#825 Alison’s excellent adventure

Moments of Glad Grace: A Memoir
by Alison Wearing

Toronto: ECW Press, 2020
$16.99 / 9781770415133

Reviewed by Graeme Wynn

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This splendid memoir recalls the week that Alison Wearing spent researching family history with her father in Dublin. It is, on the face of it, a beautifully-crafted, bitter-sweet story of an excellent adventure. Anxious to tidy up some loose ends in the family genealogy, aging Dad invites gifted daughter to assist him in his quest. She jumps at the chance: “a bit of boredom in the archives seems a small price to pay” for a visit to Dublin and the opportunity to spend some time with her energetic father. At home, in Toronto, he cycles, walks, and swims regularly, despite his seventy-nine years; she, who has never been to the Emerald Isle, feels “giddy, springy” at the prospect of exploring “the city, the pubs, the famous green countryside,” and filling her ears with “jocular idioms.” They stay in a comfortable Airbnb apartment, in the old Jameson’s Distillery, a twenty-minute walk to town along the Liffey, and spend the weekend of their arrival exploring the small stone city into which the river “pulls softness.”

The city centre, Dublin, with bridges over the River Liffey
Old Jameson’s Distillery, Bow Street, across the courtyard from the Airbnb

Research begins on Monday. Dad is very serious about the ancestor-hunt, daughter less so. The days of the week are tolled as a Rosary, by the repositories in which they are spent: Monday – The National Archives of Ireland (no joy, or records of use) and the National Library of Ireland; Tuesday – The Registry of Deeds; Wednesday – The Royal Irish Academy, the National Library, again; Thursday – the National Library (again); Friday – The Registry of Deeds and the National Library (again and again); Saturday (morning only) – “We’re back where we started. The elegantly carved desks and chairs, the natural light billowing and sighing from the vast dome” of the National Library. Hard-working man that he is, Mr. Wearing seems to spend hours each day hunched over folios, “speed-reading, cramming, like a student trying to finish an exam before the bell rings.” Alison does what she can, reading estate papers, poring over faint microfilm hoping to find one or another of a handful of family names, lifting heavy, bound volumes of ancient deeds from high shelves, and returning them; but she finds the research “both flavourless and maddening, a bit like chewing on a bulrush.” She is driven on by the sense, made palpable by her father, that they are running out of time. For him, the horizon is defined by their flights back to Canada. For her it is marked by the firm and poignant knowledge that “this is my dad’s last trip to Ireland.” Although she “can’t bear the thought of his going home disappointed,” they fail, in the end, to discover any of the information that he came to find.

Alison Wearing, Confessions of a Fairy’s Daughter (Knopf Canada, 2013)

But Moments of Glad Grace is much, much more than this summary suggests. Like a well-cut diamond, and life itself, this book has many facets that glitter, and sparkle, and illuminate in countless captivating ways. Many students will remember Joseph Wearing from his years as a Political Studies professor at Trent University (where he was also musical director of Theatre Trent); countless others will recognize him from Alison Wearing’s previous memoir, Confessions of a Fairy’s Daughter (Toronto: Knopf Canada, 2013), another beautiful, honest, and poignant reflection on the intricacies of family and life. Father and daughter clearly share a special bond. This trip to Ireland was their first together for thirty years. The earlier one, to Paris, followed Joe’s coming out of the closet and his divorce from Alison’s mother; it began with honest, sometimes difficult, talk and tears, before the two of them walked through the streets, arms linked, marvelling “at the petrified music that is architecture, the sculpted love that is family, and at how being together like that made life seem possible again.” Here, in Moments, Joseph Wearing is in the grip of incipient Parkinson’s disease, and Alison is ever alert to its manifestations and the finitude of life. At the very end of their hours in the National Library, Alison watches her father absorbed in the last of the documents he will consult. The tremor in his hand is severe. She looks on “with tear-sparkled eyes, wishing I could spare him all of this, save him.”

