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Iain Reid (Winding Violets)
Iain Reid (Winding Violets)

Review: Memoir

Memoir of time spent with Grandma reveals old truths, young wisdom Add to ...

  • Title The Truth About Luck
  • Author Iain Reid
  • Genre memoir
  • Publisher Anansi
  • Pages 272
  • Price $18.95

The Truth About Luck tells the story – charmingly and fitfully – of how the author, Iain Reid, decides to take his 92-year-old grandmother on a fantastical trip in order to bond with her. Immediately, Reid remembers that he is a cash-strapped writer who hates flying in planes, is the owner of a crummy, decomposing car and whose general constitution is, in many ways, far frailer than that of his grandma: a fearless, funny, sage-like woman who served as a nurse in Second World War.

The “trip” very quickly devolves into a five-day hangout in Reid’s basement apartment in Kingston, Ont. This might sound like a dreary way to spend an afternoon reading. But Reid’s style is so entertainingly self-conscious, and Grandma is so much the grandma we all ache to have in our lives, that the book sometimes feels like a beautifully rendered little off-Broadway play: limited external movement; tremendous, chugging internal engine.

Reid spends the first half of the story extremely doubtful of its potential for success. He casts himself as a deeply uncomfortable character, stuck in a body that is tall and rickety and too pasty-white, with a brain that roils with anxiety and prevents him from sleeping through the night.

He worries about caterpillars crawling into his ears. His stomach lurches at the mere idea of accidentally ingesting spoiled food. “The cream has separated. I hope this doesn’t mean it’s gone off. Did I just consume spoiled cream? The whitest part of the cream has formed a map of Iceland, including striking detail of the western fjords.” He hates his voice. “It’s coming out sounding higher-pitched and vaguely feminine. I am a tired Canadian Truman Capote.” How will this hypochondriac chronic late-sleeper in basketball shorts and a tattered bathrobe bridge a twice-removed generational gap and find a common language with his grandmother, who is up at sunrise and takes great care to pin a special silver brooch onto her sweater before going out for pizza?

The answer is: slowly, and in stages. Reid’s first challenge is to coax Grandma to actually say what she wants, to create a dialogue that goes further than, “Oh, yes, dear, of course,” and “Whatever you want, dear.” Relationships with parents are straightforward: They annoy us, we annoy them. Someone yells then the other yells back. They tell us what to do; we either listen or laugh. But the power dynamic between a grandparent and grandchild is frequently inverted. We spend the majority of our lives feeling physically stronger and more spry than they are, and later in our lives, more intellectually current. The role of a grandparent is one of indulgence. There is less of an opportunity for back-and-forth, for true empathy and understanding. Reid sums it up nicely:

“We understood Grandma through her reaction to our stories. It was her receptivity to our existence that formed her identity. We, the young unintentional solipsists, would talk; Grandma would listen and react. That was her way.”

But partway through the book, some magic starts to happen between Reid and Grandma. They spend long, lingering meals together. The wontons and soups and fish and chips and toast and cheese and nips of wine and sherry give her strength, and Reid’s tendency for tentative questioning makes him an oddly generous companion, and able interviewer. Together, they hit their stride. Grandma siphons energy out of her frenetic grandson, which allows her to exhume old memories and great blocks of narration about her wartime nursing duties and her wild, wonderful relationship with her husband, George, now deceased. Bolstered by the proximity to such perspective, and chastened a little by her unending grit in spite of her age and tricky knee, Reid relaxes the reins and allows himself some moments of psychic peace and quiet. Near the end, she offers her truth about luck.

“The older I get, the more of the future I get to see. I’m still the person I was at nine, just older. So being old like me is being in a position of luck. I think sometimes people assume luck and ease are the same. I don’t think they are,” she says, stirring cream into her freshened coffee. “Being lucky isn’t about constant happiness, things being easy, or always getting what you want.”

The poet Mary Ruefle wrote in her poem Little Golf Pencil, “In the beginning you understand the world but not yourself, and when you finally understand yourself, you no longer understand the world.” Luckily, in the case of our two main characters in The Truth About Luck, we catch them at a divine point of intersection between those two temporal poles.

Kathryn Borel is the author of the memoir Corked. She lives in Los Angeles.

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