They May Not Mean To, But They Do
by Cathleen Schine
New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016, 304 pages, $29.99, hardcover
Reviewed by Valerie Miner
“They fuck you up, your mum and dad. They may not mean to, but they do…..”
—From “This Be the Verse”
By Philip Larkin
Eighty-six-year old Joy Bergman, the spirited protagonist of Cathleen Schine’s tenth book, substitutes “son and daughter” for “mum and dad” in Larkin’s sardonic poem. Joy is the dynamic materfamilias in this tender, hair-raising, funny novel about three generations of an Upper East Side Manhattan clan.
Joy and Aaron have enjoyed six decades of marriage. “They were as one,” writes Schine.
They held hands when they walked down the street, they fed each other tidbits like lovebirds. It was embarrassing for the children, having such lovey-dovey parents. And reassuring. Like the trumpeters and singers in the Bible they were as one.
But now, as the book opens, Joy struggles to balance a demanding job and a taxing husband whose dementia is so severe he keeps tearing off his colostomy bag in the middle of the night.
When loving, sentimental and fiscally hopeless Aaron plummeted the family into bankruptcy, Joy got a job, earned a PhD, and became a conservation consultant at a small Jewish museum. She usually enjoys her work; lately, however, home and office demands are overwhelming. (If this seems far-fetched, remember that the number of older workers in the US is rising. According to the Pew Research Center and the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, within the next five years, more than thirty percent of people aged 65-74 will be employed. And after that the percentages keep rising.)
Everyone offers her advice. Joy’s college sorority sisters, still her best friends, urge her to send Aaron to a senior day care center. Her daughter Molly and son Daniel recommend in-home help. Yet who knows Aaron as well as she? He’s lucid, sometimes; even funny. They walk to Central Park together. He relishes chats with his friend Karl.
Schine celebrates the devotion that graces a long, good marriage:
He called her darling, asked what the hell the colostomy pouch was, apologized for it, thanked her for putting up with it and him. Then they fell asleep. That was how it went most nights. Sometimes when she lay down on the bed with Aaron, her faced pressed against the back of his head, she would cry.
Although Aaron is the frailer of the two, it’s Joy who lands in the hospital with a minor stroke and a serious intestinal infection. When she comes home, an army of hired helpers invades, destroying any hope of continued intimacy with Aaron:
The apartment was full of voices, all timbres, tones and accents. It was like an orchestra. The cushions of the sofa cradled her aching body. She listened to the voices: a deep, male, harsh African musicality; the free-for-all vowels of Portuguese English; the clatter of female Spanish. And Aaron, his intermittent wailing reaching back to the Middle Eastern chanting in its cadences, as if all his ancestors were crying out at once.
Schine portrays old age with dignity and idiosyncrasy. Meanwhile, her description of well-meaning but patronizing younger relatives is drawn with sympathetic humor.
Daniel visits from the Lower East Side, and Molly flies in from Los Angeles; both are eager to help. Their energy, ideas, and resources, though, are no match for Joy’s force-of-nature independence. And middle-aged Molly and Daniel have their own fraught families. They are alternately frustrated and relieved when their help is declined.
Schine adroitly depicts the city of New York—on chilly afternoons in Central Park, in posh restaurants with sterling silverware and pressed pink tablecloths, and at tawdry bodegas. Joy leans on a shopping cart in “the kind of grocery store in which half the children were probably not vaccinated against measles.” Schine evokes the sounds, odors, and tastes of Manhattan, even in the briefest moments: “Daniel emerged from the subway and smelled the overripe fruit from the fruit stand.”
Although Aaron’s death is expected, the loss wracks his family with heartache and alarm. Frantic Molly and Daniel offer endless suggestions to make Joy more comfortable, safer, happier. Molly brings her to California, where Molly and her partner Freddie offer ceaseless, exhausting diversions, which heighten Joy’s anxiety. The breaking point is their surprise present to Joy of an adult tricycle.
“It’s red,” she said. She did not know what else to say.
“You can ride on the boardwalk. It’s great exercise.”
“You can do errands.” Freddie added.”
Clearly it’s time to return to New York. The one gift Joy carries back from painfully sunny Los Angeles is a small dog named Gatto, who becomes the most reliable of companions.
Molly phones regularly. Daniel drops by each evening. But Joy’s children have their own predicaments. Who knows how elaborate and expensive Daniel’s daughter’s Bat Mitzvah will be? Molly’s distracted son Ben is cited for public urination. Molly is also helping Freddie navigate her own crazy family and their father’s dementia.
Joy finds solace and cheer in a renewed acquaintance with Karl, Aaron’s Central Park friend and, as it happens, her old college flame. The children grow suspicious. They argue about whether Karl can come to the Bat Mitzvah. They want Joy to be happy, but …
We need more literary characters like Joy: smart, quirky, strong older people. While the family worries about her fragility, they still rely on their mother and grandmother. Joy even winds up facing the police citation, changing “Ben” to “Bea” in court.
Cathleen Schine’s novel—sad, painful, heartening and hilarious by turns—is a dazzling tapestry about an ordinary family with an extraordinary matriarch. Like all wise weavers, Schine leaves a few threads hanging. Will the “kids” force Joy into an assisted living center? Will she have a future with Karl? Will she be convicted of Ben’s faulty bladder/judgment?
Valerie Miner is the author of fourteen books including the novel Traveling with Spirits (2013) and the family memoir The Low Road (2002). She teaches at Stanford University. Visit her website at www.valerieminer.com.