Making Toast by Roger Rosenblatt
"Days are to Be Happy In": The poignancy of this Larkin line is hammered home in this vivid new memoir just out from Time columnist Roger Rosenblatt. When Rosenblatt’s adult daughter, Amy, died of an asymptomatic heart ailment in 2007 (and on her home treadmill, no less), he and his wife drove to Amy’s home in Maryland. A prominent pediatrician, his daughter had three children under seven at the time of her death. One of them, granddaughter Jessie, asked Rosenblatt how long he and his wife were staying. “Forever,” said the author.
This memoir captures the ensuing year with captivating, insightful vignettes of the three grandchildren living the lives of primary school waifs and masters. The grandson Sammy enters kindergarten, that forbidding portal to academia slathered over with all the innocent detritus of the nursery. Jessie loses at least one tooth. James, a.k.a Bubbles, learns to talk, speech descending upon him in the hypnogogic haze he inhabits between grief and non-comprehension of death.
Rosenblatt is not reluctant to reveal his own profound and terrible grief. But he and his wife -- re-naming themselves Boppo and Mimi -- resolve to channel this negative energy into structuring “the choreography of everyday life” so essential to young children, for whom routine is the referent for all other aspects of existence. Rosenblatt and wife continue their daughter’s ornate breakfasts, the kids' piano lessons, even cross-country vacations with all their pet-congested, loss-plagued, vehicular foibles. Rosenblatt, himself a poet, uses as a framing device Yeats’s great “A Prayer for My Daughter,” and these lines reify the sanctiy of sameness to very young minds: “How but in custom and in ceremony/Are innocence and beauty born?”
Indeed, Rosenblatt saw in his daughter all that Yeats’s poem wishes for a female offspring. The author speaks of her as a living presence visiting him with all her tones and texture in the venues where she was most a mom and a daughter: “The distance of death reveals Amy’s stature to me. My daughter mattered to the histories of others. Knowing that did not prevent my eyes from welling up with tears for no apparent reason in Ledo’s Pizza the other day. But it is something.”
The tightness of Rosenblatt’s prose, its overall economy, is also fresh and revitalizing. Rosenblatt is a poet, essayist, playwright, and screenwriter, and he tackles the overused genre of memoir with appropriate openness, balanced at the same time with restraint and dignity. As Dinah Lenney opined: “What is the worst a parent can contemplate? The death of a child. And the next most awful thing? Her own death, before her children are ready to lose her.”
Rosenblatt carries on in the only way he can: honoring his daughter by passing on the love he had for her directly to her issue without sentimentality, self-pity, or overstatement of her struggle. The book is wise and generous, and, again to quote Yeats, “inhabits that eerie realm of life-in-death and death-in-life.” This is accomplished by Rosenblatt’s fostering a respect and love for the quotidian, the “crap-work” of everyday life that creates patterns of safety and comfort not just for his charges, but for him, his wife and son-in-law. Sometimes it detracts from his writing, but life itself must come first:
Late one morning I am alone in the house. I cannot remember another time when this was so. Harris is at work... Sammy and Jessie are in school. Bubbies is at his gym with Ligaya. I am supposed to be writing. Instead, I wander about the empty places---the playroom, the children’s bedrooms, the halls. The only sound is the whir of the refrigerator.
In the morning of life, we rage to live without dead time. At its evening, and with responsibilities born abundantly from our dreams, we settle into routines that provide depths of understanding and a new alacrity of mind. Rosenblatt’s becomes in the end the most sanguine sort of grief-memoir, a demonstration of the joy that is born hiding, then slowly comprehending, its contrary.
Making Toast by Roger Rosenblatt