Although the memoir has been called luminous, wise, humble, piercing, and all sorts of other laudatory adjectives, it is, nevertheless, not an easy book to read because you keep wondering how you would manage in this situation.
Making Toast by Roger Rosenblatt, Ecco Press, 166 pages, $21.00
Reviewed by Roberta Silman
At the end of 2008, my eldest child called to say that she had just read an essay in The New Yorker called “Making Toast” by Roger Rosenblatt. She wanted her father and me to read it, and she was alerting her younger brother and sister. “It’s excruciating, Mom, and wonderful, too,” she told me.
It was. It still is. Here in this slender book, an expansion of the essay that is more meandering and, in its way, less sad, Rosenblatt recounts how the “impossible” (his son-in-law’s word for what happened) slowly, with time, becomes viable—not only endurable but also filled with what Kandinsky called “Delicate Joy” and “Little Pleasures”—the titles of two of his best drawings.
What happened was this: the Rosenblatt’s only daughter and second child, Amy Elizabeth Rosenblatt Solomon, died suddenly while exercising at the tender age of 38. She left Jessica, six; Sam, four; and James (whom the family calls Bubbies), 14 months. Amy was a physician and very present in the children’s lives because she had chosen to practice part-time while they were still small. When Roger and his wife Ginny arrived in Maryland the day of Amy’s death and Jessica asked them how long they were staying, Grandpa Roger, who is known in the family as Boppo, replied without missing a beat, “Forever.”
Although the book has been called luminous, wise, humble, piercing, and all sorts of other laudatory adjectives, it is, nevertheless, not an easy book to read because you keep wondering how you would manage in this situation. Here were Roger and Ginny, living quietly and peacefully in Quogue, NY, comforted by the knowledge that they had shepherded their own three children into adulthood.
This is often a very nice time in life when couples discover pursuits they had delayed because of the constraints and responsibilities that go with raising a family, and when, as Rosenblatt wryly puts it, the big decision of the day was where to have lunch. Without warning they were thrust back into the routine of bringing up a young family again, living in a macabre illustration of one of Rosenblatt’s own titles, “Anything Can Happen,” a circumstance that is overwhelming, to say the least.
And yet they never wavered; they did what they had to do without fuss or discussion, moving into a basement room in their son-in-law’s home and still providing the stability and generosity of spirit so needed by this bereft young family.
What makes Making Toast so engaging and also so poignant is Rosenblatt’s refusal to let anyone, including the reader, feel sorry for him. He also refuses to lump the entire family into one tragic unit, which is so easy to do in such a crisis. Each person in this mix—the three kids; their surgeon father, Harris Solomon; Ligaya, the Philippine Nanny for James; the Rosenblatts’ other sons, Carl and John; and Carl’s family all come to life, each in his or her unique way.
But what saves this memoir from being a dead end is that you soon realize, as Roger and Ginny do, that these children are going to grow up and, although they have lost their Mommy and nothing will ever be the same as it was before, there is a fair exchange of gifts. These amazing grandparents are giving the children their whole-hearted love and respect, and the children are giving them a way to be useful and a stake in the future.
It is very moving to see Roger observe his wife, a former elementary school teacher, step up to the plate with such good grace:
“I think my whole life has led up to this moment,” she tells me. “When Carl was born, I felt I was coming into my own, to be a mother. It’s what I love to do. I know who I am.” Her motherly decisions are without premeditation, like an athlete’s . . . “I am leading Amy’s life,” she says in despair yet comfort, too. After forty-six years of marriage, due to the most painful of reasons, I am getting to know my wife.”
As a writer, I was also interested to learn that Roger is having a harder time. One concrete thing he puts into place almost immediately is a Word for the Morning. Each day the children see a new word at the breakfast table, which has become his domain (his job is making toast), and the discussion about today’s word often has real value.
There is, however, the rest of the day to get through. A writer’s work requires solitude and thought, and, understandably, Roger finds it hard to initiate something new—a novel or one of the essays he does so well—because his thoughts are filled with Amy and her absence, which will also go on “forever.” Roger Rosenblatt is well read, and I enjoyed his comments on literature, especially his invocation of Yeats’s great poem “A Prayer For My Daughter.”
And it is good to know that his classes back at Stonybrook give him solace, but the travel from Bethesda to Quogue during the academic year presents its own dangers. Once someone in a family has died the way Amy has, the rest of the family must stay alive—no falling asleep behind the wheel, no accidents, nothing that might rock this fragile boat.
Everyone becomes more protective causing further complications. Roger and Ginny worry all the time about Harris, who is so stoical; although Harris has said he will never marry again, they have mixed feelings as they observe his acute loneliness and nurture hope that someday it will be relieved.
Which brings us, of course, to Amy. She had it all, work that she loved, a wonderful family, and good friends. While Ginny takes care of the myriad details of each day, Roger begins to work through his grief by getting Amy on the page—in bits and pieces and never with a trace of sentimentality—bearing witness not only to how much she is missed but also to what she was like as a child, an adolescent, and a young wife and mother. Giving her, as it were, back to her children in the very best way he can. And she is, by any account, a great gift. On remembering her graduation from medical school, he says:
I wish my dad had lived long enough to see her start out in her practice. We gave Amy his medical bag as a gift for her medical school graduation. On one side of the bag, just below the handles, were my father’s initials in gold letters. We had Amy’s initials put on the other side. When we presented her with the bag, she held it close and sighed, “Oh.”
Another important aspect of the book is its refusal to call on God. A young friend of mine lamented the family’s lack of faith, but, in an important way, that lack will help others who have chosen to live their lives this way. So many memoirs are so faith based that it was refreshing to read one where the main players choose to tough it out on their own. Although Rosenblatt never says what religion he was born into, I assume he is Jewish or from a non-religious family whose roots are Jewish. He explains very directly:
I wonder if having a religion makes death easier to take, there being 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 was born Catholic, have a nonreligious home, as did Amy and Harris. We had something like a wake the day before the funeral, 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.
Fortunately, lots of extended family and friends were, and by the end of Making Toast, the reader is filled with admiration for everyone who makes an appearance in it. Their sturdiness and Rosenblatt’s prose are an unforgettable combination.
Roberta Silman is the author of Blood Relations, Boundaries, The Dream Dredger, and Beginning The World Again, as well as the children’s book, Somebody Else’s Child. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.