Author’s memoir devoid of sentimentality
Her parents’ lives began to fall apart in the autumn of 2008, Canadian novelist Elizabeth Hay declares in her poignant memoir, All Things Consoled.
It was the year Barack Obama was first elected U.S. president, a time, she writes, “when the world seemed bright with second chances.”
In a memoir replete with empathy and insight, yet edged with occasional resentment, the prize-winning writer describes her parents’ last, dismaying years, a time marked by few, if any, second chances.
Subtitled A Daughter’s Memoir, Hay’s book is a wonderfully written yet harrowing account and one which leaves the reader much to ponder.
Hay takes her title from her mother’s contention, when elderly and suffering from fluctuating dementia, she had had a good life, “all things consoled.”
It is in this vein that Hay casts back not only to her parents’ latelife dilemmas, both physical and mental, but to her own tangled relationship with them.
The book is a commentary, too, on her parents’ earlier lives, on memories of family friction and on a coming to terms with a daughter’s role as caregiver.
As she shifts back and forth between past and present, Hay puts her parents’ precarious situation into focus.
Not surprisingly, their plight was the result of a fall, an accident that led to recurrent hospital stays for Hay’s mother and, gradually, to depleted energy and diminished mental capacity.
At that point, Hay’s parents, Gordon and Jean, both 88, decided to leave their London house, after forty years, to an assisted living apartment in Ottawa, a five minute walk from daughter Elizabeth.
Here, they would seem, she writes, like “two eroding icebergs sitting in my bay. And almost every day I would row out to see them, and then leave them again for the night. And slowly, over time, they would melt entirely away.”
Although Hay and her husband, Mark, had earlier volunteered to act as guardians to Gordon and Jean should need arise, the dayto-day reality of dealing with the ravages of infirmity posed unforeseen problems.
Hay’s mother worried her predicament and her husband’s inability to cope on his own would encroach on her daughter’s independent life.
And as Hay herself notes: “I was in dangerous personal territory, a fraught border country in which my parents were sliding into neediness and I was rising to power, yet losing my own life.”
While Hay wondered what they were getting themselves into, her husband, who reminded her she could not run from reality, urged her to embrace whatever arose as an inevitable part of life.
She adds: “But taking care of people has never been my idea of embracing life.”
On the contrary, its the best way to ruin it, she notes, thinking back to a friend whose mother lived to be 106.
But Hay found satisfaction in the new relationship she forged with parents who had, she felt, favoured her sister and two brothers, and who had not recognized her childhood need for attention.
Her memoir, both affectionate and acerbic, appraises her parents’ unconventional lives and her own place in a brittle but sometimes close family.
She often feared her father, a highly regarded Guelph high school history teacher who showed little appreciation of Hay’s talents until, in old age, he lost his independence.
A man of volatile temper, he is described by one of his sons as “gruff but honourable” and by daughter Hay as “difficult and essentially lonely.”
Hay’s mother is more fully portrayed as she slips, then seems to reverse, her slide into an unwanted dependence, into the confusions and frustrations of aging.
Her warm sense of humour is remembered as is her talent as a painter whose work adorns Hay’s walls and, perhaps most of all, as a housekeeper whose refusal to waste even a scrap of food became legend in a family in which every tea bag is used two or three times.
When Hay’s parents stop buying clothes and just wear whatever is at hand, she sees them as “a pair of old trees shedding their leaves for the last time” and old age as “the barbed wire fence of living too long.”
Their daughter’s book about their last agitated years ranks with Richard Ford’s Between Them as an extraordinary glimpse into family politics and into the demands and rewards of caring for aging parents.
Hay, author of such stellar fiction as A Student of Weather, Garbo Laughs, His Whole Life and Late Nights On Air, which won the 2007 Giller Prize, has written a model memoir — thought-provoking and without a trace of sentimentality.
It is an account astonishing in its candour and arresting in its use of memory.
All Things Consoled will be among the best books to be published in Canada this fall. Nancy Schiefer is a London writer.