Helen Weinzweig called it her "directional crisis."
The year was 1960, and she was 45 years old. Increasingly, her two teenage sons, Paul and Daniel, were asserting their independence. Her husband, the composer John Weinzweig, was immersed, as always, in a raft of musical and teaching projects.
The luxury of time was offset by something more troubling, something unresolved, a legacy of a deeply traumatic childhood and adolescence - her first nine, difficult years in Poland and the no less challenging adjustment to the new language and culture of Canada. She had arrived, illiterate, with her single mother in 1924.
Seeking professional help for her unresolved issues, Weinzweig consulted Toronto psychotherapist Margaret McQuaid. At first, she resented the doctor's aloofness. "She wouldn't tell me anything," she later recalled. "But then I caught on and began to trust her, and whenever she did speak, it had the force of a rare, cherished remark from the Delphic oracle.
"Once she interrupted something I was describing to say: 'If you were putting that in a story, what would the character be saying?' Then she said, 'Why don't you try putting that down on paper?'"
Thus, albeit tentatively, was Weinzweig's career as a writer born, transmuting the pain of indelible memory into the magical balm of prose.
"You spend the first part of your life surviving," she once said, explaining why she started writing so late. "Then you spend another big part of your life getting it together. Finally, you come to a point that is sometimes called a midlife crisis, when the momentum of getting there is over, and you ask yourself, what now?"
Weinzweig wrote - and rewrote - laboriously. It took her two years to produce her first short story, My Mother's Luck , and two more before she summoned the courage to mail it to Canadian Forum, where it was soon published. It was another nine years before her first novel, Passing Ceremony , appeared, in 1973. She was 57.
That manuscript landed on the desk of the House of Anansi's James Polk, who was then editing his first book. "It was an amazing stroke of luck for a beginner," Polk says. "Not only was the author smart, kind, wickedly funny, and articulate; she had a fine literary talent, which brought a modernist European voice into Canadian fiction. A painstaking artist, she took her time and produced relatively little. But what there was, was choice."
Her second novel, Basic Black with Pearls (1980), told as an interior monologue, and a subsequent collection of short stories A View From the Roof (1989), were both short-listed for the Governor General's Award.
UBC English professor Richard Cavell called Basic Black "a novel about the loss of cultural memory. [It's]devastating both on the personal level [a woman searching for identity]and on the allegorical one of a nation [Canada]that has willfully forgotten what it is."
The approach Weinzweig took to solving her midlife crisis was typical of her approach to life itself - meet it head-on. Forced to leave high school to find work during the Depression, she answered an ad for an obstetric assistant. Given the prevalent anti-Semitism of the day, she changed the name on her application from Tenenbaum to Tennant and used the address of a friend who lived in an upscale Anglo-Saxon district. The waiting room was full of hopeful candidates.
"What makes you think you are eligible for this job?" the doctor inquired. "I have professional nurses out there."
"Because I'm up to page 435 in Grey's Anatomy ," she replied. She got the job.
Later, with her first-born son, Paul, suffering a severe case of celiac disease, she sought out experimental treatments, finally finding a New York doctor who prescribed rich and spicy foods - the antithesis of conventional therapy. The doctor believed the diet would restart the child's faulty enzymatic engines, and he was proven right.
She did the same for her younger son, Daniel; when, as an infant, he was diagnosed with an irregular heart beat, she found Toronto cardiologists trained to administer what was then a new diagnostic technique, the angiogram.
"My mother believed," says Daniel, "that if you did not know the answer to something, you went out and found it."
And she believed something else, adds Paul. She believed that every trauma presented a choice: either paralysis or the psychic energy to move forward. "Helen likened the energy of trauma to a cobalt bomb with a radioactive half-life of 100 years. Perhaps that's how she lived so long."
In 1948, convinced that her city sons needed fresh, country air, she found and bought, sight unseen, a cottage on Loon Lake near Huntsville, for $2,000. The family spent parts of the next 60 years there.
