She interviewed Louis Armstrong, Irving Layton, and Eleanor Roosevelt. She held a mic toward the Andrew Sisters in the entrance to Honest Ed’s department store in Toronto. Later, on a visit to England, she discussed sculpture with Henry Moore.
Mona Gould published three books of poetry and even earned some money from them. Her poem “This Was My Brother,” about her brother’s tragic death at Dieppe, won prestigious awards and was featured in several anthologies, memorized by hundreds of Canadian school children back in the 1950s.
Mona was born in 1908 and she died in 1999, leaving behind thirty-eight boxes of papers and a beleaguered granddaughter to make sense of them. In her excellent book Outside the Box, (MQUP 2011) Maria Meindl almost loses her mind–and certainly sometimes her patience–archiving Gould’s life, with the help of staff at the Thomas Fisher Rare Books Library, at the University of Toronto. She was sequestered for six years in the dungeon with Mona, the grandmother she thought she knew.
“Dust was everywhere. At the end of each day I ceremoniously gathered a pile of dust from one counter in the study carrel with a wet paper towel, swept it onto my hand and threw it in the garbage.”
In the process, Meindl discovers their similar struggles as women eking-out fragile livings as freelance writers, hitting similar snags and pits but succumbing to them quite differently. Mona with a tumbler of Johnny Walker, blood red lips and tips, and woman-hating (they were “the threat”). Maria, with sobriety, pink lips, and (thank-god!) feminism.
Meindl is masterful at exposing the many-lives-in-one as found dumped inside these boxes. She discovers not only the “several Mona’s” and that woman’s modes of survival but she also comes up with some surprises about herself. It’s a good read; at times it’s a great read. But the best writing is Maria’s not Mona’s.
Meindl: “In a half hour period I might keep company with the menopausal widow, the spirited child, the housewife craving erotic adventures…crowded with characters and scenes from the past, overlaying whatever was happening in the here and now.”
As an archivist Meindl details the satisfactions, the hells, and the ‘why bothers?’ of dipping into another person’s lettered past. I loved how it recalls my own work as an obituary writer, gathering materials from a subject’s family members and condensing them into an article.
I also disparagingly imagined my own several-selves similarly stacked in liquor store boxes and milk crates, left to be dumped or burned or resentfully shoved from one side of some descendant’s garage to the other side.
Indeed, I pledge never to burden family with my literary whims and fashions. Let Outside the Box be a forceful reminder. And yet: we need to safeguard women’s history and, as Mona proved, women’s courage. Ah, the perpetually haunting conundrum…