When Roger Rosenblatt was 3 years old, he wandered away from home, and his parents had to call the police to find him.
“You can’t just wander off without telling us,” his father said.
“We were scared to death,” his mother said.
I read this and paused as a long-ago memory started poking and prodding for my attention. This is one of the gifts of Rosenblatt’s book “Cold Moon: On Life, Love, and Responsibility.” It provokes reader participation.
In his deceptively short book, the celebrated author and essayist takes us on a tour of his “weathered mind” at age 80. He eschews chapters for a series of written snapshots. Some are short essays, but many are streams of fragments — often barely a word or two, all of them deftly arranged and fluttering about. They are more than enough to stir things up. His memories of his life summon ours, without warning or apology. Line by line, he helps us find softer landings.
When I read about his wandering the beach at age 3, I thought of one of my mother’s memories, recounted to me throughout my life. One cool, sunny day before I could walk, I went missing in my great-aunt’s home, where my 20-year-old parents lived for the first few months after their elopement five months before my birth. The three adults repeatedly shouted my name as they frantically searched the house, until my father looked out the front window. There I was, sitting in the grass, smiling upward for no reason they could discern.
Every time my mother told that story, her voice rose to the timber of parental pride. “We never figured out how you got out there. You didn’t look the least bit scared or surprised when we found you. You just smiled and reached up for me.” I haven’t heard that story in my mother’s voice for more than 20 years. Rosenblatt invited her back for just a moment, and this time I heard the story of how I was capable of magic.
The Cold Moon, Rosenblatt explains at the onset, is the last moon before the winter solstice, a fitting metaphor as he embraces “the coming of my wintertime of life.” His life, like all lives, has known its share of upending experiences, but he is now certain of three things:
“I believe in life.
I believe in love.
I believe we are responsible for each other.”
Off we go, to explore his reasons why. “Wipe the tears from your face, see the moonlight, and rise,” he writes. “No need for a stairway. Hold on to your soul. One shot of courage and we’re climbing.”
Rosenblatt’s mood pivots and leaps as his imagination “ruffles the mind.” He writes of the beetles that save mimosa trees in Houston, his daughter’s death at age 38 and greeting “small nervous birds” in walks along the sea. He marvels at the “ingenious geniuses” of both Shakespeare and the creator of the cluster bomb, and pivots again, to an unnamed “you” sitting with him for breakfast at a diner.
“You looked at our fiftysomething Latina waitress, with her morning smile competing with her exhausted eyes, and then at me. ‘Do we have a hundred dollars to leave her for a tip?’ you said. And when our waitress could not believe what we did and kept looking alternately at the money and at us and you said, ‘A New Year’s gift’ to remove the sting of charity from the gesture.”
Stay with him. He watches four homeless men at the village dump setting fire to a pile of prosthetic legs “for warmth — and s’mores.” Eight pages later, we’re in the segregated “Coloreds” car of a long-ago train, where the Dixieland Five band members sleep, their instruments piled in the aisle “in a great slag hill, like possessions taken from prisoners.”
Off to Antarctica! “The world’s biggest iceberg, the size of Delaware and Rhode Island, is breaking up and drifting out the Southern Ocean. Who can blame it? It has to be a burden, being that big and solid. I couldn’t do it, I’ll tell you that,” he insists. “I too would want to chip away from myself and drift. I couldn’t bear the pressure of all that colossal adamancy. . . . Chop me up into ice cubes and let me float in a vodka tonic.”
Another memory bubbles up, and three years later it alarms me still. We were in a restaurant in Rhode Island. I mistook my vodka tonic for a glass of water and leaned toward my toddler grandson to give him a sip. His father flew out of his chair and swatted away the straw — and my string of apologies. He is kind that way.
“You sure love your son,” I told him later. He smiled. “He kills someone, I bury the body.” Of course, this will never happen. He means it, just in case.
This Rosenblatt and his memories.
His Aunt Julia was “small and bent from osteoporosis,” but nobody noticed because “her bright ‘Hello’ ran interference for her.” When he was a teenager, he poked around old bookstores “like a botanist in a rain forest.” When he was 5, he wandered off again — what is it with this kid? — and walked into a stranger’s home to play the Steinway.
“It’s so unusual,” the woman said to his mother after returning him to his parents. “Your son has no fear. He just walked into a strange house and played the piano.”
His mother smiled and nodded. “It’s the way he is,” she said. “He thinks the world is waiting for him to walk in and play the piano.”
This Rosenblatt and his questions.
“While we’re at it,” he writes, “whatever happened to you? You were here a minute ago. There is life before death. Whatever happened to you?”
What nerve. The one he touches, I mean.
We move on to now, in the throes of this pandemic. He never mentions it, and yet he does.
“Everybody grieves. That’s the key to responsible mourning — remember that everyone grieves. Philo said, ‘Be kind, for everyone you meet is carrying a great burden.’ In grief it is difficult to think of everyone, but when you do, beauty intrudes upon sorrow, and something lifts. Everybody grieves.”
More memories, still raw. So many lost to this pandemic, with many more to die. “Remember what Brecht said when asked what we should sing about in the dark times. He said sing about the dark times. Loud, lusty singing. No cowering in a parenthesis.”
Let’s do remember Brecht, but let us abide by Rosenblatt’s No. 3: We are responsible for each other.
On Life, Love, and Responsibility
By Roger Rosenblatt
98 pp. $15.95