Au­thor’s mem­oir de­void of sen­ti­men­tal­ity

Simcoe Reformer - Times-Reformer - - BOOKS - RE­VIEWED BY NANCY SCHIEFER

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.

El­iz­a­beth Hay

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