Academy Memoir Group – “Writing About Our Mothers” (Fall 2023 Forum #2 Summary)

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Memoir writers

The second forum of the season featured six women who met through the Academy, joined the memoir workshop and shared a common cause in writing about their mothers. They are Brenda Doyle, Melanie Faye, Nancy Garrow, Kathy Honickman, Jennifer Walcott and Ellen O’Donnell Walters. The forum, “Motherload: Memoirs of Struggle and Strength,” is also now a book, published in December 2022.

Nancy started the vignettes that each participant presented about her mother. Nancy wrote a letter to her mother, telling her about the rich recollections she had of her, even though her mother had died of suicide many years ago. Nancy lamented the damage that can be done by secrets kept in families.

Jennifer told us that her mother had carried the shame of her own illegitimacy during her life. Her sister had two children out of wedlock and Jennifer searched for her sister’s children who had been adopted in Scotland. Eventually,  through DNA testing, she got to know the second child. Jennifer also writes poetry, and she recited one of her poems for us. Jennifer has quite a witty way about her!

Melanie grew up in South Africa and extolled her happy childhood with wildlife adventures of the garden variety – snails, beetles, bugs and caterpillars, her favourite being the millipedes. There were fairies and mud pies in the backyard too. Her culinary memories included beef stew and cornbread.

Brenda had to push back against her mother and her mother’s parenting style. This led to a tough time for Brenda in developing her own parenting. It did not help Brenda’s childhood that she was molested by a neighbour. She has been strong enough as an adult to move towards a healing place and is now able to forgive. Consequently, she has developed a better relationship with her own daughter.

It fell to Kathy to take care of her mother in her mother’s later years, just because she was the eldest. This must have been tough, as she was known to her mother as being “not the good one.”  Under the circumstances, Kathy said, “It is OK to swear.”

Ellen told us of the harrowing story of her early childhood, initially happy memories of life with her mother and grandmother on Ward’s Island, but when she was about four she and her brother were, according to their mother, abducted by their abusive father. Ellen remembers the terrifying ride in a water taxi after being taken from their cabin.

During the lively question and answer period, the ladies had lots more to say. One of the questioners asked how did they build trust within the group, and Nancy replied that something clicked between them; then it was just an extra step to move forward to publishing their stories.

The audience was truly engaged by these ladies’ skill in relaying to us their stories and their openness in answering our questions. This forum was a strong testament to the value that Academy membership brings to us all.

by Linda Tu