Barbara Frum:
A Daughter's Memoir

256 pages,
ISBN: 039422342X

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A Grief Observed
by Robin Roger

At the age of eighty, Leo Tolstoy expressed the anguish of maternal loss in his journal: "Yes, yes, my Maman....She is my highest image of love-not cold, divine love, but warm, earthly love, maternal...Maman, hold me, baby me!...All this is madness, but it is true." Even though abashed at his unrelenting yearning, Tolstoy testified honestly to the pain from which he could not entirely recover. Such testimonies lend dignity and support to others when it is their turn to mourn the loss of a parent. Linda Frum, whose famous mother died a mere four years ago, adds her own important testimony here.
Barbara Frum was so beloved by the public, and died so recently, that readers and reviewers are now arguing about whether Linda Frum's portrait conforms to their own memories of the accomplished journalist and broadcaster. But accuracy is not really the issue. This is a daughter's memoir, and Linda Frum succeeds so long as she offers her own cherished and intense memories of her mother. As gripping memoirs such as In This Dark House, by Louise Kehoe, and The Liar's Club, by Mary Karr, prove, the subject of a memoir may be totally obscure so long as she is vividly and compellingly portrayed.
Linda Frum offers a rich and human portrait of her mother, full of the details that bring a person to life: "She felt a Turkish respect for coffee..I remember how often she frantically clicked her fingers at me to catch my attention. She would be on an important call, the coffee pot miserably out of reach. As I topped up her cup her face would fill with pleasure, and she would run her hand gratefully down my hair with a mother's gentleness and an addict's relief." She loved her poodle, Diva, "a girl with fur", so intensely that she brought her to work at the CBC each day, certain that her colleagues' discomfort would be dispelled by her pet's ability to peel individually wrapped pieces of Melba toast out of their wrappers. The description of Barbara Frum's upbringing is a frank and slightly terrifying portrait of the creation of an overachiever. Childhood photos reveal a serious expression verging on melancholy, and Florence Rosberg, Barbara's mother, recalls treating her as an adult contemporary from the age of three. "I wasn't bringing up a little kid, I was bringing up a best friend. She couldn't twitch a muscle that wasn't subject to scrutiny."
These are the details of the memoirist. The information dutifully supplied by the biographer, concerning the development of Barbara's career and other matters of public record, are less compelling. It is a broadcaster's fate to leave behind a legacy that is not easily conveyed in a book. A television retrospective on Frum's work would be more interesting. Some of the interviews excerpted nicely illustrate her stages of development, but many of them, lacking her delivery and timing, do not read well at all.
The most vivid and meaningful parts of the book describe the long battle that Linda and Barbara Frum fought together to love each other fully while preparing to be prematurely parted. The tortuous conflict between the need to cling closely in the time available and the need to prepare for separation by developing precocious independence never really ended so long as Frum managed to survive past the haematologists' predictions. With no clear end in sight, plus a determination to survive well past the expected time, the Frums were never quite able to identify and thus prepare for the end. Though she knew of her mother's disease from the age of fifteen, Linda describes how unable she and her family were to recognize her mother's final decline. "Mummy....We must keep fighting. And if we get to the point where you need my blood, or my bone marrow, or my bones, or my heart, I'll give it to you.' `I know,' she said, `but it doesn't work that way.'"
This has not made mourning Barbara any easier, and Linda Frum is courageously frank about her continuing grief and the impact it has had on her subsequent life. In almost two decades of disease, Barbara had never made her wishes for her funeral or commemoration known. Thus she deprived her family of a way to say goodbye that would leave them with a sense that they had done what she wanted. This book, Linda acknowledges, is another gesture towards her mother's wishes. Without quite saying it, Linda describes how her wedding day, which took place shortly after her mother's death and was staged in accordance with Barbara's highly developed vision of how the dress, music, and flowers should be selected, was another such gesture.
If philosophy is learning how to die, Barbara Frum was no philosopher. But she knew how to live by using every resource at her command to the fullest. The powerful combination of her native intelligence, life-long steely discipline, intense ambition, and the early awareness of her own mortality made her a force with which there was no reckoning, least of all by a loving and needing daughter who had to accept too early in life that her own neglect allowed her mother to fight her disease by pursuing success.
Linda Frum pays homage to her mother but not quite enough to herself. She mentions almost in passing that since 1992 she has buried her mother, gotten married, given birth to twins, gotten divorced, and written this book, as if this were not also part of the story of how she has struggled with her loss. But this well-wrought biography and feeling memoir show that she has engaged in an overwhelming struggle, and to an impressive degree, brought her mother's model of discipline, neutrality, and intelligence to bear.

Robin Roger is editor of the alumni magazine for University College, University of Toronto.


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