When my son was born, I was obsessed with documenting each stage of his life. I shot hours of videotape of him chewing his toe, torturing the cat, slapping the soapy bath water. I was trying to stop time, freeze-frame all that was happening so that I could come back and enjoy it later when I was not so goddamn tired. Now at 40, I understand that I was trying to stave off the inevitable — that I would forget parts of his childhood.
Elizabeth Cohen knows a lot about babies and forgetting. Upon turning 40, she found herself sandwiched between a father who was sliding into the abyss of Alzheimer’s and a baby daughter whose mind was just beginning to awaken. The learning curve of new motherhood is always steep, but Cohen’s is even more daunting because she is caring for her declining father as well.
In her memoir, The House on Beartown Road: A Memoir of Learning and Forgetting, Cohen writes about the fascinating cycle of language, learning, and forgetting that flows through her two charges. Her infant daughter’s climb up the sharp curve of learning neatly parallels her father’s slide down the same curve’s descending slope as he succumbs to Alzheimer’s. “She said ‘Mama’ on the same day he first asked me who I was. She said ‘Baby Aba’ — her name is Ava — the same week we received our census and my father looked for a long time at the form before asking me his own name.”
Cohen begins her story when her father, once a well-known economics professor, comes to live with her. Energized by the joy of new parenthood, Cohen and her husband, Shane, fix up a room for him in their rural farmhouse. They feel up to the challenge, eager to do something meaningful for Cohen’s father. “We would get a subscription to the New York Times,” she gushes. “We would cook brisket, we’d stock the kitchen with rye bread and pastrami. We’d get better mustard.”
This is on page 15. By page 20, Cohen’s husband has run away to Gallup, New Mexico, and her father politely asks: “Could you please inform me of the whereabouts of my wallet, my passport, and the most direct route to Cleveland?” Winter is approaching, her farmhouse leaks, and she is in trouble.
But Cohen doesn’t fall into a “poor me” trap. She scatters humor and insight throughout her writing to help herself (and us) through the rough patches. “The other morning, I saw my father struggling with a sweater. Four fossilized cheerios were stuck on the sleeve, which he was trying furiously to button in the buttonholes on the front of the sweater.”
Her prose is often poetic: “Ava dances at language’s doorway.” Trapped in her wintry life, holed up in her chilly farmhouse, Cohen looks out through the giant icicles and feels she is “being jailed by clean bars.” And both her father and daughter’s slices of language float poetically throughout the text. “He asks for ‘the liquid substance from the spigot.’ She asks for ‘wa-wa.’ ” As her father’s grip on words loosens, he circuitously arrives at meaning. To categorize their relationship, he says to his daughter, “You are that woman approximately one level down from me.” When his granddaughter Ava comes into the living room he says, “Here is the one that fills the room with hurricanes.”
As winter comes on hard and cold, Cohen finds herself alone, squeezed between the incessant needs of a baby daughter and those of her increasingly incompetent father. And her runaway husband never once bothers to call. She begins to lose her grip, stops combing her hair, and feeds her family canned spaghetti. She worries about having Alzheimer’s herself. She watches infomercials deep into the night and is utterly exhausted. We feel the ebb and flow of her fear, and watch as reality threatens to drown her. “I wonder what is that, a breakdown? How does one go about having one? Does it mean you get to rest? Have breakfast in bed? Play with your children all day?” She concludes, “I simply don’t have the energy, even for a minor collapse.”
But the trio huddles together, and even though Cohen finds herself teaching both her daughter and father how to use a fork, there is a sweet alchemy that develops in this tiny knot of a family. Ava and Daddy learn from each other, and Cohen learns from both of them. Her writing is never sentimental, but often funny, often poignant. She describes laughter as “part of a circle of emotion that ends up as sadness if you go far enough.”
Cohen’s language is sometimes chaotic, reflecting the topsy turvy world of Alzheimer’s she inhabits. The way the terms “mommy” and “daddy” are jumbled throughout the book linguistically blur the lines between care-giver and -taker, shifting the rigid classifications of parent, child, and husband. Her mother is called “Mommy,” both by her father and herself. And Cohen of course is Mommy to her own little girl. As her father slides deeper into Alzheimer’s, he occasionally mistakes his daughter for his wife, and in a creepy moment says to Cohen, “Can I make love to you?” Another time he tries to kiss her on the mouth. When Cohen’s errant husband finally does return, her father turns to her and says of the relative stranger holding Ava, “That chap out there in the yard has our baby. You might want to keep an eye on him.” You betcha.
Perhaps Cohen’s greatest gift is her ability to capture the bleak terror of Alzheimer’s with enough wisdom and humor that makes a reader want to hang tough with her. We trust her and want to see how she manages. And she manages by writing. It’s a way out of the dark both for her and for her father’s memory. She begins a “Memory Project,” writing down one of her father’s memories each day. This gives him a sense of accomplishment, and gives Cohen a sense of control. “It has its own special alchemy. I can make what is terrible turn beautiful.” In her column as a journalist for the Binghamton Press & Sun-Bulletin, she documents the isolation of giving oneself over completely to loved ones in need. And then, casseroles magically appear on her doorstep. Another Samaritan plows her driveway.
In my own fortieth year, I still take some pictures, but now I mostly write about my family. It’s been said that a picture is worth a thousand words, but using words has allowed me to put myself in the picture. Cohen has documented her family’s dark winter together in a memoir, and she’s in the picture, too. It is how she will remember.
The House on Beartown Road is a poignant memoir about isolation and the terrible tragedy that is Alzheimer’s. But it’s also about living in the moment, watching children grow, and the ways we can care for one another. It’s about grasping the tiny moments of beauty that flicker by so quickly that we can not snap the shutter in time.