Alison Wearing. Photo courtesy of Fairway Galle Literary Festival 2017
Joseph Wearing. Courtesy LinkedIn

Recognizing that she can no more do this than she can hang on to time, Alison Wearing keeps a list of Joseph’s distinctive and endearing characteristics (“Things About Dad”) in the back of her notebook: How Often He Giggles; And The Way He Scurries; That outrageous WUUUUUH Sound; His Professorial Way of Explaining Things; His Devotion to Opera; His Wee Willie Winkie Nightgown; His Dedication and Focus, Even to the Fantastically Mundane; The Way He’s Game for Anything, even Zumba; The Way He Never Speaks Ill of People. Ever; The Way He Celebrates Nothing in Particular; His Sherry-Bread Scent; His Complete Lack of Self-Consciousness. Drawn, as it were, from life, each observation is key to an important aspect of the man, an aide mémoire and defining characteristic. Moved by this strategy, I found myself scribbling my own “Reflections on Moments” to mark the ways in which this book set me thinking and endeared itself to me. The list, in no particular order, includes: The Art of the Memoir; The Writer’s Craft; The Nature of Truth and Understanding; Why Do We Read?

Art: The memoir, once a relatively rare genre, has grown fashionable of late. Amazon lists at least 90,000 titles under this rubric, and many of them, sad to say, are hardly worth the paper they are printed on. In this age of “oversharing,” imitative, self-indulgent, uninspiring chronicles of unremarkable lives are everywhere. As Neil Genzlinger remarked in a New York Times book review almost a decade ago (January 28, 2011) – we need a moment of silence for the “lost art of shutting up.” None of which is to say that a good and worthy memoir is not a thing of joy. Generally, the gold is separated from the dross when the author of the memoir is not its central character, when the writer and the reader discover things together, and when the prose sings on the page – when the writer renders the ordinary exceptional, or (to borrow from William Blake) helps the reader to “see a World in a Grain of Sand,” and find “a Heaven in a Wildflower.”

Moments of Glad Grace ticks all of these boxes. Alison is all over these pages, but as a fellow traveller with her father and as a participant observer of other lives lived; she watches and learns and reflects, and draws us along with her; she is, in a manner of speaking, the lively interlocutor at the table who makes everyone think the dinner party was a success. Joseph Wearing is honoured not eulogized. Father and daughter, neither of whom can properly be described as ordinary, unexceptional individuals, are central to this book, but, its triumph lies, ultimately, in its alluring reflections on life and love, beauty and sorrow, change and adjustment, and the significance of being.

Alison and Joseph Wearing. Photo by Jennifer Roberts, courtesy of The Globe and Mail

Craft: Thoughtfully-organized, perceptive, witty and tender, leavened by humour, and exquisitely written, Moments is as finely-honed a piece of work as I have read in a while. The quotations salted through my opening paragraphs reveal something of both Wearing’s way with words, and her perceptive eye; she carries her story forward with gusto, though always with time to notice the interesting diversion and skill enough to draw telling insights from small moments. So, at lunch one day, Joe’s tremor is making it difficult for him to butter his bread. Alison is loathe to embarrass him by suggesting that he needs help, but eventually she intervenes. Their discussion of W.B.Yeats continues, “but the whole scene feels amplified: the chunky texture of the butter as it resists puttying the crevices, the smell of the grains in the bread, the roaring intimacy of that moment, and the silent tilting of our world in that casual reach across the table.” So Alison’s frustration grows obvious as she consults yet another uninspiring local history in search of the elusive needle of her ancestry: this one is the proverbial last straw, “so hopelessly turgid, so stacked with facts, dates, one-dimensional people, and plodding interminable detail that every page thuds on my mind like a dead tree. It must be because of prose like this that a prison term became known as a sentence.” So Alison returns yet another roll of microfilm to the service desk in the National Library, and asks, wearily, if “there is anything else for Wearing?” To which (she notes with a smile directed towards lovers of puns and word-play everywhere), the puzzled attendant responded: “Are you a bit on the chilly side?”

The Reading Room of the National Library of Ireland. Photo by Mark Stedman

Truth and Understanding: Genealogical research is so common and so addictive that its extreme, obsessive manifestation has a name — progonoplexia. Joseph has the bug. Alison believes she is immune. Trying to explain what it is that they are in Ireland to do — which is to discover more about Joseph’s maternal ancestors — he likens the quest to an archeological dig: they will burrow into and sift through the deep sediment of archival records searching for the pottery shards (a small handful of names) that might be buried there. Though Alison might not be able to tell which discoveries are pertinent, she can certainly help with the digging. But Alison is a poetic soul. Her father’s commitment to ferreting out “facts” to document lines of descent rests uneasily with her preference for exhilarating stories and memorable characters whoever they might be. Her discomfort grows intense. As the research continues she begins to doubt the facts in which genealogists place their trust, to question the significance of lines of descent, and to wonder how the past is best understood. These are some of the most challenging and provocative parts of the book, because they raise probing questions about what we know and how we think we know it.

