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Toronto English prof comes to terms with the mother who abandoned her

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Few things tug harder at the heart than a good old-fashioned reunion story. Be it owner and pet, separated siblings, or parent and child, reuniting feels so good.

Well, not always, says Toronto poet and playwright Priscila Uppal, who teaches English literature and creative writing at York University.

Projection, recently shortlisted for the Governor General's Award and the Hilary Weston Writers' Trust Prize for non-fiction, details her 10-day reunion with her mother, who abandoned her in 1982. Uppal, then seven, and her eight-year-old brother Jit were left to be raised by their quadriplegic father.

With Brazil as its backdrop, Projection is no weepy Hallmark flick of the week. It doesn't lend itself to a Peaches & Herb sound bite. It's a gritty, insightful, honest and sometimes infuriating read that probes the often messy reality of family ties and mother-daughter relationships.

In 1977, Uppal's father became disabled after ingesting tainted water in Antigua, where he was a CIDA project manager. Priscila and Jit were toddlers. After returning to Canada, their mother, Theresa, spent five years trying to care for the family before deciding she was done.

She cleaned out her husband's and children's bank accounts, bought three one-way airline tickets and left their Ottawa home.

She made two unsuccessful attempts to abduct her children before returned to her Portuguese family in Brazil.

She never contacted her children again. In 2002, while doing an online search for reviews of her books, Priscila discovered Theresa's own literary website.

Curiosity sparked an awkward initial phone conversation and the two women decided to meet the following spring.

Although Priscila hoped the reunion would mutually benefit both women, the trip turned out to be one bogeyman short of a nightmare.

Mother and daughter found that they didn't like each other, despite shared interests in movies and art.

Both women use writing as an outlet for their frustrations and disappointments with life. But that's where their common ground ends. Priscila lives in her self-protective real world; Theresa calls her escapist world home. Neither the twain end up meeting.

Uppal's title, Projection, refers to movie projectors and feeds the movie connection., which is a bit contrived.

Fittingly, Uppal has named each chapter after a movie. Blade Runner resonates with mother and daughter, but it's Mommy Dearest that hits the hardest.

Uppal's recollections of the emotional and physical abuse Theresa unleashed upon her family as she became mentally unglued calls to mind Faye Dunaway's performance as the nasty Joan Crawford. Avid movie buffs will applaud the style; others will deem it overdone.

The book's few black and white photos of Uppal with Theresa and her extended family are deceptive. Smiling faces belie the awkwardness the unexpected reunion dumps on all the participants.

The mistrust and antagonism Theresa exhibits towards her own family, particularly her mother, is beyond sad.

In the end, mother abandons daughter again, this time at the Sao Paulo airport. Bemoaning their lack of common ground, Theresa flees to the first movie theatre she finds.

Although Priscila and her partner return to Brazil in 2005 to visit Theresa's extended family, mother and daughter have had no further contact.

"My goal was to find out who my mother is, who we are to each other," Uppal writes. "We're strangers tied by blood and crushed dreams. ... This can be freedom. ... Some dreams are meant to die."

Cut. Roll the credits.


Winnipeg writer Gail Cabana-Coldwell reconnected with her British birth mother in 1990, after a 35-year estrangement. Their relationship is a work-in-progress.


Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 12, 2013 A1

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