The best memoirs transcend the strictly personal. New York Times columnist Alex Witchel's book All Gone, about one of the hottest topics among baby boomers — caring for our aging parents — comes across as boomerish in a bad way: self-absorbed and immature, as if she's the first to suffer this sort of stress and loss.
For years after her mother's diagnosis of stroke-related dementia, Witchel is a barely contained "muddle of anguish, anger, and self-pity." While some readers may appreciate her raw honesty, it's not enough ballast in a book that brings too little that is fresh to the growing literature of parent care.
A pity, because as the recent, powerful excerpt in The New York Times Magazine made clear, All Gone would have been much stronger had Witchel stayed tightly focused on her mother. Instead, Witchel has padded the book with her own personal history, including her childhood in Passaic, N.J., and Scarsdale, N.Y., as the oldest of four children in a functional but none-too-happy kosher Jewish household; her uncertain path to journalism; and her marriage to former Times drama critic Frank Rich.
She also writes about the comfort she's found in her mother's tried-and-true menu staples, and then includes these ho-hum recipes in her book, examples of "housewifery in the age of Betty Crocker." Her mother, a college psychology professor, was a dutiful, serviceable and, by all appearances, unexceptional cook. Her recipes are heavy on Bac-O's, canned soups and the "dynamic duo of Lawry's seasoned salt and garlic powder ... the kitchen crack of 1957."
While Nora Ephron might have whipped them into deliciously frothy sociological treats, the Witchels' Frankfurter Goulash, meat loaf and latkes sit heavily on the page. "The key to home cooking is knowing a good thing when you see it and having the sense to stick to it," Witchel insists. "If you want to express yourself, buy a pair of chartreuse socks." In other words, whatever you do, steer clear of Nigella, Ina, Smitten Kitchen and the rest of the foodie gang — never mind the Mark Bittman Variations: They may give you ideas.
In her 1998 book of essays, Girls Only, Witchel dubbed her meticulous, punctilious mother a "human Swiss Army knife." In All Gone, she paints a vivid, admiring portrait of a triple survivor — of a frivolous, overcritical mother; polio; and an often difficult husband. Barbara Goldfein Witchel pursued a doctorate and full-time career when mothers rarely did, valued honesty and brightness above all, and was a supermom and close friend to her older daughter.
In 2000, when she was almost 70, this lifelong smoker and Type 2 diabetic started showing signs of mental slippage. Witchel, as the only child without young children (her two stepsons were grown), stepped in. CT scans showed evidence of strokes, the scar tissue from which was contributing to depression and "emotional incontinence."
What to do? Witchel organized part-time home care and launched a crusade to find relief for her mother. This included a parade of doctors, tests and medications, including antidepressants with unfortunate side effects. Unable to accept the "ambiguous loss" of a mother who was "gone, but not gone," Witchel exhausts herself trying to show her mother that she hasn't abandoned her. While Witchel's loving concern is touching, we're left wishing she could, as Wordsworth put it, "grieve not, rather find / Strength in what remains behind."
Her mother — clearly not "all gone" — was wise even in her diminution. At one point she asks sharply: "I have to be perfect when I die? Why is that?" Another of "Barb's barbs" to her daughter, at once put-down and absolution: "There's nothing you can do because it's not up to you." Ah, mothers.