The memoir craze of the past few decades has produced some classics but also enough flops to engender, by this point, a fair amount of skepticism from readers. We wince when faced with another rock god’s drug-addled remembrances of debauchery or a porn star’s account of her unorthodox work dynamics. Some memoirists have a valuable story but lack the skills to tell it. In the new world of social networking, too many writers assume that they are each beautiful snowflakes with tales worth sharing.
Thankfully, Tanya Ward Goodman, in her wonderful memoir Leaving Tinkertown, gives readers a well-crafted, compelling, and, above all, urgent narrative about losing a parent to Alzheimer’s. Goodman details the life and health decline of her father, Ross, who traveled the country painting carnival rides before settling in New Mexico and opening his own roadside attraction, which he christened “Tinkertown”: a museum of what some might call cowboy kitsch. A lover of circuses, carnivals, and tourist stop-offs such as Wall Drug, Ross was (and still is for Goodman) a larger-than-life figure.
Goodman’s precise descriptions of Tinkertown reflect her love of the place, but more importantly they form a portrait of Ross, who used coat hangers, pulleys, inner-tube fragments, wooden thread spools, and sewing machine motors to animate his carved museum figures. Tinkertown consists of a number of self-made buildings in a perpetual state of renovation. During the course of creating his life’s work, the author’s father would search for artifacts to fill his museum, often bartering his skills as a painter for objects to add to his exhibits. As a younger man, Goodman’s father was endlessly inventive and energetic, always sketching, painting, or building new additions to Tinkertown. He was also something of an eccentric who, on a hot summer day, could be found sunbathing naked in his backyard. When Goodman returns to New Mexico to help care for Ross after his diagnosis, she stays in a cottage that once formed a part of the museum when she was a child—and she occasionally looks out her windows to still find curious visitors peering back in.
In Leaving Tinkertown, Goodman explores her unique upbringing living among her father’s exhibits (as a child, she studied the Sears catalog to get a sense of normalcy), while honoring the man who dreamed up the museum. She shows us just how active Ross’s mind was, which makes his eventual diagnosis of early-onset Alzheimer’s all the more heartbreaking and lends the book its somber resonance. Not only is Leaving Tinkertown a reminiscence and a tribute, it is also a meditation on memory and a primer on caring for an Alzheimer’s sufferer. This dovetailing of themes showcases Goodman’s talents as a writer.
“Memoir” is derived from the French word for memory, and Leaving Tinkertown primarily concerns itself with this theme, specifically the ways in which memories are preserved. One method, of course, is to record them on paper, as Goodman has done with her book and Ross with his drawings—but Ross’s museum is also a means of preserving the past, the sad irony being that Alzheimer’s prevents him from safeguarding his own recollections. “Alzheimer’s disease is like a slot machine,” the author writes. “You pull the handle and, with a little luck, sometimes things line up.” What remains unsaid, of course, is that the luck can run both ways. Interestingly, during the initial stages of the disease, Ross’s son, Jason—a tattoo artist—begins inking images of personal importance to Ross onto his father’s body. This desire to preserve memory assumes an urgency verging on desperation, as though Ross seeks to record these images indelibly before they are gone forever.
When Ross is diagnosed, his elderly mother makes the decision to move from South Dakota to New Mexico in order to be closer to her son. Goodman, whose own life in Los Angeles has been uprooted by Ross’s illness, outlines the effects her grandmother’s return to New Mexico has on Goodman’s own career and relationships. Soon after arriving at Tinkertown, Ross’s mother is likewise diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, and the author finds herself caring for both her father and her grandmother. Goodman describes the discomfort of giving her relatives baths or scrubbing the floor after Ross has urinated on it. The author’s grandmother is forced to move from her apartment to a care facility, and Goodman expresses regret at tossing out mementos her grandmother has saved through the years. Like the memoir itself or Ross’s tattoos, these tokens are also ways of preserving memories—now lost.
In one of the book’s final scenes, family members receive Ross’s ashes after his cremation and feel compelled to taste them, which echoes an earlier passage: “If dust is made up primarily of dead skin cells, there is perhaps a finer, lighter dust composed mostly of memory. It is this kind of dust that settles over Tinkertown and filters through the air.” Partaking of the ashes is a surprising act—somewhat repellent (to this reader, at least) but also tender and intimate, even faintly reminiscent of the Eucharist. It is the ultimate gesture of preservation, a way of mingling Ross’s cells with his family’s. With this image, Goodman makes her entwined themes of memory and loss explicit.
The author is unflinching in her accounts of Ross’s drinking and infidelity, his violent outbursts, and his mother’s own ingrained racism, but Goodman’s depictions never come off sounding mean-spirited or self-serving. She is equally candid about her own doubts and flare-ups over her decision to help care for her dying father, especially as the return to New Mexico distanced Goodman from her fiancée in L.A. The author sometimes feels guilty about wanting her old life back and angry at being thrust into this new role. But what readers ultimately get is a brave and honest account of caring for someone with Alzheimer’s, where the caregiver comes to feel abandoned by a loved one who can no longer reciprocate her feelings.
During the final stages of the disease, as Goodman points out, sufferers tend to curl up in a fetal position, a steady regression called “shrimping.” The author’s writing is rich with the implication of how infantilizing Alzheimer’s can be as she juxtaposes her discovery that she’s pregnant with a scene in which she changes her father’s diaper. The roles of child and parent are reversed. This is a difficult fact for Goodman but one worth considering more broadly as well: the burden we are to our parents and the obligations we eventually assume for their care.
Goodman also reveals the anxiety she feels about the seed of forgetfulness that may lie dormant in her. The author’s father and grandmother both had Alzheimer’s, along with other more distant relatives. What are the odds the disease will claim her or her children? “These are the people I come from,” Goodman writes. “I imagine pushing off their shore in a small boat, looking back as the fog closes in. In front of me is open water with no land in sight.” This image, of memories slipping away like a boat into thick fog, is a sobering one to contemplate. Ultimately, it could be said that Goodman’s book, Leaving Tinkertown, is her own attempt at “tattooing” her memories onto her own mind.
While I found little to fault in this powerful memoir, initially I did struggle to chart the book’s sizeable population—siblings and in-laws, a grandmother, a mother and stepmother, a boyfriend, family friends, and Tinkertown employees—but as the narrative progresses, these confusions subside. There are also a few brief passages of explication or self-analysis (e.g., “Everywhere around me are signs of the past, but I can only guess at what is coming next”) that could have profitably been replaced by additional scenes from Ross’s youth. I found myself drawn to the details of his early, peripatetic life and the author’s place in it as a young girl. But these are minor gripes about what is overall a smart narrative by a passionate writer, a memoir that explores the life of a fascinating individual with a tragic disease and the lengths we go to in order to preserve the memories we value most.