Monday April 10, 2017

Ostrich eggs, obelisks and other things that remind Karen von Hahn of her mother

Karen von Hahn's memoir reveals intimate details of growing up with a larger-than-life mother.

Karen von Hahn's memoir reveals intimate details of growing up with a larger-than-life mother. (Mango Studio/House of Anansi)

Listen 17:15

For the last three decades, style maven Karen von Hahn has observed and written about everything related to fashion, design and trends. Her memoir, What Remains: Object Lessons in Love and Loss, is a poignant tribute to her mother, Susan, the woman from whom she inherited her love for style and beauty. Susan was always the life of the party — she was fiercely glamorous and animated, with an affinity for lavish goods and an extravagant lifestyle. In What Remains, von Hahn reveals intimate details about her complex relationship with her mother and captures her unforgettable spirit through the inanimate objects she left behind.

Karen von Hahn and Shelagh Rogers

Karen von Hahn chatted with Shelagh Rogers in CBC Toronto's studio. (Shelagh Rogers)

Self-invented and larger than life

She was my mother. First of all, for everyone that's a universal experience. We come to understand how to appreciate things, how to love, how to feel, how to notice. She's our lens on everything. In my case, this was particularly true because my mother was a very extraordinary character. She was entirely self-invented. She came from a very ordinary middle-class southern Ontario Anglican upbringing, but she imagined that one day she would be Coco Chanel or a great decorator like Elsie de Wolfe that people remember for all time. She thought she'd make her presence and her style and her vision known. Everything was a pronouncement. You heard the jangling of her jewellery as she walked into a room. She was larger than life. 

Living in a material world

Objects played a huge role in our home. My mother was this incredible curator and she taught me pre–nursery school about the importance of all these beautiful things. She curated her entire life and our lives with these objects, things that were very, very her. It was things like animal skins. Ostrich eggs. Glass obelisks. Glass coffee tables. In some ways, we don't understand how much we value objects and how primal that sense is because we denigrate the idea of the material world as not mattering. But in truth, it's essential to us. Why do we find things meaningful? In the end, that's what we're left with. It's what tells the story of what we care about, our aspirations, what we fear, what we admire, how we choose to express ourselves. I really felt that very strongly after my mother was gone and we had to deal with this museum that she had curated.

Her mother's lasting presence

What remains are fantastic memories of her extraordinary taste, her joie de vivre, her extraordinary generous love and warmth for all of us. I still miss her horribly, physically. But the few things that I have that remind me of her, I treasure. But the real thing is how much you hear your mother's voice inside your head, regardless of whether they're sitting there beside you or not. Every time I make myself a pot of tea, I still hear my mother saying, "You've got to put hot water in the teapot beforehand to warm it up." It's so imprinted. It's not only your DNA. Your whole psyche, your whole soul is imprinted with their presence. And I'll never forget her. I'm grateful she was my mother.

Karen von Hahn's comments have been edited and condensed.