“Its very effective,” said Joseph Wearing when he and Alison came across Rowan Gillespie’s Famine Memorial sculptures in Dublin. “And today these people are Syrians.” May 2018 photo by Ron Cogswell, Wikimedia commons

After hours poring over census lists and parish records and land deeds (the bedrock of the genealogical enterprise), Alison has an epiphany while reading a seventy-year-old parish history, in which the early bardic stories were said to provide more solid historical information than “the airy and spiritless annals which later became the sources of Irish history.” The documents she and her father have been searching — spiritless annals indeed — are not what they purport to be: “they look like facts, [and] appear organized and definitive, but they are also “rife with human error, not to mention human nature, and they could only ever be as factual as the time and church allowed.” Then as now, people had sex and children all over the place, and many an illegitimate child was registered to a parent or parents not their own. Names were misspelled, misheard, and incorrectly entered. All family trees have “fictional elements of one kind or another.”

Why, then, believe in them so slavishly? What difference does it make “who your fifth cousin’s great- great- great grandfather’s wife’s brother was, where he was born [and] what his death certificate looks like?” An Irish relative of Joseph’s, who joins “the dig” for a day, mentions that another branch of his family tree includes a great- great-grandfather who was a blacksmith, and suggests that this explains his own long-standing liking for wrought iron. “Are we all quietly losing our minds?” wonders Alison: what about lovers of metal work descended from bakers? What if that blacksmith were a braggart and a bigot, would we be as keen, then, to claim him kin? Perhaps, she thinks, the rage for genealogy stems from our transient, shallow-rooted modern lives — the fact that we have become “cultural tumbleweeds” no longer woven into place by shared memories, food, art, song. But then the ancient Greeks were deeply obsessed with ancestry. Most of those seeking genealogical knowledge in Ireland (and elsewhere) Alison notices, are older than her; is the urge to document the ancestral line a reflex of our developing sense of mortality, she wonders? Are these people laying down stones, knowing that their own might be next in line? Are they just obsessives, who happen to have become genealogists instead of birders, or jigsaw-puzzle solvers? Questions abound, but there are few real answers.

All of this feeds Alison’s impatience. If she were trying to figure out why her ancestors left Ireland, she realizes, she would ride the bus to County Sligo to take in “the sights and smells, the textures of buildings, the feel of the land, the songs of the wind … the faces and stories of the … people.” She would not look for “facts” in dusty books, rather meander along backroads and through graveyards to seek “a collective truth” about the people who once lived there. Here the larger implications of the bardic epiphany are revealed, as we are forced to confront some very basic questions about our understanding of and relationship with the past. Late in their stay, over glasses of champagne, father and daughter join the fray that has been simmering all week. Joe insists that “reliable history is an assemblage of facts, not poetic stories.” But counters Alison, “facts can just as easily be used to tell a false [and partial] story as a truthful one.” Facts are important but they are not enough. Human lives and experiences are infinitely complex, they “can never be expressed entirely through facts. It requires art and metaphor, colour and … and love.” For father, facts are truth, and truth is established by facts; for daughter “facts are only steps in the direction of truth” which always has a numinous quality. Where do we stand?

The River Liffey, Dublin, 2008. Photo by Graeme Wynn

The brilliant American historian Richard White produced his own important reflection on some of these issues in Remembering Ahanagran: Storytelling in a Family’s Past (New York: Hill and Wang, 1998) in which he engages with the memories and stories of his mother (and others) about her life in and migration from County Kerry to North America in the twentieth century. “There is nothing my mother has told me,” he notes, “that is without some basis in the past.” As a child, he thought his mother’s stories were history. But then he became an historian and realized that history is the enemy of memory. Memory often buries or disguises; but there are some parts of the past that only memory knows. Weaving together memories and histories (because both must be seen as plural multifaceted things) is a fraught and difficult task. Reading Ahanagran alongside Moments reminds us that there are many paths through the confusing muddle that we categorize and simplify as “the past,” and that we know that past in various ways. Our fullest and best understandings of it come neither from the dogmatic embrace of “dry fact” nor from resort to intuition alone, but from the always difficult and challenging work of stitching together as full and as sympathetic and as humane and inclusive — if never certain or complete — account from as many varied sources as we can gather.

