Thursday, May 07, 2009

Meet Miriam

Last night, a large group of Dunedinites gathered in the Public Library's Dunningham Suite to celebrate the launch of The Madonna in the Suitcase by  Huberta Hellendoorn. 

Written as a direct address to her adult daughter Miriam, this true-life story has all the characteristics of glass; fragility, transparency and considerable tensile strength. 

Miriam, first-born daughter to Huberta and Bart Hellendoorn and sister to Raymond and Foster, enters this world with an extra chromosome. A unique and deeply-loved child, Miriam grows up with a sense of her gifts rather than any conventionally-perceived limitations. She grows into a young woman with a fascination for language and a quirky turn of phrase. She also demonstrates a very real talent for drawing and painting. Miriam is an artist, who just happens to have Down Syndrome; Huberta is her mother, companion, advocate and guide. In the telling of this story, Huberta acknowledges the many ways in which Miriam has also been for her an inspiration, mirror and life coach. 

Light travels through this triumphant book in ways clear, mysterious and unencumbered; as is true for glass, it has nothing to hide, is innately beautiful and reflects back to us just how capacious and selfless love can be. 

Paddy Richardson (author of If We Were LebaneseThe Company of a Daughter and A Year to Know a Woman) launched 'The Madonna' last night. A fellow-writer and close friend of Huberta's, Paddy spoke of the metaphor of the suitcase... 'For me the suitcase suggests a metaphor for family. At first new and spotless, shining with possibility and promise of adventures to come and then, as the years pass, growing a little shabby with marks of wear and tear, perhaps the odd dent and scrape.  But always enclosing, sheltering and imbued with memory; the home we return to either physically or in our hearts. And then inside, the mystery, the treasure of Madonna and child, that image which resonates through myth and history, celebrated by artists, symbolic of hope, promise and the purest of loves, of Blake’s concept of innocence and experience.  Aphrodite and Eros, Demeter and Persephone, Mary and Jesus.

In Miriam’s painting the child’s dark eyes gaze steadily out at the world. The viewer  senses that the source of the confidence which eminates from this child is the mother who holds him in her arms; his trust in her firm grasp, his conviction of her love for him, his certainty that she will keep him safe. The mother also gazes directly out. Her eyes are filled with pride yet there is also an expression of sorrow, of a ‘knowing’, since she, unlike the child, has an adult understanding of what is inevitable, that eventually this child must go out into a world in which he will be confronted not only with challenges and delights but also difficulties and sadnesses and she will  be unable to protect him. Yet she understands also the power of guidance and of example which will remain always with him and the security and self assurance that love may bring.'

Huberta's writing is musical, unfaltering, gentle in both tone and measure. And Miriam's images demonstrate an uncommon directness and absence of hesitation. Her sense of colour is unique and exuberant. It's as though she has nothing to fear; as though balance and harmony are already there, asking only to be recognized and celebrated.
Still life - Miriam Hellendoorn 1998

Iona McNaughton has written an excellent article on The Madonna in the Suitcase on the Arts Access website. You can order copies of the book directly from Huberta at


  1. Thank you Claire! What a beautiful review! It was such a moving launch - I just loved the time, it was very special.
    I have taken the book to work and put it on the table in the staff room, we are all reading it there! and loving it. (I must let Huberta know.)

  2. Glass seems an apt metaphor Claire, for the images certainly have a lovely stained-glass quality - they remind me of 'stained-glass' windows I used to create ... out of coloured cellophane and black insulating tape!

  3. I went home clutching my copy and read it all in one sitting. It's beautifully written and composed, unsentimental, pared back to the truth and the story, and the solidly good heart of that lovely family just shines through.

    Highly recommended. And the launch was just full of music and goodwill and joy.

    P xx

  4. Kay, bluemoon, PC - The Madonna is a fine book indeed; the more because it speaks the truth. And like her paintings, Miriam has a kind of clarity and luminosity about her. As you say, PC - this is a family with a 'solidly good heart.' Twas humbling and uplifting to see this reality in action at the launch.