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Family matters: take 3
SARAH HAMPSON, Globe and Mail
October 1, 2007

'The idea of writing a memoir seemed to me to be kind of like sitting at a table in a restaurant after everybody else has ordered the mushroom chèvre omelette and saying, 'Oh, I'll have the same,' " says Rona Maynard, whose sister, Joyce Maynard, and late mother, Fredelle Maynard, have both written memoirs about the family.

So she thought carefully about her choices and after much deliberation and resistance, she settled on the omelette, too.

My Mother's Daughter is the first book by Ms. Maynard, who is best known for being editor of Chatelaine for 10 years. She left the women's magazine about three years ago.

She knew her memoir would have many of the same ingredients: the alcoholic father who felt he sacrificed his painting career to provide for his family, and the brilliant Radcliffe-educated mother who was driven to overcome her career frustrations and the torment of her doomed marriage by grooming two daughters to be writers.

But Ms. Maynard, who often wrote about her life in her editor's column at Chatelaine, realized that her stirring of the facts would give it a different, and equally notable, flavour.

"My story about the family is not my mother's story about the family or my sister's story about the family. I was the quietest person in the family and it wasn't because I had nothing to say. It was because everybody else had a much louder voice and clamoured for attention in a way that either I wasn't able to do or didn't want to do."

Her mother wrote two memoirs: Raisins and Almonds, about growing up Jewish in the Canadian prairies, and The Tree of Life. Ms. Maynard's younger sister, who had early literary fame when she landed on the cover of The New York Times Magazine in 1972 with a story entitled An Eighteen-Year-Old Looks Back on Life, has written several memoirs and novels.

There is little in Joyce's life that she has not turned into published confession, including At Home in the World, about an infamous affair she had with J.D. Salinger. Joyce dropped out of Yale after her first year to live with the reclusive literary icon who was 35 years her senior.

My Mother's Daughter is a beautifully told story about a horrific childhood, in which she was unfavourably compared to her prettier, more vivacious sister. "I went through my whole childhood being misunderstood by various people, by other kids and my own family," Ms. Maynard says in a measured tone of voice. "A lot of people think that the world is waiting to welcome them with open arms and I just never believed that it was. I feared sticking my neck out. As soon as I started to excel at writing, Joyce was all over it. She competed with me. It was because of me that she felt driven to go higher, harder, faster."

As a teenager, Rona Maynard had stories published in magazines, but she chose not to pursue a writing career. "I really wanted my own path in life that was not even remotely my mother's or my sister's or, God forbid, my father's. That was why I became an editor. No one else in the family was an editor."

But isn't she competing with them now?

"No, I am not competing with my mother and my sister," she bristles. "People think that I am. I came to realize that if I did not claim my story and tell it, it wouldn't exist. It would just be a small footnote to somebody else's story. It was all about voice to me."

Her book helps to explain herself to herself, she says, but more important, it illuminates her personality for others, in particular, her sister, who lives in California. The two women have never been close and, since the death of their mother in 1989, they have been estranged.

When their mother was diagnosed with inoperable brain cancer, Joyce came to Toronto to help nurse her. But the two sisters, who are polar opposites, clashed. "Joyce was looking for closure. She had many unresolved issues with our mother. Meanwhile, her own marriage was falling apart. She was under great strain. It was clear that there was going to be a lot of grand opera between them, and I reacted badly because I like calm and reason and order and quiet, and none of these things were possible while Joyce was around."

Eventually, with Rona's support, their mother's long-time companion, Sydney Bacon, wrote a letter to Joyce stipulating when she could come to the house, what she could do and how long she could stay. When her mother died, she was not at her bedside. Ms. Maynard doesn't write about the incident in her memoir. But the book is what helped bridge the gap between them. "She read my book, and that was very important for this reconciliation. She saw things from my point of view."

"She never really got me," says Ms. Maynard, who is open about the depression she suffered through the years and the various therapies she has sought. "She was troubled by the fact that I needed so much space by myself. She thought I was quite standoffish and distant. But I thank my lucky stars that I had Joyce as a sister, because if she had not been there, I would have been such a crushing disappointment and there would have been so much pressure on me to be a different kind of person. It's not that my parents didn't love me. They adored me, but they wanted me to be different. Joyce gave them what they wanted.... She made it possible for Rona to be Rona. Without Joyce, no Rona."

The two sisters have led different lives. Joyce is divorced and the mother of three grown children. Rona has been married since she was 21 to Paul Jones, former vice-president of Rogers Publishing. They have one grown son. "I lead a more conventional life. I have a much more stable life than my sister," Ms. Maynard offers. "I have been married almost 37 years. My sister had maybe 37 lovers. I don't know, but I wouldn't be surprised. She has had more fun in her life. She has more adventures."

But now they are closer than they have ever been. "Age has a lot to do with it," she explains. "I will be 58 next month. Joyce is 54. Mother died at 67. If I had nine more years, would I want nine more years of anger?"

Their new affection even survived Alice Munro's rare praise for My Mother's Daughter.

"My sister said, 'Of all the endorsements I would have wanted for my writing, that is the one I would want,' " explains Ms. Maynard in her self-contained manner. "It was very big of her to say."
 

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