Book Review - Mother Load: Memoirs of Struggle and Strength
Demeter Press, 2022
In intimate terms, six women members of the Academy for Lifelong Learning Toronto set out their memories of their mothers and their own mothering. Often, mother figures were grandmothers, aunts, sisters, daughters and friends. Brenda M. Doyle, Melanie Faye, Nancy Garrow, Kathy Honickman, Jennifer Walcott and Ellen O’Donnell Walters wrote their memoirs of mothering.
In their Memoir Writing group, they encouraged each other to go deeper: to reveal the silences in their relationships with their mothers and explain why. This book review gives an overview of each woman’s reflections. I want to sit down and talk to each of these women. Their courage to pour out the stories of their lives opens the door for more exploration and learning.
Nancy Garrow offered an invitation to anyone who would listen to the tragic part and the wonderful life of Rosalind, her mother, who was independent minded, strong willed, good hearted and terribly clever.
Jennifer Walcott asks, “Is it possible to love someone more after they have died?” While her mother, Hyacinth, had an iron core, she never said that she loved Jennifer. On reflection, her mother’s strength surrounded Jennifer with a web of support. Ms. Walcott opens her heart to the pain, resentment and anger she felt towards her sister, Mary. In exploring these emotions, she sums up her sister in the poem “The Two Marys”:
With no loving gentleness
Just hard avoidance,
a cold-seeming heart
shaped by inherited shame.
Melanie Faye illuminates her memories of her family with her love of myths, gods and goddesses, fairy tales and the psychology of self and spirit. She trusts her dream feelings. In her memoir, she sets out to recover the magical fairy tale time of her childhood and to shed past anger and pain. In reviewing her South African childhood, she assesses racism: her country’s, her mother’s and her own. Her writing has zest. She realizes that her mother was trying to protect her. She ends her memoir with “May her memory be a blessing."
Brenda M. Doyle states that she grew up profoundly afraid of her mother. When Brenda was a child, her mother was controlling and expected total obedience. Psychotherapy helped Ms. Doyle to overcome her fear of her mother. For many years, they had a conflicted relationship. Yet, Brenda reports that as her mother aged, she could no longer keep her painful memories at bay and to herself. Brenda was able to know and care for her and to honour her for the strengths she possessed.
Kathy Honickman writes, in her poem “Maybe I Shouldn’t Be Telling You This,” about her dying mother’s ambulance trip to the hospital. Ms. Honickman reflects back on her life with her mother and comes to realize that “we are all just links on the chain.” She competed with her sister Marilyn for their mother’s love. Kathy is aware that she was like her Russian grandmother and irritated her mother. Her mother’s last words, “It took my breath away,” were such beautiful last words. Kathy continues her reflections at length in the poem, “In All She Was and Ever Will Be."
Ellen O’Donnell Walters made me feel as if I was sitting in my Nana’s kitchen.In 1953, she and her brother Tommy started to live with her father’s parents. The kitchen was the engine of the grandparents’ house. Grandma O’Donnell was the engineer of her family’s life. Earlier, when Ellen’s parents separated, her mother took her and her brother Tommy to live on Ward’s Island. Her father abducted her and Tommy from their mother. He took them to live with his parents. Ellen never saw her mother again. Gramma and Sam, the man who delivered fruit and vegetables, talked and drank coffee twice a week from 1953 to 1977. Ellen listened to their conversation about the weather, memories of the war, rationing, etc. From them she inherited a mysterious, non-monetary kind of insurance that could not stop bad things from happening, but that could help to sustain a person afterwards.
Mother Load reverberates with real life. It left me wanting to know more about each of these women. The power of the memoirs comes from these women confronting their own reticence. I recommend it to you.
Mary Pat Moore
Updated March 10, 2023
Workshop Spotlight: Tale of Two Cities
Prohibition in Toronto and Montreal
The Academy workshop, “Tale of Two Cities”, is a unique collaboration between two “third age” organisations, our own ALLTO and the MCLL (McGill Community for Lifelong Learning). Facilitated by Lorne Huston in Montreal and Andris Rubenis in Toronto, the Zoom sessions have featured a shared presentation by each city, with each presentation followed by general discussion. Common themes have been sought to allow comparison and contrast of viewpoints and history in the two cities. A session in Winter 2023 featured two topics related to 1920s prohibition: Little Burgundy, presented by Bruce Macleod in Montreal, and Prohibition in Ontario, presented by Laura Tyson in Toronto.
