March 27, 2010
Making Toast by Roger Rosenblatt
Finished on 3/14/10
Rating: 3/5 (Good)
FTC Disclosure: Received ARC from publisher via Shelf Awareness
"How long are you staying, Boppo?"
When his daughter, Amy—a gifted doctor, mother, and wife—collapsed and died from an asymptomatic heart condition, Roger Rosenblatt and his wife, Ginny, left 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 reaccustomed themselves to the world of small children: bedtime stories, talking toys, playdates, nonstop questions, and nonsequential thought. Though still reeling from Amy's death, they carried on, reconstructing a family, sustaining one another, and guiding three lively, alert, and tenderhearted children through the pains and confusions of grief. As he marveled at the strength of his son-in-law, a surgeon, and the tenacity and skill of his wife, a former kindergarten teacher, Roger attended 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.
When I first saw Making Toast reviewed on Shelf Awareness's monthly feature (Maximum Shelf), I knew it was a book I had to read. I tend to gravitate toward books, notably memoirs, dealing with grief. This particular book sounded like one I could especially appreciate, as it is very close to my family's particular situation with our own loss. You see, when my stepdaughter was killed almost five years ago, she left behind a young daughter (not even three years old at the time). Our granddaughter is now being raised with love and devotion by her maternal grandmother, who like Rosenblatt and his wife, was well beyond the years of potty training, car seats, nightmares, Hannah Montana, and children's birthday parties. And yet, one does what one needs to do.
I think writing a book about a personal loss must be very difficult. How much do you share with your readers in order to bring them closer to the story? And how do you do that without creating a book so full of despair and sorrow that nobody is able to finish? How much do you reveal without infringing on the privacy of those involved?
Rosenblatt is an accomplished and renowned author and professor, so I was a little surprised at my reaction (or lack of reaction) to this spare, straightforward memoir. Like Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking, Making Toast is a nonlinear narrative, oftentimes circular — much like grief itself. I found the writing disjointed and lacking the emotional impact I had anticipated. Rather than open the back door and invite the reader into the warmth of the kitchen, Rosenblatt allows only a glimpse into the heart of this home—the soul of this family's grief—through a gauzy curtain.
Perhaps I expected more resemblance to my own family's grief. And there were a few, as well as some strange coincidences. For one, our daughter's middle name, Elizabeth, was the same as Rosenblatt's daughter. And our younger daughter's name, like Rosenblatt's, is Amy. Rosenblatt is Jewish; his wife was born Episcopalian. My husband is Jewish. I was raised Episcopalian. And, finally, Rosenblatt's granddaughter is the same age as our granddaughter.
I did find myself nodding in agreement on a few occasions:
On platitudes, clichés and God:
Road rage was a danger those early weeks. I picked fights with store clerks for no reason. I lost my temper with a student who phoned me too frequently about her work. I seethed at those who spoke of Amy's death in the clichés of modern usage, such as "passing" and closure." I cursed God. In a way, believing in God made Amy's death more, not less, comprehensible, since the God I believed in is not beneficent. He doesn't care. A friend was visiting Jerusalem when he got the news about Amy. He kicked the Wailing Wall, and said, "Fuck you, God!" My sentiments exactly.
What keeps me from seeking Catherine's [the children's psychotherapist] help is that unlike other psychological problems, what has happened to Amy, and to all of us, is real. The monster is real. And while there may be strategies that help Ginny and me feel a little better rather than a little worse, we will never feel right again. No analysis or therapy will change that.
I wonder if having a religion makes death easier to take, there being an established, possibly protective formalities that attend it. Ginny and I avoided religions ourselves and reared our children without one. She was born Episcopalian. We were married in a Unitarian church in New York. When we first visited the church to see if it would be right for us, they were dedicating a pew to a cat, which sealed the deal. Carl and Wendy, who were born Catholic, have a nonreligious home, as did Amy and Harris. We had something like a wake in the viewing, and when we greeted friends at home, it was akin to sitting shiva. But these events simply fell into place and God was not with us.