Reading: The W.B. Yeats poem from which Alison Wearing derives her title begins: “When you are old and grey, and full of sleep, / And nodding by the fire, take down this book,/ And slowly read….” It is an invitation, like genealogy perhaps, to look back as one’s days draw to an end, to “dream of the soft look/ Your eyes had once, and to remember that you are loved for “your moments of glad grace,” and even “the sorrows of your changing face.” Stones are important. And so are books like this one. In the film Shadowlands, screenwriter William Nicholson had C.S. Lewis say: “We read to know we are not alone.” Reading good writing, reading a successful memoir, should enhance our understanding of and empathy with other people, and deepen our self-understanding. Moments of Glad Grace does this. It is a profoundly humane rumination on growing old, on the relations between generations, on the roots and branches of families, and on life and love. On their last night in Dublin, Joseph and Alison stand at a bus stop beside an empty open road in South Dublin. She looks at her aging, increasingly frail, father, and is filled with “ferocious love.” This she recognizes “is a perfectly unremarkable moment.” Yet “all that is important and true is here.”

Wearing speaking at Green College, UBC

Postscript: The final draft of this book was written while Alison Wearing was Writer-in-Residence at “the paradise that is Green College “ in the University of British Columbia, Vancouver. She is gracious in recognizing the influence, upon the final shape of her book, of people she met during that residency, and of the place in which she worked. From the perspective of Green College (where I am a Faculty Member of the Common Room), it is only fair to say that that place and its people were also much influenced by Alison. She has, happily, been appointed a Distinguished Visiting Fellow of Green College for the period 2019-2024, and was scheduled to launch Moments of Glad Grace at the 9th Annual Richard V. Ericson Lecture, in the college in April, before the Covid-19 pandemic intervened. Instead, the National Arts Centre and the #CanadaPerforms Programme made possible a virtual book launch. The hour-long animated musical reading, — “best enjoyed with your feet up and something lovely to sip in hand,” can be viewed here on Vimeo.

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Graeme Wynn with the UBC mace

Graeme Wynn is Professor Emeritus of Geography at UBC. As an historical geographer and environmental historian, he served that institution in various capacities including Associate Dean of Arts, twice as Head of Geography and, for six years, as editor of BC Studies. A Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, he served as President of the American Society for Environmental History (2017-2019) and he is Adjunct Professor (History) in the University of Canterbury, New Zealand. Wynn currently serves on the Advisory Board of The Ormsby Review, on the Advisory Board of UBC’s Green College, and as Vice-Principal of UBC’s Emeritus College. Much of his work has focused on Canada, although his interests extend more broadly to encompass much of the so-called British world. He edits the Nature|History|Society series published by UBC Press, and in 2019, under the On Point imprint of UBC Press, published a collection of essays, co-edited with Colin Coates, The Nature of Canada, reviewed for The Ormsby Review by Jenny Clayton (no. 683, December 9, 2019). Editor’s note: a chapter by Graeme Wynn in The Nature of Canada, co-written with Jennifer Bonnell, was also published in The Ormsby Review (no. 603, August 26, 2019).

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The Ormsby Review is a journal service for in-depth coverage of B.C. books and authors. The Advisory Board consists of Jean Barman, Robin Fisher, Cole Harris, Wade Davis, Hugh Johnston, Patricia Roy, David Stouck, and Graeme Wynn. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Provincial Government Patron since September 2018: Creative BC

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2 comments on “#825 Alison’s excellent adventure

  1. So excited today to find in my mailbox this review of Moments of Glad Grace as I am also enrolled in Alison’s online Memoir writing course. She inspires me. <3

  2. Wonderful review!…isn’t it great when someone “gets” you? I am a huge fan of Alison Wearing. Moments of Glad Grace sits beside me as I write. I recently took her intro master class on writing memoir. Alison is inspiring. I look forward to reading this latest book of hers. Thank you, Ormsby, for sending remarkable book reviews our way.

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