Books·How I Wrote It

Why Karen von Hahn wrote a memoir about the objects her mother left behind

In What Remains, the style columnist discusses how she wrote her unconventional memoir about a mother who would stop at nothing to make a statement.
Karen von Hahn's memoir reveals intimate details of growing up with a larger-than-life mother. (Mango Studio/House of Anansi)

Pearls, perfume and silver satin sofas are among the objects that remind Karen von Hahn of her stylish and glamorous mother, Susan. But it wasn't until after Susan died that von Hahn realized these objects tell a story. In her memoir, What Remains, the lifestyle columnist reflects on what it was like to grow up in Toronto during the 1970s alongside her larger-than-life mother through treasures left behind.

In her own words, von Hahn discusses how she wrote What Remains — which is structured around the objects her mother left behind —, a portrait of a woman who would stop at nothing to make a statement.

Her mother's last words

"The last word my mother ever said to me — which is also the first word of my book — was pearls. She made it clear to me that I was to get her pearls.  It was such an odd exit, and so very her, that it made me think about the meaning of things. That started me on this journey. Objects are totemic and that's basic to humanity."

Objects as memories

"When you start losing your parents or your parents become old and frail, it's usually a reckoning moment in your own life. I was floored by the loss of my mother and sorting through her things seemed very monumental. It came to me that things are the receptacle of our memory and our experiences. That's why it is so very hard to part with them. I started to see the process as meaningful. It also coincided with own desire to sit down and do something hard.  As a longtime journalist and columnist, I've primarily written on the subject of fashion and style. That tends to be a fun thing to write about and I've enjoyed it very much. It was challenging to share something so personal and to write about something that would honour the memory of my mother."

Let the objects be your guide

"I wanted to think like my mother, and she always thought very associatively. I thought to honour her, I knew I had to inhabit that illogical and associative world. It was important to keep circling around the central themes of the book to create a powerful and meaningful portrait, allowing myself to not be chronological and instead link ideas that seem to go together in a deeper and more intuitive way.

"The ideas came together on the page. I didn't always sit down knowing exactly the direction I was going to take. It was really in the writing that it started to make sense to me — trying to piece memories together. Photographs were also very helpful. A lot of your memories are related to what exists in photographs, it colours your look back on your own life."

Having a blast in the past

"It was fun to be able to remember and try to make sense of everything that went on. At the same time, it was great to be able to laugh at all the funny parts. I enjoyed being able to recount some of the hilarity of growing up in the 1970s and how insane it all was. When you look back at it now, everything was so crazy, like how unparented we were. It was fun to be able to try and conjure that era, before everyone got so worried about everything."

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