On expressing one's sorrow:
But I am not inclined to talk about my feelings with anyone but Ginny, and only rarely with her. Something about the momentum of our lives is good for us, keeps us from sinking. Given the choice between confessions of sorrow, however cathartic, and the simplest act of getting on with it, we'll get on with it.
On the passage of time:
The month of December has passed heavily. I tell her [Catherine, the therapist] I keep saying "Amy" when I mean Jessie or Ginny, and that I often feel removed from friends in social situations. She says that one of the delusions of people in grief is that once a year passes, things will start to look up. She reminds us of what she told Harris at the outset, that grief is a lifelong process for every one of us, not just the children. As for the demarcation of a year, "Things actually get worse. You, Ginny, and Harris are now realizing the hard truth that this is how life will be from now on. One year is no time at all."
And, finally, on a grandmother's day in the life:
And Ginny? After a day that consists of making and packing Jessie's and Sammy's school lunches, checking that Jessie's homework is in her backpack, and getting her ready to be picked up for Spanish lessons at 8 a.m., and making sure that Sammy is wearing his warm jacket and not the sweatshirt he prefers, taking Bubbies to Geneva, then doubling back to Burning Tree to help out in Sammy's class; after picking up Bubbies and giving him lunch and driving back to Burning Tree to take Jessie to a play-date with Danielle; after getting food for dinner and coming home to check on Sammy and Bo who has come for a play-date, and picking up Jessie at the end of the afternoon and playing with Bubs as he rides his trike, and preparing dinner for Bubbies, Sammy, and Jessie; after going down to the playroom to read to Bubbies and coming upstairs again to go over homework spelling words with Jessie, and making Sammy's and Jessie's schedules for the following day, and having a phone conversation with the mother of one of Sammy's friends who would like him to come over next week; after preparing dinner for Harris, me and herself; after playing just one-more-game of Uno with Jessie, and seeing that Jessie and Sammy use the bathroom before going to bed, and reading with Jessie, and laying out her and Sammy's and Bubbie's clothes for the morning... she kisses the children good night.
Did I expect to be moved by this memoir simply because of similar circumstances? Is it fair to criticize a book because one isn't moved to tears? Now that I've finished writing my review, I'm eager to read others, curious to see if other readers have found this book more "enjoyable" (for lack of a better word) than I.
I do know that writing about one's loss is especially cathartic. Both my husband (a talented writer by profession) and I have blogs comprised of letters written to Rachel after her death. Rod's letters moved me to tears each and every time, but, of course, I love him and his pain is my pain. I don't know Roger or Ginny, and while their sorrow is surely just as deep as my own, I never felt like I was given a chance to truly see it. But maybe it's not for me to see. Some day, when Jessica, Sammy and James are older, they'll be able to sit down and read Making Toast and see, through their grandfather's words, not only his undying love for his daughter, but the love he feels so deeply for each one of them. Because, of course, this is what I hope our granddaughter will see when she is mature enough to read our love letters to her mommy.
Read what other bloggers are saying about Making Toast:
Making Toast is about patience, love, faith (and the lack of it), grief, and the slow, torturous process of recovery. But perhaps it is mostly about what it means to be a family. Rosenblatt’s simple prose and his matter-of-fact presentation is surprisingly moving in the context of the story. It is a beautiful tribute to a daughter. (Wendy, of Caribousmom)
Written in simple prose, the story is not depressing or sappy. Yes, it is about loss and grieving, but more importantly, when all is said and done, it is about family, and about doing the right thing. It is about rolling up your sleeves and stepping up to the plate, and helping the people who need you the most. It's about rebuilding lives in the aftermath of tragedy, and redefining what family really means. (Diane, of Bibliophile By the Sea)
If you aren't planning to read Making Toast, I urge you to listen to this interview between Roger Rosenblatt and Diane Rehm on NPR. It's marvelous and was exactly what I had been hoping for in the book.
Read an excellent piece about Making Toast here.
See the video trailer for Making Toast here.