Review: Elizabeth Hay presents a powerful memoir of her parents’ final years

Elizabeth Hay. Photo: Mark Fried

Just when baby boomers’ dependent children finally leave the nest, along comes a new responsibility to sap time and energy: Elderly, ailing parents who are confused, needy and, because of medical advances, often live unhappily for years that way.

Ottawa author Elizabeth Hay faced that challenge in January, 2009, when her parents, Gordon and Jean Hay, left their home in London, Ont., for a seniors residence close to Elizabeth’s home in Ottawa South. Jean, an artist, had various cognitive and mobility issues. Gordon, a retired school principal, was healthier but was as foul-tempered and gruff as he had been for much of his life. They left their London home to become, in Elizabeth’s words, “two eroding icebergs sitting in my bay.”

Despite their displeasure with their increasing infirmities, the parents seemed to adapt to their new surroundings, the kindly nurses at their new home, daily visits from Elizabeth and family and their weekly Sunday dinners at their daughter’s home.  But Gordon was not exactly sociable in his new environment: “They should all be dead,” he said of the people he described as his fellow “inmates.” Meanwhile, Elizabeth was constantly stressed and asked her three far-flung siblings for help that did not always come.

After a little more than three years, both parents died and Hay, whose novels include the Giller-Prize-winning Late Nights on Air, Garbo Laughs and All his Life, put it all down on paper in All Things Consoled: A Daughter’s Memoir (McClelland & Stewart). This book is very personal. Maybe too personal?

It is difficult not to feel like a voyeur, that the elegant and insightful prose from the Hay daughter known as “Lizzie” has allowed you to invade the sanctity of a family, without having received the permission of everyone in that family to witness the old grudges, the sibling rivalries, the guilt trips, the financial issues, the words never spoken, the soiled bedsheets and the two parents, in their 90s, wishing their lives would end.

“You can live too long,” says Jean, in the days when her mind and memory were constantly tripping her up. “All the children are grown up, they’re fine, they’re doing well. All the potatoes are peeled. I had fulfilling work and I can’t do it anymore.”

As a novel, this book would have been heartbreaking. But, being a memoir, it is 10 times more powerful. Those of us who have lived through similar experiences with aging, ailing parents can discern the truth to Hay’s book. For the uninitiated, be prepared for what may be coming.

After the parents’ death, Hay asked herself why she volunteered to be their caregiver. The answers were many.

“I wanted to look after my mother; I wanted to prove that I could be generous for once in my life; I saw no alternative. But something else was going on, namely sibling rivalry and pride. The child’s need, my need, to be the one who mattered most. I also wanted the credit. I’ve always wanted the credit. My name on the book. Let’s all clap for Lizzie.”

All her life, Lizzie sought a pat on the back from her father. It never seemed to come. Towards the end of Gordon’s life, a friend  remarked that he must be proud of his famous daughter. “Is she proud of me?” the father replied. “If she’s proud of me, than I’m proud of her.”

Gordon also sought a pat on the back. When he wrote an unpublished memoir of his life as a teacher, he was offended that Elizabeth offered little praise. “For the record,” Elizabeth writes, “never once did my father offer a reaction to any of my books.” (For the record, Elizabeth Hay is widely perceived as one of Canada’s best novelists.)

Gordon had difficulty stepping out of his role as a school principal. When Elizabeth was 13, one day her father drove her from home to his school, ushered her into the principal’s office, sat her down and then lectured her about having disobeyed her parents and secretly shaved her legs. She was supposed to wait until age 16. Now, why would a father feel obliged to give that lecture in a school setting and not in the home?

He could also be “a sadistic headmaster” at home, cruelly interrogating Elizabeth’s mother about any number of inconsequential things. Elizabeth regretted never having confronted her father about such actions, never having stood up for her mother. “I was a child who knew her place,” Elizabeth writes of her silence. “I was a coward.”

Well, not exactly a coward. A coward would not have turned her own life upside down to provide care and comfort to her two aging parents in their last years. We can all regret not having said certain words to our late parents – whether those words were praise or criticism – but sometimes certain words are best left unsaid because they might make you feel better but no one else.

All Things Consoled: A Daughter’s Memoir (McClelland and Stewart)
Elizabeth Hay
In town: The author will launch her memoir at 7 p.m. on Oct. 1 at Library and Archives Canada, 375 Wellington St. For more information

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