In 2004 Marilyn Norry, a Vancouver actor, writer and story editor, was at a wedding, listening to a friend when her friend said, “To know what I mean, you have to know my mother’s story” and proceeded to tell the details of her mother’s life (born here, moved there, did this, did that) in about 5 minutes.
Marilyn heard this encapsulated life story as a “character arc”, a device used in play and script writing to track a character’s emotional and narrative journey from beginning to end. Marilyn told her mother’s story back, deciding on the spot what “plot points” were most important in her mother’s life. Her friend was enchanted and they discussed how easy it was to take family stories for granted not seeing how exotic they might seem to anyone else.
A few days later Marilyn asked her friends, women actors living in Vancouver, to each send her the story of their mother’s life in less than 2000 words. They were asked to give the facts, ma’am, just the facts, and to keep themselves out of the story as much as possible. More than 80 actors responded.
The results were not what Marilyn expected. Each daughter told the truth of her mother without judgment, writing what she knew, what she didn’t know, and what she thought might be important. Not only did this little segment of society come from — one step back — a whole century (with birthdates that range from 1892 to 1954), but also from all over the world, all races, all economic levels, all forms of sanity, insanity, addictions, artistry, heartbreak, and joy. They told stories of harrowing escapes during the war, arranged marriages, adoptions, lives of exemplary service, and of quiet desperation. Combined together their stories portray the history of 20th century women, a history not recorded anywhere else.
As the stories flowed in it became apparent that there is no such thing as a generic mother and that, despite assumptions made to the contrary, “ordinary” women have extraordinary lives.
We started having meetings to read our stories to one another, compare our experiences and we agreed that writing that simple story had been an exercise of both high anxiety and great liberation.
We had written our stories for different reasons — to remember our mother, to honour her, to exorcise her ghost, to figure out why she still held such power on our lives, to detach her experiences from our own, and/or to tell her we loved her, regardless whether she still lived or when she had passed on.
Writing and then reading these stories aloud became a cathartic event for both readers and listeners. Someone would say, “I don’t know if this is important…” and then tell a story that would break your heart.
The mother stories collected for My Mother’s Story have been used for or provided the inspiration for a new form of theatre, a book, a radio documentary, a film documentary, writing workshops, a simple form of therapy, a social movement. And an Archive.
This Archive expands our initial collection to tell the history of 20th century women. The stories are all written by women or men about their mothers. We hope to have 200 stories by May 2011. It is available free to the public but copyright on stories and images is held by Mothership Stories Society on behalf of the original writers. For more details visit Submissions.