Tag: grief

How I Chose a Timely Book

One of my Christmas gift books was a repeat so I had the pleasure of returning it to the bookstore and browsing the shelves for a replacement. I settled on The Company We Keep, by Frances Itani.

Of course, the cover was the first thing I noticed, uncluttered with a picture of a small table and a single chair with a parrot on the back. I picked it up and read the back blurb. The story is set in Canada. I find a book extra enjoyable when the references are one’s I am familiar with. A book set in the UK may refer to the High Street. One taking place in the US may refer to Applebee’s. I know the High Street is the main shopping avenue of a town or village. I know Applebee’s is a restaurant chain , but I haven’t experienced those places the way I have Tim Horton’s or Loblaw’s.

The subject of the story also intrigued me. A group of strangers meet in response to a notice on a bulletin board (the physical kind not on facebook) to talk about grief. Since I’m missing casual connections just now, I thought a story about strangers getting to know one another would be entertaining. The topic of grief seems apropos as well since our whole world is grieving. Perhaps we haven’t lost a loved one, but we’ve all lost the life we used to know.

Finally, Ms Itani has won several literary awards, that sealed the deal for me. I carried the book to the cashier.

I was not disappointed.  Each of these strangers has a unique story of loss, a spouse (good or bad), a parent, a friend . . . Yet grief doesn’t figure much in their discussions. Having lost the person closest to them, they mostly, want to talk and they want someone to listen. The stories aren’t so much about grieving as they are about living. There are also secrets. The lost relationships had a public face and a private face. It’s that private aspect of the lost relative that colours the way the bereaved live the rest of their lives. As a bonus, the woman who placed the notice is a word aficionado. Her thoughts are sprinkled with the etymology of the words she uses. A quirk that enlivens her character and amuses me as the reader.

As the group gathers, they begin to think of themselves as a company. A place where judgement is withheld and trust is formed. Shameful secrets are exposed and forgiven. Hurtful relationships are explored without censure. Sympathy is free and abundant. Help with practical things like moving furniture is readily offered.

A book with grief at its core  sounds sad, but it is not. It is hopeful. The characters clear out the troubles from their old lives then prepare to live again. They turn to a clean page for the last chapters of their lives.

I wonder if we can look a 2020 that way. The year that was mostly a void in our lives can be viewed as a resetting point. When society opens up, when we’re ready to hold hands with our friends and high-five a stranger can we take the lessons of isolation into a hopeful future? Having cast off so many activities, can we re-engage in a thoughtful way? Do all those clubs nurture us or are some a waste of time? Are all our previous relationships healthy or were some toxic?

We’re not out of the woods yet. Billions of people still need to be vaccinated. We may need to get a booster shot every year. We may need to keep our groups small for a while longer. But light glimmers on the horizon. As we prepare to pick up the dropped threads of life we might like to consider “the company we keep.”

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Nostalgia

What is it about a walk down memory lane that is so appealing and so sad?  Why do we keep taking that well-worn path?   Christmas time seems to pull us relentlessly into the world of memories, whether they be happy  or not.  A Christmas tree conjures other Christmases, the ones when we received our heart’s delight and the ones when we were disappointed.   Like it or not, we travel down that road to the past, lit with the smiles of loved ones no longer with us.  A road defined by school days, old friends, our first boss, our first kiss, our first love, our first loss.  Even when we know what trap lies around the next corner, we travel on.  Nostalgia has us in its grip.

I just finished a book, They Left Us Everything, by Plum Johnson, that does nostalgia in spades.  It is a memoir of her family and the house they grew up in.  When her mother dies, the property is to be sold.

Plum’s parents bought the place when they came home from WWII.  Her father had been in Hong Kong.  Her mother served with the Red Cross.  When they moved to a house on the shores of Lake Ontario, they came with nothing.  In the over fifty years they lived there, they disposed of nothing.  Plum must sort and catalogue and dispose of twenty three rooms stuffed with family history.   The task is overwhelming and takes the author down many rabbit holes of memory and mystery.  She discovers books and letters she’d never seen before.  She discovers bags and bags and bags of garbage — all those broken bits of china, old Christmas ornaments, forgotten school essays, grade two report cards, old hats, old shoes, old jewellery — things that hold memories, things dear to her heart, but things that have no place in her grown up life.    A whiff of perfume and the author is a child again, kneeling at the top of the stairs to watch her glamourous parents heading out for an evening of dancing.   The slam of the garden gate recalls the endless flow of waifs and strays that sheltered in the big, rambling family home.   A book on sailing conjures Saturday mornings when she and her brothers and father took out their little sailboat.  Joy, anger, guilt, love, grief, all crowd in with each opened drawer.

The task of emptying the house and selling it, was supposed to take six weeks.  It took sixteen months.

I enjoyed the book.  Many of the author’s experiences mirrored my own family life.  But, like the author, those memories dragged me into sunny meadows and rainy afternoons that filled my heart with love for the home and family that was mine — and made me ache with loss. In the end, They Left us Everything, is really a book about grief.  Read  at your own risk.

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