For ten years after the Tet Offensive spit our father into a locked ward at Mass General, we moved
so often that we became movement, became the rivers roping through each new address. 

Those are the opening lines of Lee Parpart’s poem, “Becoming Water 1968-83”, one of two works she shared with our monthly writing circle in June, 2019. Our circle is a group of Canadian Authors-Toronto members, structured by Lee as part of her tireless work revitalizing the organization, where writers read and critique each other’s fiction or poetry.

Lee Parpart

When I first read those lines I had come to know Lee personally, but just a little bit. I think we’d had lunch together once and I’d treated her to a quick dinner before a writing circle, at my favourite Toronto Pho joint, on Spadina just a little north of Dundas, Pho Hung. I can tell you that quick meals are insight to Lee, who takes so little time to stop and relax. She always seems to be scurrying, always slightly behind time, deadlines looming large, the needs of others, of work, of various volunteer organizations, taking precedent over Lee looking after Lee.

The little bit I knew about her, gained over these brief, hurried meals, crystallized in my mind with the images of those opening lines: her father “spit” from the war in Vietnam to a psychiatric ward. The insanity of that war creating the mental illness of her father; the primary psychiatrist who treated him at the Veteran Affairs hospital was clear that the war triggered his mental breakdown. When I began this Profile and discussed the poem with Lee in more detail, she characterized it as “a child’s perceptions of her own chaotic upbringing involving a father who couldn’t control his emotions and a mother who just wanted to escape.” Memories of doors being ripped from hinges and rotary telephones ripped from walls. Yet that chaos and need to escape brought for Lee other emotions as well. Later in the poem: “To our father we must have seemed like deserters.” Whatever terror she felt as a little girl she also felt great empathy, a quality immediately evident if you spend any time with Lee.

The more I reflected on that poem, and the details behind it that Lee provided, the more I reflected on her empathy and language skills, and on her selflessness of a kind that can seem to drive her to near self-destruction. Add that she is American-Canadian, burns with a relentless need for perfection, and that physically she is — to use an old phrase — a tall drink of water, and you have Lee Parpart. When I embarked on writing this Profile series, and decided I wanted to tell the story about the revitalization of Authors-Toronto, I knew I also needed to tell the stories of the two Co-Presidents, the combined guiding force, Lee and Jeannie Fong Garrard. To employ yet another old phrase, they are the “long and short of it”, the top of Jeannie’s head barely rising to Lee’s shoulders. Though they are both driven by some inexhaustible need to volunteer and help shape community organizations, particularly with writer communities, they come from very different backgrounds, as you will see in the next Profile about Jeannie. But for now we consider Lee.

Lee grew up in Massachusetts until her mother finally escaped her father, because of his illness, his inability to control his emotions. Her father stayed in Massachusetts, keeping the family summer home in Woods Hole, on Cape Cod. The Marine Biological Laboratories are located in Woods Hole, where Lee’s paternal grandfather was director. The summer home still in the family (her father died in 2013), Lee stealing away from Toronto when she can with her husband and daughter. Her mother’s escape led to her mother’s first academic job in Durango, Colorado, the place Lee attended high school. Lee then followed her mother again, this time to Canada.

After divorcing her father, Lee’s mother re-married and her new Canadian husband sponsored Lee in 1983, when she was eighteen. A dual citizen, Lee spans both countries but in a duality of existence: her sensibilities, without any doubt, are pure Canadian, but her personal history is American. For all the disturbing images that arise from that history in her poetry, the existence of poetry itself is embodied in a relationship built around language that she began to explore as early as four years old and became firmly established at eleven. With a somewhat older boy of fifteen, who also loved writing, they started a writing group together. After decades of going their separate ways they reconnected not long after her father’s death, through writing, and that writing connection strengthened to daily correspondence of poems. David Epstein, the boy in the story, has a PhD in Literature, has published poetry in a number of literary journals, and, like Lee, returns to Woods Hole in the summers. In 2017 they joined together for a poetry reading at the Woods Hole Public Library, which they repeated in 2018, a forty-year old friendship celebrated by the vocalization of their shared passion for the written word.

Lee with David Epstein, her good friend and fellow poet, during a recent trip he made to Toronto.

Lee settled — more on that verb in a bit — in Canada by attending university in Ottawa, an undergad in English Literature and Political Science. Although she graduated with straight As, much of her time and energy was dedicated to the student newspaper. Lee described her life then as: “studies, boyfriend, newspaper.” She also added: “I never saw the inside of a bar the whole time I was in undergrad.” (A university existence, I must admit, with which I’m totally unfamiliar.) The next decade, in sync with her earlier years — in contrast with that verb settled — she bounced between Ottawa, her mother’s Nova Scotia home, and Cape Cod where she leveraged her student newspaper experience into a stint with the Falmouth Enterprise, a triweekly newspaper on Cape Cod, then recruited to the Cape Cod Times. Told that she would require a journalism degree if she wanted to pursue her career in Canada, Lee finished a one year degree at King’s College in Halifax, living with her mother who taught at Dalhousie University. From there she held internships at the CBC and the Kingston Whig Standard. Her artistic nature blended with journalism when she started to write an arts column. And her love life found its own nature in the union with a Whig Standard editor, a man to whom she’s still married (he’s now an editor with one of Canada’s largest dailies). All that said, of course, Lee’s nature is Lee’s nature and a week after her wedding she headed alone to Toronto to pursue a Master’s of Fine Art (MFA) in film and video at York University, where she lived in residency.