If the best literature is produced by trauma, then Helen Tenenbaum Weinzweig had a deep well from which to draw. Born in 1915, she was, according to the eulogy delivered by Paul at his mother's funeral, the only child of "a tempestuous marriage between a very young, reticent, illiterate, fiercely independent, physically beautiful and graceful young mother, and an older, modern intellectual father, a brilliant Talmudic scholar turned atheist and anarchist." The marriage did not last, and her early years, Weinzweig would later say, were a struggle for physical survival.
They must have been hard psychologically as well. Years later, she told Globe and Mail reporter H.J. Kirchoff that as a child she would leave the room when anyone spoke Yiddish or Polish. "The associations of both were very traumatic for me."
She found refuge, almost literally, in books. Although she had started school in Poland, Weinzweig never learned to read or write in Polish. She was never quite sure why; it might have been because she was expelled for stealing a book.
As she later recalled, "I remember walking along the street behind a policeman who was escorting me home. To report the theft? … I never went back to school ... because of shame? Did my mother refuse to buy me books for school because we were so poor? All I know is that I am addicted to books."
The early years in Toronto were not materially better. Her mother, who opened a hairdressing salon, welcomed a parade of unsuitable men into their lives, some as husbands, others as transient lovers. Young Helen escaped to the St. George's Children's Library; there, the librarian, Sadie Bush, who lived upstairs above the books, invited her daily for biscuits and hot chocolate with marshmallows, and read to her.
As Weinzweig later put it: "The realities of the first part of my life were such that nature, in her compassion, kept me from knowing and reacting until I was old enough to handle the facts." With books, "I began to imagine other realities … the conflicts that got resolved, the happiness that replaced tragedy, the poverty that ended in riches."
From this special relationship with Bush, said Paul, "sprouted mother's love of language, literature and books. To the end of her days, a library signalled a safe home."
Thinking pragmatically, Weinzweig's mother had wanted her to attend Toronto's High School of Commerce, to learn typing and stenographic skills. But she had other ideas and, over her mother's objections, enrolled at Harbord Collegiate. There, she studied ancient history and literature, subjects that awakened her imagination to the rich textures of culture.
But her shocks were not over. At 17, she went for what she thought would be a brief reunion with her estranged father in Milan. There, he effectively kidnapped her, and it was months before she managed to return. The next year, contracting tuberculosis from a visiting aunt, she collapsed at the corner of Yonge and Bloor Streets. At the Gage Clinic on College Street, doctors told her to go home and stay in bed. That, says Paul, she "immediately recognized as a death sentence and refused to leave the clinic until they found her a hospital bed."
She spent the next two years in a sanatorium in Gravenhurst, Ont. While her body was rooted, and slowly healing, her mind was soaring. There, she studied religion, from Buddhism to Theosophy to Christian Science, and read and discussed Western literature. It was the college education she had never had.
"If I had to do it all over again," she later said of her sanatorium years, "I would risk death to experience that mental superiority."
She left Gravenhurst with one collapsed and one half-functioning lung and lived robustly that way for the next seven decades. Shortly after she returned to Toronto, she was riding the College Street streetcar when she spotted an old high school friend, John Weinzweig, on the street. She jumped out, and ran over, "John, it's me, Helen Tenenbaum!"
"Helen," he said, startled, "I thought you were dead!"
And so began a great intellectual romance. John Weinzweig was a prize catch: tall, dark, handsome, a university graduate, composer, musician and athlete. "The only immediate problem," as Paul tells it, "was that [Helen]came from the wrong side of the streetcar tracks. She had an uphill battle to convince the Jewish bourgeoisie that she was legit."
But of course she did. She spent the next 20 years devoting herself to motherhood. Both sons credit her interventions with saving them from lives of profligacy and dissolution. Paul says he was metaphorically dragged out of poolrooms and into Glendon College. Making a personal visit to the dean, she persuaded him to teach her son weightlifting, which proved an enormous boost to his self-confidence. Paul became a professor of criminology and later went into business.
