming to terms with her legacy, her life and her place within it. In Eva, women find a kindred spirit as all daughters struggle to live up to and live apart from their mothers. Eva’s daughter has much to live up to, and Eliza would be proud.