Last Saturday, my grandparents were sitting in the half-light of their awning-shaded, giant picture windowed, little bungalow living room. Kris Kristofferson was crackling from a boombox that used to live in the garage, and now rests on a chippendale-style side table. My grandparents were born in 1928; I’ll spare you the mental math: this makes them 85 years old. They were talking, yet again, of “down east”—an expansive term that actually refers to the microscopic abode of Blackville, New Brunswick, where they were born. But this day’s story was a brand new one, spurred by the recent death of Stompin’ Tom Connors: it turns out they knew and grew up surrounded by his entire extended family. Suddenly, the room was full of laughing reminiscences—how Stompin’ Tom looked just like (and was apparently named after) a certain uncle; how one family member, my grandfather exclaimed, told so many fibs he just had to keel over. And so on. Spending time with your grandparents as an adult is different than as a child: it moves from all-comfort, to large-part revelation.
Iain Reid’s newest book, The Truth About Luck, rejoices in this blend of intergenerational familiarity and serendipity. He is from a close-knit family and has long-known his 92-year-old grandmother; this is in part what leads him to try and think of a meaningful gift for her fairly significant birthday. For a moment, he settles on a scented candle—everyone likes candles, right? But, in brainstorming with his brother, it dawns on him: why not, instead of buying things, spend time? From there, he decides to take Grandma on a trip, maybe a road trip. But the this idea contracts soon after the rush of discovery: Reid begins to reconsider the logistics—his beater of a car, his lack of funds—and scales back the idea back somewhat. He decides to bring Grandma from her town, Ottawa, to his, Kingston. That’s still a trip! This turns out to either be a prescient or genetically-motivated move: Grandma recounts how she and her husband George (now deceased) used to love to take micro trips—one time going only as far as a motel a few blocks away. Grandma is just as happy to go to Kingston as anywhere else.
When we write about older people, there can sometimes be that distancing “otherness” creeping in, or an obligatory nostalgia, or clichés about wisdom, but Reid avoids all of this shorthand precisely because he is so mindful and earnest. My heart clapped when he wrote: “Oldness wasn’t a negative. It was just a verity I was aware of. I didn’t fear or resent it.” While he frets about how to keep Grandma entertained or what he should cook, in his descriptions of her, you can feel his genuine love and respect. It’s is a far cry from, say, something cynical like S**t My Dad Says. The Truth About Luck has no sensationalism, no outrageous insensitivity that compels you laugh out of guilt. Just two people getting to know one another better, being considerate of one another, enjoying three square meals, and…reminiscing about adventures during the war?
It turns out, Grandma, for all her sweetness and amenability, has a decisively challenging—and impressive—backstory as a nurse on the frontlines. She speaks openly of missing her siblings in those tumultuous times (and now—she is the last surviving member of her siblings), and of her deceased husband, George. This is the heart of the book, really—Grandma’s memories (both before Iain, and of Iain), and her insights. Reid, for all his initial nervousness over silence between them or rain drowning his plans, begins to relax and starts prompting her to talk more about her life.
And there’s so much to be gained from spending time with Grandma. At one point, she advises that, with your partner, you must sometimes go to bed angry. But, there’s a workaround: “…[if] you’re mad at your wife, wait for a while, until she’s definitely fallen asleep. Give it a bit of time. Then roll over and just have a look at her. Then you’ll know how you feel. That’s the important part, the looking.” I was reminded slightly of a DeLillo line: “Watching children sleep makes me feel devout, part of a spiritual system.” Certainly, we should try to maintain this feeling—perhaps keep up this activity—through our lives. I did what Grandma said, after it made me tremble. And it worked.
Ian Reid, full disclosure, writes regularly for the National Post; I’ve never met him. But those of you who’ve read his articles, as I have, will recognize his trademarks—his unfussy language, his dry sense of humour, his sincerity. Many writers would probably agree with Grandma’s observation that the important part is the looking. That’s another outcome of this book: how inspiration emerges for a writer. Reid wasn’t looking for a book when he arranged this 5-day hangout with his grandmother. But by paying close attention, he realized how remarkable Grandma really was, that this deserved recording and sharing. That quote from Leonard Cohen, “If your life is burning well, poetry is just the ash” turns out to be true both for Grandma’s stories, and Reid’s book.
Posted March 21, 2013 at The National Post: http://arts.nationalpost.com/2013/03/22/book-review-the-truth-about-luck-by-iain-reid/