When Daniel dropped out of high school at 16, his mother arranged for him to get a job in the film business, where he rose to senior executive posts and fruitfully spent the next 40 years.
Such acts of support were not confined to her family. Weinzweig also played an instrumental role in founding organizations that promoted the nation's music and its musicians, including the Canadian League of Composers.
In 1990, Toronto writer Rhoda Green was seeking literary advice when a friend referred her to Weinzweig. "Helen immediately invited me over to the house," Green recalls. "We talked. I left her my stories and within a day or two, she called, just to assure me that she had started to read them."
They worked together for about a year before "Helen cut the umbilical cord." Analytically, Green says, Weinzweig had the ability "to see to the very heart of writing, to tell you why something worked or it didn't. She used to say, 'so what's the hachma , the wisdom, the point?'
"And she was open. She'd talk to you about anything, including sex and sexuality. She had one of the sharpest and youngest minds I've ever seen, and she was at least 70 then."
Toronto lawyer Marian Hebb was also influenced by Weinzweig. "She was sort of a role model for me," says Hebb, who'd been an editor at Clarke Irwin for a decade before shifting gears and going to law school. It was Weinzweig who showed her that such a change was possible.
For herself, Weinzweig seems to have been more interested in measuring her work by some inner artistic barometer than in finding a large, commercial audience. Heavily influenced by avant-garde writers, among them Joseph Conrad, Jerzy Kosinski, John Barth, Jorge Luis Borges and Ivy Compton Burnett, her novels and short stories were experimental, often compared to magical realism, a genre in which it was sometimes hard to discern who the narrator was or whether events described were even real.
According to The Globe and Mail's William French, Weinzweig believed that many conventions of fiction, such as plot and characterization, had been expropriated by TV and movies and that many novelistic devices had been usurped by newspapers, magazines and advertising. The novelist, she argued, must move in new directions. "The writer must use words to reach an imagination not being served by other forms of print or by the camera," she said. "The reader of his words must be invited to participate in the mental process of the writer by being challenged to explore levels of awareness triggered by his unfamiliar arrangement of words. … For myself, the freedom of dispensing with strict chronology, plots, omniscience, gives me a means of dealing with what has become a personal preoccupation - the slippery footwork required of all of us to stay balanced in the crazy, or if you're lucky, the fun house of appearance and illusion."
Weinzweig was "a writer's writer," Green says. "Publishing was never the goal."
The author herself confessed as much in an interview with Ryerson English professor Ruth Panofsky, published in the 2008 book, At Odds in the World, Essays on Jewish Canadian Women Writers . Talking about Basic Black , Weinzweig said, "I did not write the novel to satisfy readers' expectations. It reflects my desire to belong to [a]bourgeois, nuclear family. The inherent conflict was to want it and to despise it."
According to Panofsky, the central thrust of Weinzweig's stories is "her belief in the paradox that tragedy always lurks beneath the comfortable and conventional surface of everyday life."
Although the characters in her work were typically Jewish, Weinzweig developed a deep interest in and appreciation for Asian culture. She travelled widely in the Far East and, according to Paul, was especially captivated by the eloquent cultural expressions of harmony, simplicity and gracefulness in Japan, a country where she made close friends. "Helen delighted in Haiku poetry, spring blossoms, the scent of autumn leaves on the ground after a rain. She surrounded herself with oriental art and sculpture, read and studied Zen Buddhism for more than four decades. This philosophy and the practice of meditation did much to bring her inner peace, harmonious relationships and the resolution of many of life's dilemmas, especially balancing on that razor's edge between the human need for sociability and the artist's necessity for solitude."
Helen Tenenbaum Weinzweig was born on May 21, 1915. She died on Feb. 11, 2010. Predeceased by her husband, John, and by a grandson, Joshua, she leaves sons Paul and Daniel, daughters-in-law Paulina and Nancy, one granddaughter and four grandsons.