We’re giving thanks for so much here at the old farmhouse, where my husband, his childhood friend Tasso and I just listened to the wonderful Shelagh Rogers interviewing me about the story behind my book A Good Home, on CBC Radio.
Friends in Canada: the show is repeated Saturday at 4 p.m.
Thanks to Hamlin Grange for his lovely photographs
Imagine my first autumn in Canada. I’d come here from Jamaica, where the trees and shrubs didn’t change colours — unless you counted the parade of blooms on shrubs like bougainvillea and trees like the poinciana.
Autumn in Ontario was a wonderland of changing colours and scents. The fresh smell of a cool fall day, the rain having come overnight and disappeared by morning, replaced by brilliant sunshine. The smell of wood logs burning in the fireplace. The blazing colours of the trees. And the shrubs. And the pumpkins.
Photo by Hamlin Grange
Colours, glorious colours.
I had seen pictures, but the first time I beheld the autumn colours with my own eyes, I was astonished. When I realized that the leaves would soon fall and the maple and oak trees would be stripped of their glory, leaving bare branches and trunks…
The little girls in this photo are Vivian, on the right, and her sister Roslyn.
Their childhood home had a vast library and Vivian loved reading books.
Classics for Junior Readers, the eleven volumes of The Foundation Library for Young People and the family’s encyclopedia were among her childhood favorites.
“My father was a very accomplished man (lawyer, Member of Parliament for Ontario, the founder and first President of the Mt. Sinai Hospital, first violinist with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra) and he always encouraged my reading and learning as a child.
“So reading was something I always did.”
Vivian was so bright that she skipped grades in school.
She graduated from the University of Toronto with a bachelor of household science degree and worked as a dietitian till shortly after her marriage. She and her husband Bud had three daughters.
Daughter Arna, a retired English teacher and now a writer and proofreader, readA Good Home and gave a copy to her mother.
“When I asked my Mom how she liked the book, she said it was one of the best she had ever read! And considering she had been reading for a good 90 years, that would be a lot of books!”
I gulped with delight and asked: “Why?”
Vivian replied: “I can picture all of her houses – her descriptions are so vivid. I can still see the house up on a hill. It brought back memories of travelling in the Caribbean and different stages of my life.”
“Two of the best things about books are that we can travel to different times and places through them, and we can learn something new with each one.”
Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudiceis still one of Vivian’s all-time favorites.
Bud died a few years ago. At 96, and no longer able to walk, Vivian spends much of her time in her room. Reading, she says, is “a wonderful diversion at this stage of life when outings and new experiences are limited.”
While Arna was proofreading the manuscript for my second book (Beloved Gardens) she asked my permission to read the book to her mother. Of course, I agreed.
“It gives me great pleasure to look at my Mom sitting in her wheelchair with a big smile on her face. Or sometimes she nods her agreement to whatever Cynthia wrote.
“Sometimes she closes her eyes (still smiling) and I know that she is visualizing the scene. When I told her that the finished book would include lovely photos, she said that it didn’t really need pictures as she could see everything clearly just from the words. The book takes her on a journey in her mind.”
“These are the kind of books you can read over and over again,” says Vivian. “They make you smile and they make you cry. Because the book is so picturesque, I can think back and the memories are lovely.”
And you are the kind of reader authors love, Vivian! Thank you most kindly for loving books, including mine.
Donna also paints, teaches creative writing, and has just completed her Ph.D.
She makes the time to support other authors – especially first-time authors and those who are independently published. She mentors them, lines up readings for them, and shares her own experience.
“If you know you want to write, if you really, really know that you do …. new writers of all ages…then just do it! Write! Make sure you do. And coupled with this you MUST make sure that you also read. Imagine a musician that does not listen to music. This would be laughable. You must read in order to write.”
Donna also runs Creative WritingWorkshops. The next one is at the Toronto Public Library in June.
She does this in her spare time. She has a full time job with Mobilman Management Inc.
Much of Donna’s writing in the past ten years has been done in her downtown Toronto apartment , “900 square feet with a washer and dryer included”. Her home is filled with paintings – some of which she did herself.
The apartment is home.
“I love my home.I didn’t show my bedroom, bathroom, kitchen, laundry area or my home office, but they are also lovely. I feel very lucky to have this place.”
