Monday, April 19, 2010

Making Toast, Roger Rosenblatt

"How long are you staying, Boppo?"
When his daughter, Amy—a gifted doctor, mother, and wife—collapses and dies from an asymptomatic heart condition, Roger Rosenblatt and his wife, Ginny, leave their home on the South Shore of Long Island to move in with their son-in-law, Harris, and their three young grandchildren: six-year-old Jessica, four-year-old Sammy, and one-year-old James, known as Bubbies. Long past the years of diapers, homework, and recitals, Roger and Ginny—Boppo and Mimi to the kids—quickly reaccustom themselves to the world of small children: bedtime stories, talking toys, playdates, nonstop questions, and nonsequential thought. Though reeling from Amy's death they carry on, reconstructing a family, sustaining one another, and guiding three lively, alert, and tender-hearted children through the pains and confusions of grief. As he marvels at the strength of his son-in-law, a surgeon, and the tenacity and skill of his wife, a former kindergarten teacher, Roger attends each day to "the one household duty I have mastered"—preparing the morning toast perfectly to each child's liking.
With the wit, heart, precision, and depth of understanding that has characterized his work, Roger Rosenblatt peels back the layers on this most personal of losses to create both a tribute to his late daughter and a testament to familial love. The day Amy died, Harris told Ginny and Roger, "It's impossible." Roger's story tells how a family makes the possible of the impossible.

This was an interesting book and an interesting reading experience for me. How could anyone read that description and not be overwhelmed by sadness? Roger Rosenblatt and his wife, Ginny, are clearly wonderfully caring people to pick up the pieces for their grandchildren and son-in-law after their daughter, Amy's, unexpected death. The book was full of tender moments from the daily lives of the grandchildren. Those are the things that matter, the things that provide security and stability for young kids (well, really for everyone, but since I spend my days with the under 7 set it's what comes to mind more readily).

I loved the word of the day, the stories and songs (especially the Boppo national anthem), and all the glimpses into classrooms and birthday parties. Completely unrelated to the subject of death and grief it was interesting for me to read these little tidbits from schools on the East coast that are so clearly cut from the same cloth as the school I spend my days at. Rich people are rich people no matter where they are. I was thinking the whole thing throughout Caitlin Flanagan's book too. Little enclaves of privileged kids, everything so similar. And I completely agree with the author's take on the modern child's birthday party: rarely held at home, always at some type of event center (laser tag, games, gyms, build a bear, etc) and completely run by a staff of teenagers. He's totally right- they are weird. But that is beside the point.

It is a very spare, slim little book which made more sense to me when I realized it was originally a piece in The New Yorker. For me personally, the short, clipped sentences were abrupt and made me disconnect from the emotions involved. Mom read this a few days before I did and we talked about  it this afternoon before I read the last 20-30 pages. I kept saying how I admire what these grandparents are doing for their family and I am horrifed by their loss but something kept me from "liking" Roger... not that I think I need to like or agree with every author but something was just rubbing me the wrong way.

I think a big part of that dislike comes from the diametric opposite religious views we hold. Not that I think everyone should believe as I do but its hard for me to relate to someone who on the one hand says he doesn't believe in God or a higher power but then at the same time is angry at God, lashing out at Him and wanting to blame Him. To me if you don't believe it wouldn't make sense to be angry at what to you is a fictional construction. Whereas a true believer would struggle and ask why but ultimately come to find peace that God weeps with us in the midst of tragedies (p.151).

The last 20-30 pages of the book changed my opinion (of the writing and the author) dramatically. The writing seemed warmer and the outlook more reasonable... and maybe that is the point. That in the immediate aftermath of a catastrophic event like the death of your child you aren't going to make sense or seem rational but as time goes by you find ways to cope. I'm not sure but the end of the book was definitely more readable and relatable to me.

I loved this:

"I told the second graders that one of the sad and difficult things about children everywhere is that they have no power. Jessie raised her hand, 'That's not true, Boppo,' she said, 'We have the power of thought and kindness." (p.159)

I liked this too and now I want to look up Anne Sexton:

"In early November, the class took up Anne Sexton. I had never thought much of Sexton, judging her to be in a minor league compared to such contemporaries as Sylvia Plath and Adrienne Rich. But the students and I were getting into "The Truth the Dead Know," and I liked the poem better than I remembered. "This line, 'In another country people die.' What does it mean?" I asked the class. A young man said, "It means that death happens to other people." (p.112)
 "The Truth the Dead Know", Anne Sexton

Bookslut review ~ "days are to be happy in", Larkin

Washington Post review

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