September 1, 2014

In Loving Memory of Dr. Penelope Niven --- The Mother & Daughter Bond – Published in the Winston-Salem Journal – Mother’s Day Special Section 2003

Sometimes, the mother and daughter bond is so deep, it goes beyond words.
            When Penelope Niven and daughter Jennifer Niven tell each other --- “I love you more than words,” many people will recognize the fact that even Webster’s dictionary may not hold enough words to describe that love because both mother and daughter are published authors. What makes the Nivens’ bond so deep is how they actively participate in and nurture each other’s lives. These valuable lessons go deeper than their connection as writers.
             However strong mother and daughter relationships are a part of the Nivens’ heritage. Penny offers, “Jennifer and I have a very deep spiritual sense, we come from a line of very strong women. The Niven women in general are very strong dynamic women; there are just dozens of us, so perhaps some of that is genetic.”  
            Sometimes the best lessons in life really do come from our mothers. It has only been a few weeks since Penelope Niven’s mother passed away (sic: March 2003), and it is these lessons that have helped to see Penny through this difficult time. “Getting to know my mother as a woman and friend as well as my mother grew and grew year by year. My mother taught me to cherish the imagination and to be my full self. These were lessons of a woman’s strength. My mother was a person who could do all those things in a time when women weren’t quite so adventurous. She was a pioneer in that when I was growing up in the 1950’s she was already able expertly to balance family and a career as a teacher. I had so much admiration and respect for both my parents and for the way they handled that last phase of the journey of life. They made deep peace with life and when you can do that, you don’t have to make peace with death.”
            Penelope Niven also became a teacher, and is a Professor of English at Salem College in addition to being a published author. She always knew she wanted to be a writer and credits her early development, recalling the exact moment at the age of five when knew she wanted to be a writer: “I can still see how those black marks looked and that I knew then that I would be able to read words and then write words. I went home and said I just needed to get busy and learn how to write today.” It was not until after she turned forty that writing would become her other life work.
            The catalyst for her writing career was a trip to Connemara, the home of Carl Sandburg in Flat Rock. Sandberg’s home had just opened to the public. This initial endeavor was as a volunteer to help organize over 30,000 Sandburg papers. While there she met Lucy Kroll who was Carl Sandburg’s agent. These two events opened the door for her and she wrote Carl Sandburg: a Biography which was published in 1991. From this she co-authored with James Earl Jones, Voices and Silences. As an outgrowth of the Sandburg biography she wrote, Steichen: a Biography. Steichen was Carl Sandburg’s brother-in-law and a pioneer as well as one of the foremost photographers of the last century. Other books include a children’s book on Sandburg, a soon to be released biography on Thornton Wilder and her newest book Swimming Lesson’s, which is not about swimming but about living your life and learning to live, and will come out next spring.       
Her daughter, Jennifer Niven however, is her pride and joy. Penny states that some of the best lessons in life, she learned from her daughter; “I have the most marvelous daughter ever -  on earth and on this planet. Jennifer and I have always had such a friendship in addition to our mother daughter bond which is very, very deep. She is my finest work of art and I’ll never be anything better or more joyful or more significant than being Jennifer’s mother.”        
            Growing up as the daughter of a writer was an advantage for Jennifer Niven. As a child, her mother would set a small desk next to her bigger one and they would have writing times together. Jennifer tells us; “At first I said oh this is fun, we’re having writing time though it was probably more about me then her when we were sitting side by side together. Later I realized it was as much for her as it was for me.” Deciding that writing would also become Jennifer’s life work came at the age of 19 when she traveled with her mother who was then working with James Earle Jones on location in Louisiana while he was filming the movie, “Convict.”
             Jennifer would travel with her mother and do things with her that normal kids did not do such as meet many famous people. “I had dabbled in short story writing and play writing but I had never really thought about writing for television or for film. Being on that set with James Earl Jones and in that atmosphere really excited me. It was my first real first-hand experience and shortly after that I went to film school and studied screen writing.”
            After completing college, Jennifer received her MFA in writing and moved to California where she became a screen writer. She won an Emmy for a short film called Velva Jean Learns how to Drive, based on a story written by her mother. Jennifer Niven’s first novel, The Ice Master: the Doomed 1913 Voyage of the Karluk was named one of the top ten nonfiction books of 2000. Her new novel, Ada Blackjack, a sequel to The Ice Master will be released in fall of 2003.
             Jennifer credits her mother for always telling her, “You can do anything you put your mind to, you can be anything you want to be, and to never ever sell yourself short or to settle for less. She always taught me to dream big and that was one of the most valuable things I ever learned and it certainly has helped me to shape my life. My mother has always given me unconditional love and inspired me to do whatever I wanted to do. If I were to have a daughter, I would hope to be as wonderful a mother as my mom is to me. One of the main reasons I would have a child, would be to give back some of what my mom has given to me because she has been the most incredible mother.”

            Penelope Niven says that the work of parenting is one of the most important works on earth. “Building a strong relationship with children is increasingly difficult for young mothers. They do not always have the time that they need to be totally present for their children. This is not their fault but an impact of the economy and our society. The importance for mothers and fathers is to be able to be present in their children’s lives. You have to work harder to carve out the time. I think about my mother and that we lived in a much slower pace of time and we were able to find balance and true communication. This is a reason my daughter and I talk on the phone every day – it is as necessary as breathing.”       

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