The Life and Death of Parents

Two writers look to the generation before them to tell stories of their past

About thirty pages into her memoir, All Things Consoled, Elizabeth Hay is recalling a fight with her mother; it’s a recognizably wide-ranging fight (on and off over several hours) at a classic battleground (the family cottage), somehow embracing (but not directly or exclusively) rotting peaches, wasted chicken juices, teasing versus taunting, greasy sausages, getting along so well, slimy porridge and the “calamity of awful textures” known as tapioca, and “we’re just so proud” of you…You know the one.

Hay (about forty at the time) is mortified by her mother’s unbridled sobbing; she apologizes and mops her mother’s face with a T-shirt, but here’s what she’s thinking: “What about the book I wrote that you buried? What about the letter you wrote saying you wouldn’t let Dad read it? How could you be so repelled…that you deep-sixed the damn thing, yet still tell me you’re ‘nothing but proud’? ”

In a scene early in Mark...