Little Burgundy in Montreal
Little Burgundy was a neighbourhood in the southwest of Montreal which, from the 1920s to the 1950s, was an impoverished but culturally rich area of the city. South of the tracks both geographically and metaphorically, and close to both Canadian National and Canadian Pacific railway stations, it was home mainly to Black American and Caribbean immigrants, many of whom worked on the railways.
Prohibition in the 1920s made Montreal a North American place where you could have a good time. Jazz bars like the Café St-Michel and Rockhead Paradise became iconic destinations. Rockhead Paradise, founded in 1928 by a former railway porter named Rufus Rockhead, was a landmark in the neighbourhood with multiple floors and a mezzanine, all with bars that did a roaring trade. The jazz clubs served a mainly Black clientele, but became so famous that they became a weekend destination for tourists seeking music and booze. Little Burgundy became in some ways a “Harlem North”.
The list of musicians included a “Who’s Who” of American jazz artists, but Little Burgundy also became an incubator for Canadian talent including Oliver Jones and, most notably, the brilliant Oscar Peterson. Bruce showed a number of excellent and evocative National Film Board video clips of the neighbourhood and residents reminiscing, but the highlight was a brilliant duet between Oscar and Oliver, late in their careers, at The Montreal Jazz Festival.
The 1960s brought change to the jazz clubs and the neighbourhood, driven by the Quiet Revolution, Jean Drapeau’s mission to clean up Montreal which demolished large sections, crosstown expressway development, the decline of the railways, changes in musical tastes, and the advent of television.
Today, Little Burgundy exists mainly as commemorative plaques and guided tours. The big jazz clubs are gone, replaced by smaller venues scattered through the city. The Montreal Jazz Festival is the biggest in the world and an outstanding event but, despite the name, is so eclectic in its musical selection that “jazz” is something of a misnomer.
Prohibition in Ontario
Laura Tyson presented a number of slides, including photos and cartoons, illustrating the effects of prohibition in Toronto and other parts of Canada. The Ontario Temperance Act was in force from 1916 to 1927; by contrast in Quebec, temperance was enacted and repealed in the same year, 1919. Prohibition was meant to save society but instead provided opportunities for bootleggers and other racketeers, including the Whisky King and Bessie the Bootlegger, described by Laura.
The discussion that followed included recollection of the sometimes-not-quite-legal history of Seagrams and Gooderham & Worts, the good old days of buying LCBO alcohol unseen in brown paper bags, wet and dry towns, and “Toronto the Good” with its Sunday laws which extended well into the 1970s.
Updated February 21, 2023
Who Owns Your Face? Privacy Issues in the Internet Age
You do, but not necessarily the images.
Abigail Robinson – “Flour of the Family”
On December 15, 1890, Louis Brandeis and Samuel Warren published an article titled “The Right to Privacy” in the Harvard Law Review. This became the basis for the development of privacy law in the US. In 1900 the first privacy case was filed in NY State. In Rochester NY, Franklin Mills produced some 25,000 lithographic advertising posters (new technology at the time) with the headline “Flour of the Family,” using a portrait of teenaged Abigail Robinson. It had been obtained from a photo studio and used without her consent. Robinson claimed to be greatly humiliated by the jeers of people who recognized her face. She was treated by a physician for severe nervous shock and confined to bed. Hence, a lawsuit was filed against Franklin Mills and Rochester Folding Box Company for creating the ad. After an initial win and reversal on appeal, the law was quickly changed in 1903 in NY State followed shortly by most of the other states.
The Lena Image
In 1972, some engineers working on image digitization wanted something more interesting than the standard TV test images being used. They used a part of the centerfold in the November issue of Playboy magazine featuring Lena Soderberg.
