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All Things Consoled by Elizabeth Hay

Entirely by coincidence – or demographics – Elizabeth Hay’s new book All Things Consoled arrived in the store just before I was heading west to see my elderly mother. My mother was in hospital recovering from a fall, a fractured pelvis. She was recovering very well, but her increasing loss of memory is more of a concern. She is now living with me as we make plans to move her into assisted living. She will not be happy – to say the very least. Many baby boomers are in exactly the same situation, making difficult decisions for their aging parents.

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I was very pleased to learn that All Things Consoled was awarded the 2018 Hilary Weston Writer’s Trust Prize for Nonfiction. The jury stated, "Elizabeth Hay’s loving, exacting memoir, All Things Consoled, details the decline of her elderly parents with unflinching tenderness. The path she and her family travel is crooked and long, filled with hospital beds and doctors’ visits, foggy minds, and shuffling confusion. But Hay’s prose elevates this ordinary rite of passage — the death of one’s parents — to something rare and poetic. All Things Consoled becomes, itself, a consolation for anyone despairing at the loose ends that parents leave behind. Page-after-page this is a masterclass in observation — a lesson in how meaning can emerge from grief."

Elizabeth Hay grew up moving around Ontario, with a brief time in England, with her family, her father a teacher, her mother a painter. When her parents became a worry – concern about falls, mostly her mother – the children arranged for them to move into a retirement residence in Ottawa, close to the home of daughter Elizabeth. Elizabeth then spent the next several years being advocate and very “hands on” care giver for her parents for the rest of their lives.

Most interesting to me was the dynamics of the family and the behaviour of the parents, Jean and Gordon Hay. Gordon was a man with a violent temper – as was my father when I was young, my own family home not so very different. And, as with Elizabeth’s family, it was one child who experienced most of the abuse. I, fortunately, unlike Elizabeth, rebelled and like her younger sister I stood my ground. Jean Hay kept the peace, as women, mothers, wives of her generation were wont to do. Jean also ran the household like a stingy quartermaster – nothing was wasted, nothing. It was only after her children became independent that Jean made a bit of a life of her own and turned to painting as a serious pursuit, gaining a reputation as a painter of some importance.

Apart for Elizabeth Hay’s unwavering care and kindness – beyond anything many of us could come close to, I found myself wondering how she could be so kind and forgiving to her father. I know – we love our fathers regardless of whether or not we respect their actions. But – how could she forgive him for leaving behind, in the family home, all of her own books, as each were published, with loving salutations to her parents. And, how sad that Jean had to live in a place where she did not have a studio – no matter that she could no longer work as she had before.

For Elizabeth the death of her parents was the end of their need for her – though perhaps not her need for them. I imagine that All Things Consoled was a way of putting both her childhood and her years as caregiver to her parents into some sort of order. And for all of us, perhaps a way of coming to terms with moving on, and letting go of the need for parental love and approval, as we look to the future, letting the past be truly behind us.

 

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