'Making Toast: A Family Story' by Roger Rosenblatt

A poignant memoir of how grandparents fill the gap left when their daughter dies.

BOOK REVIEW, March 07, 2010

By Dinah Lenney

A Family Story

On Dec. 8, 2007, the day that Amy Rosenblatt Solomon collapsed on the treadmill and died, her parents, Roger and Ginny Rosenblatt, drove from their Long Island home to be with Amy's husband and children in Bethesda, Md. "How long are you staying?" asked granddaughter Jessie the next morning. "Forever," answered her grandfather.

In his new memoir, "Making Toast," Rosenblatt assembles a collage of images, scenes, dialogue and moments of reflection to portray Amy's world: her parents, brothers, husband Harris, friends, colleagues and, most especially, her children: Jessie, Sam and James, all under age 7 at the time of her death from an asymptomatic heart condition. The memoir takes us through the year that follows, during which Jessie loses at least one tooth, Sammy enters kindergarten and James, a.k.a. Bubbies, learns to talk. Harris makes his in-laws as comfortable as he can and "embraces the demands put upon him with a gusto that dispenses cheer." The adults struggle to give the children a sense of continuity even though their mother isn't coming back.

Early on, Rosenblatt, an essayist, author and playwright, describes Amy's gift for the celebration of occasions great and small, "the qualities Yeats wished for in 'A Prayer for My Daughter.' " And so he and Ginny step in as Boppo and Mimi to help with the family choreography of the everyday and the extraordinary: piano lessons, playdates, family vacations, holidays, starting with that very first Christmas.

Ginny, indefatigable, takes the helm: " 'I am leading Amy's life,' she says in despair yet comfort, too." Boppo is her sous-chef, and breakfast his contribution to the daily routine. In the face of grief, certain things remain constant; the changing appetites of the rest of the family notwithstanding, Bubbies remains devoted, in the morning, to toast.

Finding their way

"No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader," wrote Robert Frost in his essay "The Figure a Poem Makes." Sure enough, Rosenblatt brings the reader to tears, but with prose that is as restrained as it is evocative. He remembers the day after Amy's death, how he stood with his grown sons, Carl and John. "Arms around one another, we formed a circle, like skydivers, our garments flapping in the wind. I could not recall seeing either of them cry since they were very young." Tuned in to the sorrow of others, Rosenblatt is also not afraid to reveal his own terrible grief. But he seasons anger and incredulity with humor and exquisite tenderness. He notes that Ginny is occasionally "brought down by the sight of . . . any artifact connected to a memory." Of himself he says, "I am more often felled by mundane problems or momentary concerns, such as choosing a shirt to wear or remembering to take a pill -- since nothing will ever be normal again." Sometimes, he has to fight back: "Harris buys Sammy a punching bag," he writes, "an Everlast heavy bag, which hangs on chains from the ceiling in the playroom. When Sammy isn't using it, I do."

Though Amy is gone, she is very much alive in these pages. This book is not just a reckoning with death, but a celebration of her conviction, her clarity, her sense of fun, her role as daughter, sister, friend, doctor, wife and mother. "The distance of death reveals Amy's stature to me," writes Rosenblatt. "My daughter mattered to the histories of others. Knowing that did not prevent my eyes from welling up with tears for no apparent reason in Ledo's Pizza the other day. But it is something." He wonders, recalling the "indefinite urgency" with which she sang nursery rhymes to Bubbies, "if she had an unconscious premonition that she would not be around for him."

What is the worst a parent can contemplate? The death of a child. And the next most awful thing? Her own death, before her children are ready to lose her. And so, on the one hand, Ginny and Roger Rosenblatt are confronted with the realization of their worst fear, and, on the other, their solace, the opportunity to do for Amy's children what she cannot do herself.

Near the end of "A Prayer for My Daughter," Yeats wrote:

How but in custom and in ceremony

Are innocence and beauty born?

So it is for this family, reconfigured and rearranged, but vigilant with each other, and faithful to the rituals of growing up. "This is our life," writes the author. "Without Harris and the children to fill it, we would be sitting in Quogue, manufacturing conversations between dark silences. I know we are creating a diversion for the children as well as a differently constructed life for them. Yet we are doing the same thing for ourselves."

For his daughter

Innocence and beauty restored then, with this gem of a memoir, deceptively simple in its proportions, but in truth: sad, funny, brave and luminous -- see how it catches the light. "For Amy," reads the dedication. And we understand that it is not just the book that's for Amy: It's the book as testimony, showing her how things are and how they will continue to be. "The only spiritual thought that has come to me," writes Rosenblatt, still angry at God, "is a kind of prayer to Amy that we are doing what she would have us do." Without self-pity or sanctimony, the author reminds us in this rare and generous book that there is no remedy for death. The way to live, he concludes, is "to value the passing time"; the best we can do is to pay attention and to love each other well.

Lenney is the author of "Bigger Than Life: A Murder, A Memoir."
She teaches in the Master of Professional Writing Program at USC.