Elizabeth Hay makes peace with her mother's food and father's anger

The award-winning novelist from Ottawa, Ont. talks about her new memoir, All Things Consoled, which is about taking care of her elderly parents.
All Things Consoled is a memoir by Elizabeth Hay. (Mark Fried/McClelland & Stewart)
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Our parents are towering figures in our lives as children. For Elizabeth Hay, Jean and Gordon Hay were no exception. Her father was a melancholy man with a hair-trigger temper and a driving ambition. Her mother was a late-blooming artist and epically frugal. As this independent and resourceful duo ages and becomes dependent, Lizzy, as she is known in the family, steps up as caregiver.

In All Things Consoled, Hay chronicles with breathtaking honesty the ravages of age and decline. She also shows how love, beauty and the sustenance of writing are a kind of balm for this reality of the human experience.

Her mother's frugality

"As a child, I often felt I was not really a human being. I was a mouth to feed. My mother had six mouths, including her own, she had to feed three times a day. I know it wore her down, but she went to extremes. Anyone who went through the Depression was shaped by it, but she embraced it. I think deep in her philosophic core she believed that nothing should be wasted. 

"This particular story about the wormy soup happened when I left home. I'm going to say I was in my 30s and we were in there in their back garden in London, Ont., and eating the soup she made. I said, after I'd taken a few spoonfuls, 'There are worms in this soup.' And she said, 'Really? I thought I got them all out.' It was a package of soup mix that had gathered some maggots in the cupboard. Her solution was not to throw out what she called 'perfectly good food.' Her solution was to cook it all up and then she thought she'd fished out the worms. What's more, she went ahead and served the same soup the next day."

Her father's anger

"He exploded [when he was angry]. It was accepted practice and not uncommon for men of that era to punish their children physically. So he did that. I think he felt bad about it, but he wasn't a talker. He couldn't just say, 'I'm sorry.' There was a lot of pent-up energy in him and not too many outlets. He terrified me. I never stopped being afraid of him, even up to the very end.

"Somewhere along the line, I realized that perhaps my mother was afraid of him too, in certain respects. I mean they were tremendously close, but he was harsh with her at times. He was often full of contempt. Did I enjoy the way she would give way to him? No, I hated it actually. Now that I'm in my 60s myself, I'm much less critical and censorious than I used to be."

Finding peace

"What I hope to do in the book is allow for their full complexity, so that you would see what interesting and multifaceted people they they were. I am more at peace with some of these old wounds than I once was. It does help to write about them and to make something of it. I just loved having them become full characters. I'm glad I wrote it. I have to say, that of all the books I've written, I am most glad to have written this one."

Elizabeth Hay's comments have been edited for length and clarity.