The House With the Broken Two
By Myrl Coulter
Anvil Press, 213 pages, $18
In 1968, Winnipeg teenager Myrl Coulter was unmarried and pregnant. The idea of being a single parent was still unheard of, so Coulter was sent off to a home for unwed mothers. There she waited out her pregnancy and gave up her baby boy for adoption.
For 36 years, this secret was never spoken of by Coulter's family. She shared it with only a few people. Then the baby and the birth mother found each other.
A memoir, an adoption narrative and a grief mosaic, this winner of Simon Fraser University's 2010 First Book Competition is a beautifully written volume in the genre of creative non-fiction.
Coulter now lives in Edmonton, but The House with the Broken Two begins in Winnipeg's Fort Garry with the story of her family who lived in the house with red steps and a broken "2" on its identifying number. It continues into Coulter's adulthood and her own experiences of parenting during the '80s and '90s.
Each chapter stands on its own as a short memoir. In My Mother's Gravy, Coulter explores her mother's approach to cooking, which was to try out new recipes ("365 ways to cook ground beef") and then leave the children to eat the results.
In the chapter Beatles and Boyfriends, she anchors her teenage-hood in Winnipeg's 1966 blizzard and ensuing flood, the songs of Elvis and the Beatles and the Guess Who, the heady year of Canada's centennial and Winnipeg's Pan Am Games in '67. She pays tribute to her Grade 12 English teacher, David Arnason (now a well-known Winnipeg author), who encouraged her to go to university.
By the fall of 1967 Coulter was "a girl in trouble." In the chapter Unwed, Not Dead, she explains how marriage was unthinkable because it would have meant "public shame" for her parents. Society's message to young women was that "you'll have more children and forget about this one."
Coulter gave birth to a baby boy whom she held only once, surreptitiously, late at night. It was "one moment branded on one heart for a lifetime."
Then her son disappeared into the closed adoption system, but she never forgot him.
Time moved on. Marriage, three more children, a divorce and a remarriage followed for Coulter. Smart and talented, she worked as a cashier, X-ray technician, photographer and small business owner. Eventually she followed her longtime dream (encouraged years earlier by that high school English teacher) of attending university. She earned a PhD in English and taught for several years at the University of Alberta.
And she finally found her writer's voice.
Coulter admits that she tells this very personal story of her family in order to "explore how an ordinary family like mine, a family who celebrated the arrival of each and every child, could have let one of their own go, supposedly never to be thought about, heard from, or spoken of again."
It's a long exploration that reveals the imperfections, repressions and delights that happened in the house with the broken two.
It's also a critique of the closed adoption system and of some of the medical and social workers of the 1960s.
In her preface, Coulter acknowledges that her goal is "to treat everyone involved in my story with respect and dignity while staying true to my memory of each moment as it happened to me."
And that's where the readers of this book will engage with Coulter. The experience of adoption is filled with loss and memory. This fine book shows a birth mother's perspective.
Adelia Neufeld Wiens is a Winnipeg freelance writer.