A special event to chronicle four memorable memoirs at the West Vancouver Library
“We are always excited to celebrate literary talent” said Information Services Department Head, Pat Cumming. “For this panel we gathered an entertaining range of personalities, adventures and stories. Having the always enigmatic Eric R. Brown (author of the Edgar nominated novel ‘Almost Criminal’) on hand to moderate the panel is the icing on the cake. It’s going to be a great night.”
And ‘in my own words’, it was, so much so that I was not able to sleep the following night. There was so much to process, so much to digest and so much to think about. It was exciting to meet the other writers, first for me was Judy McFarlane, a calm and quiet pleasant woman, then I was startled by the gorgeous long-legged creature Cea Sunrise Person and, luckily, meeting former Judge David Roberts brought me back to earth. The room slowly filled up, the four of us were seated facing the audience and after Eric’s welcome address and the introduction he explained the program of the evening. Each writer had to read a 5-6 minute piece of their book after which he would ask the reader questions relating to the memoir for 15 minutes. At the end of the over an hour long program there would be time for questions and answers, interacting with the audience.
I was appointed the first to read because “your memoir goes back the longest time”. From my book “We Don’t Talk About That” I had chosen the story about the miller who had no flour but my family was hungry and I decided I should go and ask him anyway. He must have felt sorry for me because he told me to crawl under the millstones and sweep up the powdery dust. He told me that one has to eat 400 pounds of dust anyway before one dies and this stuff would still be good with the bran in it to cook soup or bake bread. Then he asked me if I was hungry. Hungry? What a question! I was always hungry. He invited me into his house to have a sandwich. I was apprehensive because if my experiences with the Russians during the invasion but he seemed so nice I wanted to trust him. While he busied himself he asked me to tell him about me. I couldn’t. He kept prodding and all of a sudden it all came tumbling out of me, it was as if some flood gates had opened. I told him about the Russian invasion, what they did, how we lost our home, the walk to nowhere next to the Russian war machinery towards Berlin, the diphtheria and the sleep in the strawberry patch, the train and the murder of the young woman and her daughter, what the murderer did to my mother and how the next morning she pushed us out of the moving train and more of the cruelties to which we were subjected. The miller had one hand on the bread, a knife in the other, stared at me and just said: “Oh my God…”
The questions from Eric, who apparently had read all the books, were about writing a memoir like this, how I remembered, how we dealt with and survived the horrors of rape and murder and starvation and how years later my life took a different turn.
The next one to read was Cea Sunrise Person, the youngest of us. Cea was born into an unusual family consisting of grandparents, aunts and uncles, grew up in the wilderness and in teepees living from the land and nature during the so-called counter culture. I assume it is safe to call it the hippie time with its sexual freedom, nudity and drugs. For me a look at a totally new way of life I had never been able to comprehend. I also had never met anyone who was involved in it. She mentioned several times that even as a child “I always felt I did not fit into it”. In my mind remains the question how she, as a very young child, would know that and how and when or at what age was she able to compare her life with another? Reading several chapters of her book “North of Normal” online I was intrigued by her memoir and it was mainly “SHE” and her story that had kept me awake that night. To really understand I guess I’ll have to read her book. As a writer of a story I never told for seventy years I know it must have taken guts for her to tell all and open herself up to judgement. She says “it took me seven years…” Yes, Cea, I believe it. She read a story from her book about being invited to a birthday party, had no idea that she needed a gift and decided to give away her most beloved item, she also had no dress and on arrival naturally felt totally out of place. By chance she happened into the room of the birthday girl, saw a dream dress on the bed, took off her t-shirt and tried it on. It was too small but the picture she saw in the mirror took her breath away….It was sad how the story ended. She went home in her old outfit and took her unappreciated ‘gift’ with her. For a child of about five (?) it must have been heartbreaking. But let me tell you, Cea went on to become a model at thirteen, lived in New York, Los Angeles and Paris, she modelled in Munich and even then “I felt like a freak, never fit in.” Now she is married, the mother of three and people who read her memoir wonder “how were you ever able to become so normal?”
David Roberts, a former judge and attorney wrote “Letters to His Children from an Uncommon Attorney”. Cea was a very hard act to follow but within minutes David had the attention of the audience. He had picked a humorous story to read and there was not a person in the room who did not join in the laughter! Let me try to somehow piece it together. For some reason David had to go to a liqueur store and as he entered he glimpsed a man standing not too far from the entrance holding out a cup. He briefly thought of the people needing to beg and avoided looking at him. When he came back out with a huge bag with bottles in his arms he pushed the door with his backside and then dropped the change of three quarters he had received, into the man’s cup. He was surprised and shocked when he heard a splash and now, glancing at the man, was told “My goodness, I am just holding my coffee and waiting for my wife…” The voice sounded familiar and the man was also known to him: Another judge! The 15 minute interview by Eric following the laughter was surely a release of tension in the room caused by the previous readers. It revealed that David had four children, three boys and a daughter. He often told them stories from his life and it was the daughter who had told him “to write it all down before you die.” The result is this at times humorous and at times harrowing memoir of a father, a husband and an attorney.
Last, but not least, it was former lawyer Judy MacFarlane’s turn to read from her book “Writing with Grace”. One could be under the impression she had written guidelines to write with ‘grace’ and be surprised to learn that it was a twenty-four year old girl with Downs Syndrome named Grace Chen who had come to seek help with a poem. The mother of this girl was in the audience and was introduced. It was heart wrenching when Judy read about Grace telling Judy “My real truth is too scary, I like to hide my real truth” when talking about her poem and Judy is taken in by the earnest desire of this girl to become “a famous writer”. When Grace was born the grandfather had told her parents ‘put her away and forget about her’. Judy traveled with Grace when she gave her own book to this grandfather. Judy read a piece about Grace’s memories about the Titanic, what happened, her fears, a helicopter coming to save the people.
The book Judy wrote about her involvement with Grace is an account of her own and others prejudices and the often dark history of Downs Syndrome. The book is called inspirational, exceptional and I am sure of great interest to all people having to deal with this disease that is no disease and not a birth defect but, according to the Canadian Down Syndrome Society ‘a naturally occurring chromosomal arrangement that has always been part of the human condition’. I could tell by Judy’s tone of voice that the story of Grace is still deeply troubling her and close to her heart.
Check out the books on Google by name or title. I think reading any one of them will enrich your life. The evening when all of us writers came together will long stay with me and I am extending a big THANK YOU to the West Vancouver Library to making it possible.