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 Abley’s new book,
The Organist: Fugues, Fatherhood, and a Fragile Mind, his parents have just argued furiously, and his father, “deadly calm,” leaves the house;
“I remember the streetlight catching his footprints in the snow. He didn’t look back once.” Abley was nine or ten and he knew his mother was terrified that his father had gone for good. She put her hand on his shoulder and said, “You’re more of a man now than he’ll ever be.”
These fine books, by two leading writers of a generation, my generation, chronicle the lives and deaths of the mothers and fathers of a very specific socio-economic cluster—with acuity, measured compassion, and an often-excruciating self-awareness. Jean and Gordon Hay and Harry and Mary Abley were all born between 1916 and 1920, and they died between 1994 and 2012.
Their roots were in Yorkshire, Shropshire, Scotland, and Wales. They would be instantly recognizable in a postwar Canadian Our Town—the dashing big-voiced schoolteacher and principal and his wife; the accomplished but modest church organist and his wife. The towns were Mitchell, Owen Sound, Wiarton, Guelph, and London in Ontario; Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, Lethbridge, Alberta, and Saskatoon. They went to church, grew raspberries and tomatoes, and doggedly realized their ambitions, or the men did. They were apparently more upright than others in this cohort—no divorces, no affairs, no alcoholism, no sexual abuse, or career or financial scandals. The men worked and raged and never or rarely cried; the women explained the fathers’ sometimes dark and troubling behaviour to the children, and cooked and cooked
Elizabeth Hay never explains the cruelly buried book; it is just one in a lifetime of small, sharp hurts that lie like shrapnel in the history of a family. As she wryly observes, “Death and grief smooth things out, but old complications lie in wait.”
All Things Consoled (the title is one of many exquisite fractures in her mother’s language) uses the period of the long, long denouement of her parents’ lives—their move in 2009 from comfortable retirement in London into a retirement/nursing “home” six minutes from Hay’s house in Ottawa—as the space in which to pick out and examine those pieces of shrapnel. The move followed a fall, infection, and surgery, after which Jean lost both physical and some cognitive facility. It was a move that Elizabeth, third child, elder of two daughters, proposed, if only because, as she says in one of many sidelong glances at her own role in the family, “I wanted to prove I could be generous for once in my life…I’ve always wanted the credit. My name on the book. Let’s all clap for Lizzie.”
Among other things this book is a documentation of the shrinking imposed by aging: the withering of bones, flesh, memory, language, and the physical space in which diminished lives wind down. Jean and Gordon Hay transported heirloom furniture from England in and out of at least half a dozen houses in different Ontario towns before settling for forty years in London, in a house with a study for Gordon and a separate studio for Jean, who became a serious working artist in her late forties, after raising four children. In Ottawa, they lived for almost three years in two rooms; a wing-backed chair by the window for him, the chesterfield for her, a small Arborite table for her art projects. At Christmas in 2010, Gordon announced that this would be their last Christmas together, and he did indeed die the following autumn, Jean seven months later.
In a loose gathering of fifteen pieces, Hay works through her memories, feelings and fears.
The dynamic of her parents’ marriage is predictably a conundrum; she sees a man full of “baleful contempt” and a woman who adores and defends him. Food is huge, a somewhat problematic focus for the reader because Jean Hay was both a terrible cook and practitioner of a kind of hoarding housewifery. Scraps were saved and served again and again, out-of-date dried soup infested with worms served up unrepentantly, twice; children punished for not eating their stringy mashed turnips or fermented applesauce. There is an elaborate lemon meringue pie standoff/homage at the end of Hay’s book that only makes sense to women of a certain age.
This image of Jean clashes with the congruent portrayal of her as an inventive and successful painter, who went twice to the High Arctic for inspiration for large-scale landscapes, and also to Morocco, for a series of portraits of veiled women. When she became an artist, Jean was finally able to stand up to her husband. Forty years later, in the retirement home, Jean was mercifully oblivious to his cruel habit of grilling her to see what she could remember or articulate, a way to prove to himself that his mind was still the sharper.
Hay’s central preoccupation is her father. She struggled over a long period to find a way to ask her mother one question: When did you know that he was a violent man? She never received an answer. This was a teacher who used the strap and hit children over the head, who once threw his small son across the room, who frequently “walloped” Lizzie until she wet herself (a practice he stopped once she hit puberty). A man beset, Hay believes, with self-loathing because his Quaker upbringing and schooling taught him that violence was wrong.
Hay recognizes much of her father in herself. He cannot praise or even comment on her books; she cannot praise his either—a family memoir, a history of the John Howard Society, and a study of the lives of a number of his students. This emotional impasse crumbled somewhat at the retirement home, when he awkwardly expressed desire for her company, and she learned to carefully kiss him as she came and went several times a day. But still there is this:
At the end of his life, when he packed up his study for the move to Ottawa, he winnowed his library, selecting the books that mattered to him…Among the ones he left behind were all of mine. I stepped into his dismantled study and saw all seven of them, abandoned on a lower shelf.
