By Carolyn See
Friday, February 19, 2010; C01
A Family Story
By Roger Rosenblatt
HarperCollins. 166 pp. $21.99
"Amy Elizabeth Rosenblatt Solomon, thirty-eight years old, pediatrician, wife of hand surgeon Harrison Solomon, and mother of three, collapsed on her treadmill in the downstairs playroom at home," Roger Rosenblatt writes about his daughter at the start of "Making Toast." "Amy died on December 8, 2007, at 2:30 p.m., six months ago. Today is June 9th, 2008. The day of her death, Ginny and I drove from our home in Quogue, on the south shore of Long Island, to Bethesda, Maryland, where Amy and her husband, Harris, lived." The reason for this move was Amy's three children: Jessica, 7; Sammy, 5; and Bubbies (James), the baby of the family at 2. Bubbies had a nanny, but anyone who has had three children would know that, at a time like this, a nanny isn't enough.
This memoir begins, then, six months after Amy's death and continues for eight months until March 1, 2009. The story is about coping with grief, caring for children and creating an ad hoc family for as long as this particular configuration is required, but mostly it's a textbook on what constitutes perfect writing and how to be a class act.
Rosenblatt, a novelist and memoirist, is a master of leaving things out, so there's never an overt statement of what he and his wife might be trying to do or, more accurately, how they actually come to grips, day after day, with the unexpected loss of their beloved daughter. Their weapons, never spoken of or written about, are perfectly matched sets of what the writer John Espey used to call "ferocious good manners": courtesy, consideration and correct behavior, elevated to an art form. As their world crashes around them, they rush in to help and simply stay, doing the work that is needed.
The Rosenblatt family is both large and close. Besides Amy, there is an older son, Carl, his wife, Wendy, and their two small children, all living nearby in Virginia. And there's John, the younger son, who lives in New York. Son-in-law Harris has parents and relatives, too. The task before them all is both simple and appalling: to take care of the three children in the short run and -- in the long run -- to raise them to be human beings that their mother would be proud of. It's almost unbearable to think about, although Rosenblatt would never say that. But early on, Bubbies's nanny, Ligaya, who "has a work ethic of steel and the flexibility to deal with any contingency," gives Harris this advice: "You are not the first to go through such a thing, and you are better able to handle it than most."
So they all pitch in. Rosenblatt and his wife move into a downstairs bedroom. Harris must keep going to work. Ginny becomes, in effect, a surrogate mother -- making lunches, laying out school clothes, taking the kids to doctors' appointments, arranging play dates for three. Again, the effort is not just to see after them, but to comfort them, allay their sorrows and their fears of abandonment and death.
Rosenblatt would never pontificate about that. Instead, he writes about becoming the family's designated worrier: "I worry when any of them takes a trip. I worry about Ginny driving in Bethesda. I worry when the children or grandchildren are down with a cold. I worry about John walking at night in New York. Ginny merely mentions a pain in her right knee. I worry." As well he might. Amy was in perfect health when she died, apart from a hidden heart defect nobody knew about. "Except for a few disappointments," Rosenblatt writes, "probably less than my share, I've led a charmed life. I am learning what most people know at a younger age -- that life is to be endured, and its rewards earned."
Rosenblatt doesn't believe in God, but he's furious at Him anyway. How could God have let this happen? He asks the question a few times, rhetorically. Most notably, though, he strives to make himself useful, driving the kids, finding the right books for them. He can't fill the father's role because they've already got a perfectly good father. Instead, he plays the buffoon to amuse them, writing an anthem about how "great" he is. He begins dopey anecdotes, "When I was a little girl. . . ." He gets up every morning, empties the dishwasher and makes toast for the kids -- each one has a different preference. He writes different "words for the morning" each day on a Post-it, and delivers a small lecture to elucidate their meanings: "answer," "equestrian," "poopies."
He discovers, the way one does in that situation, how almost everyone he meets has been touched by an unexpected death -- often the death of a child. He makes friends with strangers. He and his wife get through one holiday (the first, awful Christmas) and do better on the Fourth of July. They learn to be at home in the house of their son-in-law. They manage to do what they set out to do.
The little kids are marvelously drawn here. Each one, Jessica, Sammy and James, is shown without the slightest hint of sentimentality. "No mom for me," Sammy says matter-of-factly as he watches a sitcom with his grandfather, and Rosenblatt answers with the requisite, "Mommy is still with us. . . . She's always with us everywhere." Sammy appears to go along with that out of politeness, if nothing else, thus carrying on their tradition of ferocious good manners. The point, for everyone, is to act as decently as possible, to create a shield of good conduct, which, with luck, might transform what they're going through into something like a good time.
More than once, reading this, I thought of Elizabeth Enright's masterful children's books "The Saturdays" and "The Four-Story Mistake," in which four kids who've lost their mother but still have their devoted housekeeper, their wonderful dad and a faithful family friend, manage to transform their loneliness into something to be proud of, to tell stories about. "Making Toast," with luck, will serve that function for the Solomon children and for many readers who will turn to this for information on how to live a treacherous life with wit, humor, courage and good manners strong enough to hold back the demons of monstrous death and meaningless loss.
See reviews books regularly for The Post.
Sunday in Outlook
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-- The ancient partnership between animals and humans.
-- The questionable partnership between baseball and U.S. foreign policy.
-- A poisoner's handbook for CSI enthusiasts.
-- And the definitive biography of Joseph Pulitzer.