It’s home not just because her possessions are there, not just because this is where she writes her books, but because her family and friends live on the same street.
“My sister and my nieces live across the street. I have a friend from my undergrad days who lives down the street. My father lives next door. He’s been living in this area since 1981 and owns seven houses in this area.”
Donna likes her street because it’s “quiet and safe”. Because it’s centrally located and has several grocery stores in the area. And because almost everybody knows everybody. Most of the neighbours know each other.
“What a lot of people don’t always think about is that it truly can take a long time to make a place feel like home. Even though I’ve grown up in this neighbourhood since 1981 — and went through a period of time where I was moving in and out of this neighbourhood — I have traveled and lived enough in other areas of Toronto to learn to truly, truly appreciate my home. I feel excessively fortunate!”
So much so that Donna says she doesn’t plan to move – ever.
“I have finally found my home – and it’s right in the city where I was raised – imagine that!”
MORE ABOUT DONNA’S BOOKS
Donna’s latest book was published in March of 2014, under the title:
Young Black Women in Toronto High Schools: Portraits of Family, School and Community Involvement in Developing Goals and Aspirations
Her books are in both of Canada’s official languages, English and French. Among the titles available in French:
Comment Écrire Non-Fiction Créative (How to Write Creative Non-fiction)
Qu’est-il arrivé à l’Afro (What Happened to the Afro)
Comment à parler Crazy People (How To Talk To Crazy People)
Anne Nenarokoff-Van Burek is the kind of woman I’d like to be when I grow up. The kind of woman who, in addition to being talented at her profession, knows how to cook, bake, make delicious preserves AND grow orchids!
I’ve tasted Anne’s “poires au vinaigre” – pears with spices — and it’s addictive.
The woman has flair. Anne knows how to arrange flowers, art and furniture in a room (something which challenges me greatly).
Her home is decorated simply and elegantly – in that French way of combining new stuff with old stuff and still have it all look lovely.
Anne is as much at home in Paris as she is in Toronto.
She has a great relationship with her son and her husband. And as if all that weren’t enough, Anne teaches French, writes for the theatre and has written an intriguing memoir.
Ariadne’s Thread: The Women in My Family is a refreshing read. It tells the story of the remarkable women in Anne’s family, all of whom were born in Russia before the 1917 revolution. They escaped to France, where, Anne says, “they had to adapt to a life radically different from what they had known. When their world collapsed, they could either collapse with it, or reinvent themselves.”
The women came from a privileged background. In Paris, they still had their upper-class manners and traditions, but their income and social standing were both drastically reduced. It was a harsh change and one that could have broken their spirits. They chose to survive instead.
From these women – Anne’s grandmother, aunts and her mother – Anne learned values which have guided her own life: “resilience in adversity, self-reliance, frugality”.
I’ve read this book twice. I gobbled it up the first time – then read it again, more slowly.
I love it for the characters: Anne’s grandmother, aunts (so different from each other), and her mother. And I love it for the small details (such as Anne’s unmanageable reddish hair when she was a girl, and her teacher’s face and neck, among many other skillful descriptions).
Canada’s story is sometimes described as “a story of immigration”. All of us have roots – close roots or distant ones – in another part of the world. Some of those immigrants came seeking better opportunities for themselves and their children. Some families gave up luxury to gain freedom. They fled war, revolution, oppression – leaving their privileged lifestyles, loved ones and precious belongings behind.
Whatever our history, wherever our roots, the stories we Canadians tell are often infused with dreams, sacrifice and faith in a better tomorrow.
By examining the lives of the women in her family, Anne’s book offers “clues for a better future”.
“If we want a better world,”she says,“we could do worse than turn to a few old-fashioned values and work at putting them into practice. The book is a tribute to the precious heritage I received from people who lived and loved fully, and for whom everyday life was a celebration. I hope they will inspire many.”
Ariadne’s Thread: The Women in My Family is available on Friesen Press, amazon and through most booksellers worldwide. You can buy the book in English or in a bilingual version (French and English). Below are the ISBN numbers:
978-1-897018-53-8 is the bi-lingual version
978-1-4602-0721-5 (Hardcover, English)
978-1-4602-0719-2 (Softcover, English)
One last thing: did I mention that Anne also embroiders? That’s her work on the book cover.