In his memoir about his father, Mark Abley quotes the following from a short story by Salman Rushdie:
“At sixteen, you still think you can escape from your father. You aren’t listening to his voice speaking through your mouth, you don’t see how your gestures already mirror his…You don’t hear his whisper in your blood.”
Abley, too, is concerned about manhood, how to be a man (the question of how to be a woman does not arise in either book). From boyhood, the son struggles to love and feel loved by his “volatile, unhappy” father. This anguish deeply informs the memoir; it is a remarkably transparent record of a writer’s lifelong efforts to understand and love his male parent. Time and again, Abley presents, with little comment, evidence of an accomplished musician, an adored music teacher, a skilled and imaginative composer, a passionate and loving husband, even a thoughtful and engaged parent, at least in his letters, while simultaneously being utterly unable (and recognizing this in himself) to truly admire and love his father. He does indeed hear the whisper in his blood and it terrifies him.
Harry Abley, the son of a Welsh village butcher he despised, showed remarkable musical talent as a boy. He never attended university but became first a cinema organist in London before the war and then a church organist, choirmaster, and composer. His great love was the traditional church pipe organ, on which he was extremely skilled. Not an easy or lucrative career, that of a church organist, and the family’s progress was an itinerant one, from church to church, in towns in both Canada and England (they immigrated and emigrated back numerous times over fifty years); church jobs and teaching music alternating or supplemented by other odd jobs. Mary ran the household, raised their son (he credits her with teaching him everything, forgetting he learned to read on his father’s knee) and was the fierce guardian of what she came to refer to as Harry’s morale. She carried the exuberant wartime love letters from Harry in her handbag for sixty-seven years.
Harry suffered from debilitating migraines and depression or, as it was commonly called, “nervous exhaustion.” He was given to crippling silences and flashes of rage. For years, his son was terrified he would commit suicide. He never once saw his father cry.
These were not indications of manhood that a boy could aspire to. But a friend of Abley writes an affectionate portrait of Harry, recalling his fastidious, expert maintenance of his vehicle, and the gleaming, ordered array of tools in the garage. Abley admits he never saw this side of his father.
However, a portrait of Harry percolates through his son’s despair. In a virtuoso act of deflected admiration, Abley devotes considerable space to descriptions of pipe organs (one in Berlin with five thousand pipes) and to his father’s recitals, his church music, his vast organ repertoire and his many compositions—lyrical, filled with yearning. Harry achieved considerable recognition (“masterly virtuosity”) as an organist on several recital tours of Germany, surely his artistic home. But father and son no doubt winced, severally, at this headline in a Saskatoon newspaper profile: “Triumphs dot Abley career.”
Harry Abley always changed into a special pair of shoes reserved only for playing the organ. There is a lovely description of a photograph of him seated at the organ in St. John’s Cathedral in Saskatoon. “He sits at the console like a man at ease, someone in the midst of a good journey. Which perhaps he was. His face has an ageless quality, as though, once he sat down to perform, years of stress and anxiety would fall away into the shadows of the cathedral, to be gathered up and worn again when he left the console behind.”
In 1992, Harry was diagnosed with cancer, and his journey toward death in 1994, in Montreal where he was now living in proximity to his son and family, was painful and unpleasant and heartbreaking. Only in his father’s last few weeks could Abley, while on the one hand exultant that his father was dying, “finally say the simple words, ‘Dad, I love you.’ ” Abley’s book ends abruptly with him at the bedside of his dead father, the sounds of Bach’s “Fantasia and Fugue in C Minor” ringing in the reader’s ears.
Both Hay and Abley reveal that these books were a long, difficult time in the writing; Hay’s over six years, Abley’s over almost twenty, as he didn’t want to publish the book until after his mother’s death in her nineties, by which time “dementia had scraped away much of her mind.” Writers of family memoirs intended for public consumption find themselves wound into a very particular Gordian knot: as writers we know that we must be as honest as memory allows because a book that doesn’t unearth the shrapnel will be a worthless piece of hagiography. But we are also daughters and sons, opening the curtains and flooding the darkest corners of the family house with light that we know full well would not be welcomed by our parents. We’ve been groomed all our lives to heed the family rules of discretion and decorum. As Hay’s mother states in a lucid flash toward the end of her life, “Someone sets the tone.” If we choose to speak ill of the dead we need good reasons to do so.
An important theme in both books, and perhaps one reason they were written, is the indignity of deaths teased out in patently artificial circumstances. Both Abley and Hay record with unblinkered precision the final weeks, days, nights, hours of life and the moments of death that they are privileged to observe. Increasingly, Canadians want to have the right to die with dignity before we are betrayed by our brains and our bodies. Abley and his mother brought a living will for his father to sign, specifying no “heroic measures.” Hay’s father clearly managed his death by not eating. Her mother saw her bed in the Ottawa retirement home as “that place where I’m crippled and stupid” and she longed for “one of the Dutch passports you can just swallow.” We all know what she meant.
Here is my dying wish. That someone will come over at 4:30 a.m. and sit with me as the birds begin to sing and identify each one, so I won’t go to my grave not knowing. A pot of strong coffee on the stove; one of those Dutch passports in the final cup.