Photo by Brian Howell
Ted Bishop visits Edith Iglauer and her husband Frank in their seaside home, where he is treated to a fast drive on a winding road, conversation on good books, and a lesson on what it's like to grow old gracefully.
Still beautiful at ninety-three, the writer Edith Iglauer greets us on the porch of her seacoast house. “You see we are much older,” she says. I haven’t seen her since she was ninety, and she is a little shorter but she has the same mane of white hair, the same warm voice and wide smile. Fine lines radiate from her cheekbones and the corners of her mouth, like contours on a detailed topo map. She’s dressed for dinner in a ruffled white blouse, purple cardigan and tartan skirt.
“We’re going to the golf club,” she says. “It’s not far. Frank will drive us.” Frank bumps his blue walker to the car, grip still strong but knees gone. He guns the little Honda up the steep driveway. At the top of their road he stops, takes a quick look and flings the car out onto the pavement. Just getting us launched, I think, but he zooms into the first turn, crowding a local pickup truck. He drives like a sports car racer—a quick dab at the brake, into turn, back on the gas, swoop through the apex. I’m sure he knows the road. It’s just that he is ninety-six years old. What if we nicked that gravel shoulder? What if someone was riding a bike or walking their dog—there! like that! missed ’em—just around the corner?
“Some of our friends say Frank drives too fast,” says Edith serenely.
Frank says, “All my life I’ve had to be somewhere, had to get down and pick up another load. You have to hurry when you’re a logger. That’s how you make money.”
Frank has the halibut special without the jalapeno sauce, and an 1812 beer. “That’s what you usually have,” says the waitress, who turns down the volume on the overhead speakers for us. Edith fiddles with her hearing aids and orders the butterfly shrimp.
“What are you working on?” she asks me, and I tell her I’ve been travelling in China for my book on the history of ink. “Still? I thought you’d be finished by now.” I said I thought I would too. I remembered now that other register of her rich voice, the no-nonsense tone I’ve heard in other New Yorkers: Good. But get on with it. Promise is nothing. Let’s see you deliver. “Have you read Annabel Lyon’s book?” she says. “I really liked it. Then I read the earlier ones. I didn’t understand them. But this one about Aristotle is wonderful, don’t you think?” I did. “How long does it take you to write a book?” she asks. Five years, I say; I thought we were off that. She says, “I couldn’t get through Pamuk’s latest. It seemed the same as his other one. Have you read Snow? I liked it. Maybe he’s one of those writers who are always writing the same book. He goes on too long.” Edith brooks no slack, even from Nobel Prize winners.
She is the author of scores of articles and five books of non-fiction (“Only five books,” says Frank), and she speaks respectfully of William Shawn, her editor at The New Yorker, where she was a staff writer for many years. “I told Mr. Shawn it had to be a book and so he let me go back to Yellowknife.” Denison’s Ice Road, which came out in 1974, was turned into Ice Road Truckers for the History Channel, first as a special, then as a series. Fishing with John was nominated for a Governor General’s award for non-fiction and then turned into a movie. “Don’t watch it,” she said. “It’s terrible.”
Frank drives more slowly on the way home, and in the twilight the road seems almost devious, twisting round on itself, taking us into the heart of the rain forest and then magically leaving us on the edge of a bay, with the lights of a marina on the water, and the dark mass of a mountain beyond.
Their house has lots of little rooms opening out one after another. “I had a friend who was paraplegic,” said Edith, “and I tried to imagine what it would be like if he came here in his wheelchair. Now I’m glad I did, because it works for us. It’s all on one level.” A lipstick-red chimney pipe angles out of the old stove into the pastel green walls. “It rains a lot here,” says Edith, and she has made the place bright inside. A red wooden drying rack hangs above the stove, ready for gumboots and rain gear. The orange-yellow tablecloth is ringed with blue flowers. She puts me in the yellow guest room with the Bill Reid print on the wall. We talk in her study, where one wall of windows looks out to sea and the other walls are packed with books. Beside the Franklin stove hang framed sketches from her profiles for The New Yorker, which include Pierre Trudeau and Arthur Erickson. The Erickson article also turned into a book, Seven Stones: A Portrait of Arthur Erickson, Architect.
In the morning Frank steers his walker round the kitchen, makes coffee, puts water on for eggs, finds bread for toast. “You just sit,” he says. He apologizes for the logging injuries that have come back to plague him. “My knees have no strength in them now—but I didn’t expect to be around at ninety-six.” He spreads his hands and smiles. “So you see, it’s all profit.” We look out to the bay below, the spine of Vancouver Island beyond, sun streaming in. I say it’s a beautiful spot and Frank smiles again. “Yes, I can’t think of a better place to . . .” he pauses, “to run out my time.”
He heaves himself up out of his chair and puts a cup of tea on the seat of the walker. “I’ll just take this in to the cook. She’s very tired this morning. I’m a bit worried about Edith. She’s starting to show her age a little.” They come back together, their two walkers like red and blue bumper cars. They have to cut through the living room because the hallway that comes in at the end of the kitchen is too narrow for the walkers to get through.
At breakfast Edith’s hearing aids aren’t working.
“I need new batteries.”
“Batteries. I need new batteries, Frank.”
“I have some. Do you want me to get them?”
“What? Do you have batteries?”
“Do you want them?”
“Batteries! Just tell me where they are.”
She finds them and puts new ones in. “These still don’t work. Both of them.” She turns to me. “Now you see what it is to get old.”
The phone rings and Edith shouts into it. I gather it is the History Channel. They want to renew the rights they bought from her for Ice Road Truckers.
“I can’t hear you very well…”
“Please email me… yes, just email me…”
“I will get my secretary to handle this.”
After she hangs up I ask if she could understand what the call was about.
“Of course,” she says. “I just want to make sure they’re going to pay me.”
Edith says she is not good in the mornings, but as the toast and tea kick in she shifts, as always, to interview mode. I tell her I am reading Samarkand by Amin Maalouf, the Lebanese journalist and writer. She has never heard of him. I tell her it’s a historical novel about Omar Khayyám, whom I knew only as the author of the Rubáiyát, not as a scientist and astronomer.
Frank starts to murmur.
“What?” says Edith, tweaking her hearing aid.
Frank grins and keeps murmuring.
I can hardly make out anything myself, just a few words in the flow. It isn’t the loaf of bread quatrain.
“Wine… love… garden…”
“What? What’s he saying?”
“Beloved… years… still…”
“What’s he doing? Frank! Is he quoting the Rubáiyát? What are you saying, Frank?”
He just keeps murmuring, eyes fixed on hers. Mischievous.
“Stars… caravan… dawn…”
I can’t tell if it is several quatrains or the same one over and over.
“Before we too…”
Edith gives up fiddling with her hearing aids, and gazes at Frank, and smiles.
“Ah, my Beloved…”