The artistic-journalist blend continued with her life-long love affair with movies being realized, not only in study, but also in a two year stint at the Globe and Mail’s Broadcast magazine as a film columnist. The unabated energy that I’ve witnessed in Lee this last year was undoubtedly in full gear almost two decades ago as she juggled full time grad studies, a teacher’s assistant (TA) role and a magazine column. When I talked about this period of her life with Lee I also got a glimpse into the combined nurturing and all-in quality of her editing dedication. With usual self-deprecation, she laughed as she told me her absolute joy as a TA was to grade papers. I’ve known a great number of teachers in my day, adult acquaintances and friends who’ve taught everything from elementary to secondary and post-secondary school, but never have I heard someone go on at length about the sheer joy they found in reading and grading papers. Because, as Lee understood it, every paper was an extension of a person trying to find their voice, trying to communicate how they understood the world through whatever films their assignment asked them to contemplate. Eventually, as her MFA turned into working toward her PhD, a friend recognized that her qualities as both writer and impassioned grader combined to make Lee a perfect candidate as copy editor for a project at the University of Toronto. The project was a series of free-standing essays, written in English by Iranian Scholars living in Iran. Experts writing in their second language, from afar — who better to nurture and craft their talents than Lee Parpart.

By the time Lee’s daughter, Bridget, was born in 2002, a career as film critic was emerging — she was teaching at both U of T and York — and had published nine academic articles. The usual dynamics of a mid-thirties new-mom trying to advance her career would have embraced Lee but a more powerful, menacing force arrived with Bridget, asthma and severe allergies that included milk protein inducing anaphylactic shock. If, like me, you’ve been lucky enough to have little family exposure to the potential of a child’s anaphylaxis, go to Food Allergy Canada’s website and read the following in their FAQ section: “Anaphylaxis (pronounced anna-fill-axis) is a serious allergic reaction that is rapid in onset and may cause death.” Read the last clause of the sentence when you’re holding your infant: may cause death.

Work/life balance went out the window. Looking back now, Lee described her time with that usual self-deprecating humour, laughing about how other parents must have reacted to the very tall woman, self-proclaimed allergy protective parent extraordinaire, who also became an expert baker of vegan pies and pastries. I believe there were serious discussions during the next decade of opening a vegan bakery. But what also came during that decade, that time as selfless parent, was almost no writing. By 2014, in full throes of a mid-life crisis, Lee “ran away” to a conference in Ireland, finally coming to terms with the obvious: she knew she had to write.

Lee having fun with writers Zoe Whittall (left) and Wiebke von Carolsfeld (centre) while MCing Authors-Toronto’s September program. A program that Lee also organized.

So here we are, a few years later, Lee Parpart publishing a number of poems and a piece of short fiction with Silver Birch Press, and being named an “emerging writer” for East York in Open Book Ontario’s 2016 short story contest. Full time editor with Iguana Books, a Toronto based hybrid publisher, where I imagine she spends four times as long, compared to other editors, with every writer. I know this because, as I sit around the table with her once a month, along with seven or eight other writers, I watch her face light up when her turn comes to provide feedback. Critiquing to her a passion like, I imagine, grading papers were twenty-five years ago, an eagerness to embrace, share, expand, to challenge in the name of creativity, to hone talent, to share a journey along an artistic path.

If you read my previous Profile, regarding the reinvigoration of Authors – Toronto, you will have read my account of Lee’s endless volunteering. As much as I admire all that she does I do wish, and have voiced to her, somewhat, that she be not so egalitarian with her time — Lee could stand to clutch a little greed to her bosom, pilfer time for herself, occupy Virginia Woolf’s  “room of one’s own”, and write write write for Lee Lee Lee. My friendship with Lee has been but a short time, but that short time has brought forth a desire, by me, to hold in my hand a book of poetry, or of short stories, and beneath whatever title has been imprinted on the cover, to read: by Lee Parpart. Of all the gifts Lee provides others, I think those who know her better than I also hope most for that gift. Lee showing the world what her friends already know: a writer has emerged.

Writer, publisher and full-time health-care worker Jeannie Fong Garrard is Co-President of Canadian Authors – Toronto with Lee. Although I’ve known Jeannie for over a year, what she revealed surprised me when I interviewed her for a Profile — and made me admire her even more. Funny, introspective and industrious are just a few words I can think of to describe this wonderful woman. You may come out with a few more of your own when you read her Profile.

I hope you come back.

About Ed Seaward

Ed Seaward is the author of a number of short stories and screenplays, including Mother Daughter Happiness, which was a finalist at the 2019 Pasadena International Film Festival…

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