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Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Tender, funny look at refreshingly happy family

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Who Killed Mom?

By Steve Burgess

Greystone Books, 264 pages, $23

DESPITE the attention-getting title, this isn't a mystery story. Steve Burgess's tender and funny debut book is actually an account of the life and (completely natural) death of his mother, Joan.

Not only are there no murders, but Burgess has managed to pull off a memoir that dwells not on dysfunction and disaster but on the everyday experiences of a refreshingly happy and ordinary family.

With an easygoing, anecdotal style, the veteran Canadian broadcaster and writer covers the full circle of family life. He starts out with a Prairie childhood, first in Regina and later in Brandon, as his mother and father, Bill, wrangle five kids.

Decades later, Burgess and his siblings struggle to care for their elderly, ailing parents, and to come to terms with "the new normal" of Joan and Bill's increasingly narrowed lives.

Several episodes centre on Christmas, ritually celebrated in the Burgess family with party mix and tacky Santa candles. The holiday takes on a certain bittersweet quality as Joan and Bill head into their 80s.

"Somewhere along the way the annual Christmas celebrations changed character," Burgess recalls. "Once a tally of passing years, they became a countdown."

Burgess writes comic reminiscences of family car trips in the pre-seatbelt days, with the kids in the back "bouncing around like golf balls in a dryer." He takes us through the '70s, the Burgess kids navigating adolescence -- Steve listens to Pink Floyd in the basement, steals from Kmart, drops acid -- while the parents participate in encounter groups and Joan heads back to school and work.

When we're growing up, we tend to see our parents only as parents, solid and unchanging. Some of Burgess's strongest chapters come as he pushes past this, finding a new sense of his mother and father as he relates stories of their childhoods, their courtship and the early days of their marriage.

The book's loose structure is held together by Burgess's clear-eyed love for his mother, who comes across as crisp but compassionate, pragmatic, open-minded and strong as hell. Burgess admires Joan for being "independent as a badger," even in the face of lifelong health problems, and for refusing to carry on the legacy of her own mother, a monstrous and manipulative woman whom Burgess describes as having "a mind like a windowless room."

Burgess also seems to be trying to atone for his own years as a delinquent son.

Recounting his run-ins with the law, his drug and alcohol problems and his much later awakening to sobriety, he frets that he may have shortened his mother's life with the stresses of his teen years. (Hence the book's title.)

Burgess is laudably frank -- he writes about waking up in his own urine -- but the tone of this section doesn't quite fit with the rest of the book.

Burgess's abstract musings about chance, luck, character, nature and nurture also break the narrative flow, coming off more as mini-magazine articles. His best work involves retelling family stories, the kind that make people laugh around a dinner table even if they already know them.

Burgess has a way with one-liners, and it comes in handy as he gets ready to face the death of his beloved mother. As they say, you have to laugh.

Winnipeg writer Alison Gillmor remembers the days when the closest thing to a seatbelt was your mom putting out her arm when she stopped the car suddenly.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 16, 2011 J7

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