The act of reading ... begins on a flat surface, counter or page, and then gets stirred and chopped and blended until what we make, in the end, is a dish, or story, all our own.
— Adam Gopnik

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July 7, 2016

They May Not Mean To, But They Do

      There as a kitchen chair beside the hospital bed, and Joy sat down on it. She reached beneath the blanket and found Aaron's hand. His hand was cold. 'There, there,' she said. A useless, irrelevant comment. 'There, there,' she said again. Not every comment had to be useful or relevant. Some words were useless, irrelevant, words that meant I'm sorry, I'm so sorry, I wish I could help you, I love you and I have for so many years that I even love you when I don't; words that meant I didn't mean it when I said I was going to put a bag over your head if you asked me one more time where your ice cream was when it was right in front of you. 'There, there,' she said.
      Aaron, eyes still closed, opened his mouth, and through his strained breathing, he said, 'There, there,' too.

I have read all {or almost all?}of Cathleen Schine's novels, and always enjoy them, but this one... this one was a heart-breaking, heart-warming joy, especially since I didn't expect that.

Many {or most?} of Cathleen Schine's novels are about New Yorkers, and in this one we meet the Bergmans:  Joy and Aaron, who are in their eighties; their middle-aged daughter and son, Molly and Daniel, Molly's wife Freddie, Daniel's wife Coco, their precocious young daughters Ruby and Cora, and Molly's son Ben, who is at loose ends after college. Molly, an archaeologist, has moved to Los Angeles to be with Freddie, with all the necessary guilt, and Daniel, an earnest environmental lawyer, lives nearby and checks on his parents when he can.  Joy still works as a conservation consultant to a small Jewish museum {she loves her work, but also needs to, because Aaron has mishandled the family business he inherited}, and Aaron is slipping, gently at first, further into dementia. {He is a lovely man, and 'pleasantly demented,' a wonderful clinical phrase that a doctor used about my own sweet, brave dad.} All of the characters are beautifully drawn and fleshed-out.

They're a loving, squabbling family, and the plot {such as it is...} centers on what happens as Aaron slips further away and then dies, and Joy and her children cope with their loss and each other. It's not always a sad story; in many places it's very very funny, filled with Joy's struggles with care, and grief, and independence, and her own failing health, and with her children's loving and clumsy attentions.

      Then she hobbled back to her apartment. There it all was, her mess, waiting, turrets and towers of files and mail, its banners of Post-Its and crumpled tissues. ...
      She finally broke down and called Danny. 'I think someone has to help me. But no one can help me. What should I do?'
      'Close the door,' Danny told her. 'And never go in again.'
      'When she called Molly, in tears, Molly said, 'That's all? God, you scared me.'
      To them, it was a pile.
      To Joy, it was the past and the future all jumbled together.
      Someday, they would understand. They would feel sad the way she felt sad about her own mother, about all the ways she had not been able to understand until she, too, was old. If only everyone could be old together.

Just on that level -- the funny-and-sad family story -- this is a wonderful, enjoyable book. But it was just a coincidence that I was reading it during a week when I was trying to help my own mother cope with knee surgery, and gasping at how true the novel felt, and remembering that all we can do is try to understand, and love, and be older together.

They May Not Mean To, But They Do, by Cathleen Schine
Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2016
Source:  Boston Public Library (and now owned)


Lisa said...

I haven't read any of her books. Do you have a favorite, or one that you'd recommend to start with?

JoAnn said...

Sounds like perfect timing for this book. Hope your mother's recovery is smooth and uneventful...mine is trying to make a decision on hip surgery. I'm slowly making my way up the library hold list!

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