'Her diagnosis had me go back,' Winnipeg author publishes letters sent between her and her mom

Winnipeg author publishes a book of letters to and from her mother.

When a Winnipeg author's mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, she turned to letters from decades earlier

Kathleen Venema and her mother, Geeske Venema-de Jong. Kathleen will be launching a book with excerpts from letters the two exchanged when she lived in Uganda. (Supplied by Gareth Neufeld)

Through 200 handwritten letters, 30 years and one diagnosis, a new book from a local author details a mother-daughter bond. 

In the late 80s, Winnipegger Kathleen Venema moved to Uganda for three years to teach. At that time, the country was still ravaged by war.

Kathleen and her mother, Geeske Venema-de Jong, kept in touch by writing hundreds of letters back-and-forth. Kathleen would tell her mother about the unfamiliar experiences she was encountering.

"And often, [Geeske wrote about] philosophical questions, the things she was involved in, her schooling … she would write to me about the essays she was writing, the research she was doing." 

"Often there were theological questions as well. She was engaged in heated debates with some of the people at her rather conservative church." 

Letters fight disease

When Geeske was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease in 2005, Kathleen wanted to keep her mom's mind active for as long as possible, so she turned to those letters.

"I'd always had an idea that it would be fun to do something with them, but it was really sort of [her] diagnosis that had me going back to them," Kathleen said.

She hoped the two would have something to read together, which would help remind them of that time in their lives.

"It worked a lot of the time, and sometimes it didn't. Sometimes my mom needed to be reminded what exactly this was," Kathleen said. 

The cover of Kathleen Venema's book Bird-Bent Grass. (Supplied by Gareth Neufeld)

"And letters, it turns out, are kind of hard to read after the fact … People write letters in the [moment], so recreating those was sometimes a little difficult, and honestly sometimes a little impossible."

Geeske died in February, and excepts from those letters formed the basis of Kathleen's book, Bird-Bent Grass.

Kathleen says the process of choosing letters for her book, and making those private stories public is "a little weird," but overall a positive experience.

"So far, the feedback I've been getting is about my mom's lively personality, and that is enormously gratifying to me."

Bird-Bent Grass launches April 20 at 7 p.m. at McNally Robinson.