Off the Shelf: Familial relationships

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

Lifecyle events – changes in status – often make us pause and review our lives. They also can cause us to re-evaluate the way we understand our parents’ behavior and our connection to them. These ideas form the basis for two recent memoirs: After his mother’s death, Brian Morton discusses their strained relationship and the difficulties of caring for an elderly parent in “Tasha: A Son’s Memoir” (Avid Reader Press), while Aileen Weintraub not only ponders the state of her marriage, but re-evaluates her beliefs about her late father, when she’s placed on bed rest during a difficult pregnancy in “Knocked Down: A High-Risk Memoir” (University of Nebraska Press).

Morton, the son of a Jewish mother and Irish father, strictly limited the amount of time he spent with his mother as an adult. He found her overbearing – something his friends confirmed when they talked his mother’s unrealistic fears and demands. It didn’t help that he’d published a novel with a comic portrait of her that she felt was unfair. Now that she’s no longing living, he realizes that there was another side to her that he needed to explore.

The daughter of an actor who frequently traveled and often lived with another woman rather than his wife and daughter, Tasha (as Morton refers to his mother) left home early and worked for most of her life. She was an impressive, innovative teacher who later became a member of the Board of Education in Teaneck, NJ, and continued to attend meetings as long as she was able. (Tasha was so well-known that, when she died, the Teaneck newspaper published an article about her life and work.) She was ahead of her time on school integration and, to practice what she preached, moved the family into a predominately Black section of town.

Yet, Tasha was also opinionated and stubborn. For example, she despised angel food cake and fought (and almost lost) a friend who innocently served that cake when she visited. Although Jewish, she disliked the Orthodox who moved into her Teaneck neighborhood. She complained that her children never visited enough, but her constant, unreasonable demands make it easy to understand why Morton and his sister limited the time they spent with her. 

One major factor in Tasha’s life was her marriage. Morton writes about its high and low points, for example, when his father lost his job, but was too proud to tell Tasha, whose discovery of the fact almost caused a permanent rift. Yet, the marriage was generally a happy one, so much so that Tasha was devastated when her husband died. Morton is not sure if that’s when his mother began to show signs of depression or if being with his father had held her depression in check.

Other sections of the memoir focus on what occurs after Tasha has a stroke. Morton notes that, even before she started to suffer from dementia, you could never get Tasha to change her mind. After her stroke, she refused to listen to anything he and his sister said. Her house was a dangerous mess: even when prompted, she refused to get rid of even so much as a piece of paper. It finally becomes impossible for her to live alone, but there is another problem: her daughter had been ill and was in no condition to take care of her mother. Morton, on the other hand, finds himself unwilling to do so, at least at first. However, Tasha did live with his family for a short time before she moved to an assisted living facility as she began to need even more care.

Morton combines humor and pathos when discussing his mother, something that works, but which can be difficult to read, especially for anyone who has gone through similar experiences with a parent. His book does also discuss a real problem: the difficulty of finding people or a place who can make it possible for ill, elderly parents to retain their dignity. Morton notes that, in the U.S., parents and children are on their own. At least, Morton feels that way because, as he makes clear, he doesn’t have a community that will help with the practical aspects of caring for an aging parent. 

While Morton focuses on one relationship, Weintraub discusses numerous ones, including hers with her husband, mother and late father. The author didn’t follow what she calls the traditional path for nice Jewish girls: college and an early marriage with children quickly to follow. Instead, she moves from New York City to the countryside, leaving marriage to what her mother considered relatively late and, after finally marrying, moving into the old family house that Chris, her non-Jewish husband, now owns – a house that needs a lot of work. Weintraub feels her life is going well, though, especially when she becomes pregnant at age 29 – that is until she’s placed on bed rest. That’s when she begins to relive some of the same difficulties her mother faced: Chris refuses to share his emotions and is overwhelmed by the problems of the business he now owns. This leaves Weintraub to reflect on her own life and that of her parents, along with her own failing finances.

One major problem for Weintraub is that she still misses her father: he was her best friend and her hero, and she longs for him to give her advice on her marriage and her pregnancy. Her father is with her in some ways: she hears his voice in her head making suggestions, mostly telling her to buck up and stop complaining. Yet, as she revisits parts of her childhood, she remembers the more difficult times: the years her father suffered from depression and didn’t work. Weintraub also acknowledges that her father could be unkind, although as a child, she seems to have either accept this or overlooked it. But thinking about him also helps her better appreciate her mother, who drives her crazy at times, but who always comes through when needed. (Although it still didn’t feel as if Weintraub gave her mother enough credit for keeping the family financially afloat when her father wasn’t working.)

What makes her bed rest even more difficult is that Weintraub lost some of her closest friends when she married Chris. Her Orthodox Jewish girlfriends can’t accept the relationship and no longer speak to her. Fortunately, Watson, her closest male friend, who is also Jewish, had no difficulty with her choice and the two are in frequent touch. Some of the best parts of the memoir are her phone conversations with Watson, who manages to combine snark with wisdom when Weintraub calls him about yet another emotional crisis.

The real focus of the work, though, is her pregnancy and whether the baby will go to term, or be born premature. Weintraub’s descriptions of her doctor visits are funny and serious at the same time. She is filled with guilt for what seems to be no other reason than she is having a difficult pregnancy. But her fears are real: she not only worries about her child, but whether her marriage will survive this difficult time, especially since Chris is working long hours to keep the business he bought going. 

By the end of “Knocked Down,” readers may be as eager as Weintraub for her baby to be born. Fortunately, the author managed to keep her sense of humor – at least when writing this book, if not during her pregnancy. If readers are willing to follow Weintraub’s fun-house, hormone-driven emotional ride, there are pleasures to be found in her work.