making toast 58.
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This memoir is a spare, simple account of a family coming to terms with its grief after a sudden death. But more than that, it’s an extraordinarily evocative and unpretentious look at what it means to be a family, raise children, watch them grow and, sometimes, say
good-bye to them.
Roger Rosenblatt wrote the book after he and his wife, Ginny, moved in with their son-in-law and their grandchildren, after the death of their daughter, Amy. Amy, a pediatrician, died at the age of 38 from an undetected cardiac abnormality. Her entire family was stunned by
grief, and Rosenblatt and his wife immediately threw themselves into caring for Amy’s three children, aged one to six. While there was a nanny in the picture, whose contributions Rosenblatt mentions with great respect, both the grandchildren and grandparents helped heal
each other through their deep love and commitment.
The cliché about grandparents is that they have a pretty cushy job: They show up, give the kids a couple of presents, and then leave without having to do much. But although few grandparents are ever pressed into service as Rosenblatt and his wife were, many grandparents, in these days of a shrinking economy and two working parents, take a great deal of responsibility for caring for their grandchildren. Whether you feel your own parents have done too much or too little with your children (does anybody really ever feel their
parents have done something just right?), this book will make you appreciate them more and understand them better.
Like Joan Didion in her memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking, in which she described the sudden death of her husband and her daughter’s struggle with a freak illness that turned out to be fatal, in this beautifully written memoir Rosenblatt concentrates on the details of everyday life. These details build a far more vivid picture of this family and its grief than windy meditations on mortality or emotion would. “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,” he writes.
Amy, the absent daughter, emerges from her father’s recollections as a warm and funny person, one who would have approved of Rosenblatt’s no-nonsense approach to this memoir. The children are described in loving detail, and are not idealized little angels but real kids. It’s interesting that Rosenblatt, a grandfather, has succeeded where so many new mothers have failed when writing about their children: He has made them interesting. It’s thrilling to read descriptions of what the baby actually does when he toddles around the house, Jessie’s visit to the bizarre American Girl doll boutique in New York and Sam’s constant questions about science and lack of attention span when it comes to the answers.
It’s also a love story, about Rosenblatt’s affection for and gratitude toward his wife. He describes what she does for the children during a single day, explaining how they fill every minute of her life. (Men who read this will never ask again what stay-at-home moms “do all
day.”) He doesn’t for a second pretend that he is doing many household tasks himself. In fact, the name of the memoir, Making Toast, comes from the one daily job that becomes his specialty.
But he is also a gently comic presence in a house filled with kids who call him Boppo, and it’s touching and not cloying as he describes himself clowning around for them.
In a memoir like this, the risk the writer takes is that the details
will seem too mundane, and that happens at times here. More often,
Rosenblatt selects the telling detail that brings a scene to life.
Another jarring note is that Rosenblatt, a prolific playwright, author
and journalist, has many prominent friends. It can be distracting to
read such famous names as Garry Trudeau, Jane Pauley and Jim Lehrer
mentioned as family friends, but if those are his friends, Rosenblatt
has to mention them. While this may be annoying for a moment or two,
you only have to remember the book’s raison d’etre – a father coping
with the death of his child – to forgive them.
Unlike so many
parents in this tragic situation, the Rosenblatts have not turned
bitter (although the author admits he is angry and that he sometimes
expresses this anger inappropriately). He is lucid enough to accept the
wisdom of the children’s nanny, who tells them just after Amy’s death:
“You are not the first to go through such a thing, and you are better
able to handle it than most.”