Eventful

IMG_2434McNally Robinson in Winnipeg describes itself as the most ‘eventful’ bookstore in Canada, as well as its biggest. Clearly, it knows how to throw a party.

We arrived early at the Grant Park store last night for my first book launch and wandered through tall stacks of books and customers, wondering just where and how they were going to stuff several dozen guests and a nervous new author.

But a half hour before the launch, those stacks had magically rolled away to open up a lovely atrium space; events co-ordinator John Toews was merrily unstacking row upon row of chairs (it’s how he gets his exercise, he joked); cookies and drinks had appeared beside a mic-ed up podium and an autograph table loaded with bright pink books and a selection of sharpies.

People started to arrive and claim John’s chairs. Some I knew casually, some I loved dearly; all began to quietly visit and wait for the show to begin. My Grade 9 science teacher was there. My Grade 10 English teacher, old friends and neighbours, family members I hadn’t seen in months. When the chairs had filled up, people spilled out back and stood. Some came because they were on a shelter board, or had worked in the shelter industry, or were still working in a shelter.

But in that crowd was one woman I would not meet. She reached out later, with a comment I’ll never forget.

My speech was basically about how I came to write Runaway Wives, and why it had become a passion for me — about how much I had learned about violence against women, and shelter work. I ended by saying I had two hopes. The first was that these shelter founders and their legacy would be recognized somehow — I suggested they all deserved an Order of Canada. And the second was to raise some money for the nation’s shelters, through donations to the Canadian Women’s Foundation.

John had kindly given his consent to the Shelter Project fundraiser, setting up my girlfriend Susan and her three girls at a wee table near the front so they could take donations and hand out thank-you coasters. When the free-for-all for autographs opened up, I was too occupied to see if anyone was paying them a visit. They were, thankfully. We ended up raising hundreds, far more than my greatest expectation.

And the launch exceeded all expectations, too, turning into a night of hugs and laughter and goodwill. A great party.

For some reason, the woman in the crowd never approached my table. Instead, she went home, found this website, and sat down to write me a note:

“Hello, I attended your release tonight at McNally Robinson in Winnipeg. You commented that you thought these amazing women should receive the Order of Canada.”

She wanted me to know that her mother had recently won one of Canada’s highest honours. And then she explained why she had come to McNally’s that night.

More than 30 years ago, she wrote, her mother, brother and she had “sought safety in a women’s shelter. It was that place of escape, of safety, that gave my mom the opportunity to leave her abusive husband and begin a new life for us. I was reminded tonight of how grateful I am to the women who fought to help women like my mom. They may not yet have been named to the Order of Canada themselves, but they have created a crucial bridge to allow other women to rise to their potential and beyond. Thank you for writing this book.”

My life feels eventful these days. I am so grateful.

 

 

Why is ‘launch’ such a scary word?

The invitations to Toronto’s book launch went out today, and I’ve been hearing from all kinds of friends and colleagues in the area. That’s the good part. The scary part is I feel like I’m suited up, sweaty and strapped down in a rocketship just about to be fired. And unlike Julie Payette, I haven’t a clue what I’m about to do.

Just a year ago, I was still writing this book at my cottage, plowing through transcribed interviews and old newspaper clippings gleaned from a cross-country tour in 2012/2013. It was solitary work, and particularly lonely for someone who used to run newsrooms. I discovered I’m a much happier editor than I am a writer.

Today I received two interview requests — Prairie Books NOW is featuring Runaway Wives in its fall/winter issue, hooray!; and La Liberte newspaper in Winnipeg wants to talk before the (there’s that scary word again) launch there Sept. 6.

I keep reminding myself that it’s what I wanted back in 2012 when I started interviewing the remarkable women who founded the country’s first women’s shelters. Few have received any recognition for their work.

Anyway, I am going to do my best to represent them in the coming days, and really looking forward to seeing them all again, from Toronto to Victoria. I just need to figure out what to say and do at a launch, first.

I know what I’m hoping for. I gave a speech to a YWCA conference in Winnipeg the summer of 2013. After my usual unfocussed ramble about how the book began and what my sister and I learned from our winter of amazing luck, I started to tell a few stories about Canada’s first women’s shelter in Toronto. And then I announced to the crowd that one of those women now worked for the Y, and was in fact in the crowd.

I called out her name, Lynn Zimmer, and she waved modestly from her table and the entire audience spontaneously rose to its feet to applaud her. Brought tears to my eyes. These unassuming women deserve all that and more.

So bring on those launches.

I promise to channel my inner Payette and fly straight and true.

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Yes, there’s a story behind ‘runaway wives’

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A few (OK a lot) of people have commented on the title of this book. Rogue feminists, they get. But isn’t that ‘runaway wives’ line rather demeaning?

