Elizabeth Renzetti on her mother, Mildred May 09 2018
In honour of Karen von Hahn’s beautiful memoir, What Remains, which examines her relationship to her mother through the lens of the objects they both loved, I’ve been thinking about the things that tie me to my mother, Mildred. She is a singularly important person in my life, a companion and inspiration, who is composed of equal parts white wine, books, and curiosity. She lives for experiences rather than possessions, but there are material things that will always remind me of her.
Red lipstick: It doesn’t really matter what brand or the precise shade so long as it’s some variety of strumpet crimson. Once, as she lay in the hallway of an emergency ward, suffering from the largest ulcer the doctor had ever seen, my mother occupied herself with reapplying her lipstick. I argued in favour of pallor: “No one will know how sick you are,” I whispered, “if you look like Elizabeth Taylor on one of her wedding days.” My mother brushed my protests aside, understanding her path to health was paved with Revlon: “If I’m going to get better, I need to feel like myself.”
The neighbour’s roses: In the same way that food is always more appealing on other people’s plates, my mother feels flowers are more beautiful in other people’s gardens, which is why she likes to liberate them. At night she will slip out, shears in hand, to free roses drooped over fences, lupins in ditches, lilacs wild in the no man’s land of laneways. A lover of beauty, she’s also scrupulously fair. Only flowers longing to escape will find their way onto her table.
A new church: A devout Roman Catholic, my mother loves nothing more than a new church. It is a way to express her faith and her compassion (there is always someone who is ailing who could use a candle and a prayer). From early on she taught us that we could make a wish for every new church we entered; I’m not entirely sure this is official Vatican policy.
A cigarette package: Mildred hasn’t smoked in decades, but one of my most indelible memories involves her and a pack of Sweet Caporals. I was young and awkward, and I’d just gotten my period when I sidled into her bedroom one day. She was a nurse and a wise soul and would know what to do. She put down the book she was reading, picked up the cigarette package, emptied it out, and on the back drew the female reproductive system, complete with tiny ovaries and scooting hormones. She explained the whole business to me as I sat next to her on the bed, feeling protected and loved (she left out the decades of cramps and mood swings that lay in the future, thank God). I’ve often wished I still had that cigarette package. Instead, I have Mildred, and that’s priceless.
Why are there so few women in politics? Why is public space, whether it’s the street or social media, still so inhospitable to women? What does Carrie Fisher have to do with Mary Wollstonecraft? And why is a wedding ceremony Satan’s playground?
These are some of the questions that bestselling author and acclaimed journalist Elizabeth Renzetti examines in her new collection of essays. Drawing upon Renzetti’s decades of reporting on feminist issues, Shrewed is a book about feminism’s crossroads. From Hillary Clinton’s failed campaign to the quest for equal pay, from the lessons we can learn from old ladies to the future of feminism in a turbulent world, Renzetti takes a pointed, witty look at how far we’ve come — and how far we have to go.
If Nellie McClung and Erma Bombeck had an IVF baby, this book would be the result. If they’d lived at the same time. And in the same country. And if IVF had been invented. Well, you get the point.
ELIZABETH RENZETTI is a columnist for the Globe and Mail, and has reported for many years from Toronto, Los Angeles, and London. She is also the bestselling author of the novel Based on a True Story, which was a finalist for the Kobo Emerging Writer Prize and a Canadian bestseller. She lives in Toronto with her husband, author and Globe and Mail columnist Doug Saunders, and their two children.