Not known to Lena (and, for many years, Playboy), the photo quickly became the single most widely used picture in image-processing research. She was one of the first pictures uploaded to the Internet (then ARPANET). Lena was used to develop the now ubiquitous JPEG image format, a compression scheme that allows complex digital files to transfer between devices and appear on smartphones. The Lena image became a standard that was used for decades. Playboy decided not to ask for compensation; Lena, although originally asking for the image to be withdrawn, later was a featured speaker and presented awards at an International Conference on Image Processing. Lena became a celebrity but what about the image? To quote Jeff Seideman, a former president of the Society for Imaging Science and Technology, “When you use a picture like that for so long, it’s not a person anymore; it’s just pixels.”
2019: “The Reasonable Expectation of Privacy”
A Canadian schoolteacher secretly recorded his female students’ breasts with a camera pen while they were involved in normal school activities. He was charged with pornography; the case was ultimately decided by the Supreme Court of Canada in R v Jarvis, 2019, SCC 10. The decision provided clarity on the criminal offence of voyeurism but more significantly weighed in on the definition of a person’s reasonable expectation of privacy. Here is a direct quote from the key paragraphs: “…privacy in our bodies is fundamentally connected to human dignity and autonomy and cannot be easily eroded. We do not surrender our privacy interests and our right not to be surveilled merely by walking out our front door each morning…the fact that technologies now exist allowing others to invade our privacy in previously unimaginable ways does not mean that our privacy expectations upon entering public spaces have been obliterated.”
So, we have the right not to be surveilled upon entering public spaces. Let’s see now, how many cameras are there in Toronto - in hospitals, at airports, etc.? What about those police body cams? If we enter a private space, i.e. a retail establishment, apparently video surveillance is allowed.
Facebook maintains the largest database of photographs. By some estimates it is approximately 100 billion images. When you upload an image to Facebook, although you own it, by agreeing to the Terms of Service, you have given Facebook a non-exclusive worldwide licence to use your images in any way they choose. Also, they can issue sub-licences for use to third parties as they determine without needing your approval. It is non-exclusive, so you can upload the same images to other platforms such as Instagram.
Facebook encourages others who have taken photos where you appear to “Tag” them with your name. You must be quite knowledgeable about privacy settings in Facebook to disallow this. Also, Facebook will present a suggestion to the “tagger” for your name. This is gleaned from their database and AI- assisted image processing. It’s a very popular feature of Facebook since it eliminates “tagging” labour.
In 2015, police in Baltimore used social media tracking on people protesting the death of Freddie Gray. Facial recognition helped police identify protestors with outstanding warrants, and they arrested them directly from the crowds.
How does facial recognition work? Basically, a digital camera captures your image and its software can “frame” your face. Other system software computes defining geometric characteristics such as the distance between your eyes, the depth of your eye sockets, the distance from forehead to chin, the shape of your cheekbones and the contour of the lips, ears and chin. Up to 49 of these numbers are used to create your “faceprint.” Law enforcement agencies can then use your “faceprint” to scan massive image data bases for a match. This is very similar to the use of fingerprint data. Do you appear in these data bases? It is highly likely. Do you have government-issued photo IDs? Do you take selfies? What happens to the images taken when you use an ATM anywhere in the world? (Refer back to the paragraph on “the reasonable expectation of privacy,” at least for Canada.)
If facial recognition were extremely accurate for every case, we would have no cause for concern. However, the rate of false positives is very high, particularly for brown-skinned individuals. Independent testing in various jurisdictions has led to public outcry such that there is a movement to ban the use of image recognition by police departments and government law enforcement agencies (except of course in China). The police may not use it, but there are hundreds of applications that, unbeknownst to us, use this technology every day.
Finally, returning to the question of who owns your face? You do. As you own your body, you own your face. Decisions about what your face looks like are private personal decisions - to shave or not, to wear makeup or not, to bare the face or not, to wear a mask or even to use the Instagram cute “filters” on social media - are yours alone. But an image that you posted years ago on social media may suddenly appear in an ad. Unfortunately, you can do nothing about this. Maybe just enjoy the fame as Lena did.
This article was first published in the Autumn 2022 Academy Quarterly Review.