Yes it is. It’s so demeaning it stuck with the group who founded Canada’s first battered women’s shelter for more than forty years.

Four of them told the story over dinner one night in late 2012, still infuriated by a headline and story that they felt was a sly smackdown of their work, not to mention an odd take on the issue.

They had just opened on Spadina Street in Toronto, after months of planning and lobbying and hard work. Their families were all wondering what these 12 young women were doing (and they weren’t so sure themselves). So when the reporter from the Toronto Star, Sidney Katz, called and said he wanted to write a story about the shelter, they were pretty excited.

They invited him down for the day, showed him around, explained who was in the shelter and why, earnestly explaining the need for a temporary place for women to escape violence or crisis in the home. After he left, they could hardly wait for the feature to appear in the big metropolitan daily. And then it did. With the headline “The rising wave of runaway wives” and the subhead “Women are liberating themselves — they say to heck with it and leave.”

The story begins with a so-long-toots note pinned to some poor man’s pillow from a runaway wife named Sharon, who says there’s no use in going on with their stupid marriage. He makes her sound so cavalier and liberated.

“Add one more man to the brotherhood of deserted husbands, a fast-growing group,” Katz continues.

It takes a few paragraphs before Katz reveals the details behind this marriage. Sharon’s husband has become a heavy drinker, and the constant verbal and emotional abuse that began after the birth of their first child has escalated to physical abuse. The night before she left, he slapped her across the face while the couple next door were visiting.

“Before the days of women’s liberation many of those women did not leave home,” Katz pointed out. But now in 1973, he writes, there are places they can go. And “a growing number of women are unwilling to remain part of an unhappy union.”

He describes a number of ‘runaways’, including one who was thrown down the stairs for forgetting to take her husband’s suit to the dry cleaners. Another whose husband was so jealous he would stand guard — inside the bathroom — while she took a bath. He weaves in a few words from the Interval House women, but his bias shows through even from their answers. “It’s simply untrue that women are deserting their husbands because of the ideas put forth by the women’s lib movement,” Lynn Zimmer says.

He ends with the tale of one abandoned father who is looking after three children all by himself. After getting them off to school and day care in the morning, he works and after that, it’s “get supper. Talk to the children and find out what’s been happening. Wash them, get them to bed. By now it’s 9 o’clock. If not too exhausted and he wants to go out, get hold of a babysitter somewhere.

“Somehow, time must be found to shop for groceries and clothes, do the laundry, to take the children on an outing and visits to the doctor, etc. etc.” … “I’ve been living this way for eight months,” says the father, “and it’s hell.” (“The deserted father’s job could be simplified by hiring an efficient housekeeper,” Katz says, “but few men can afford that.”)

Forty years later, the women who founded Interval House are able to laugh just a little over this depiction of their work from the other guy’s perspective — their aiding and abetting of a ‘rising wave of runaway wives.’ So how could I resist stealing this very inside joke from my favourite rogue feminists?

 

Serendipity

I started out this summer wondering how I might raise some money for Canada’s shelter network through my book, Runaway Wives and Rogue Feminists. I had already done three media interviews, and knew that once the book came out in the fall of 2017, public awareness of domestic violence and women’s shelters would be higher.
Could something good come out of it?

I hoped so. First, I looked for the right cause. It had to be national, it had to be credible, it had to fund shelters and support women. A tall order, but I found the perfect one in the Canadian Women’s Foundation. It does all that and more, and my sister Joyce — who helped found and run a battered women’s shelter in Swift Current, Sask. — says it is well-respected in the field.

Then, how to convince people to donate to ‘my’ cause? My husband and I came up with the idea of producing coasters — portable, highly useful, not too expensive — as a nice, unique thank-you gift for donors. But it took weeks before I figured out the right art and theme for the darned coasters. I started out thinking maybe kids at one of the YWCA camps might provide the art. Or a Winnipeg artist who does streetscapes. Or another artist I knew who does amazing calligraphy. But nothing really worked with a shelter ‘theme’ … until lo and behold the answer came to me one day in the Victoria Beach grocery store. On a shelf beside the eggs and milk fridge.

I saw a card with the painting of a house on it. And another one behind that. A series of houses, in fact, by a painter who obviously loves houses. Her name is Jane Gateson, and she is a really talented artist who has been fascinated by houses for a few years. When I contacted her to ask if she might be interested in partnering on this project, she agreed right away. She’s kind, generous AND talented. She’s donating her images to the cause and I am scrupulously putting credits on a thank you slip to be enclosed with each set — so if any of you love an image and want the original for your wall, you know who to contact.

What are the odds we’d run into each other at a little beach in Manitoba?