June 22, 2016
A short and powerful evocation of a mother’s death and of the events immediately preceding them.
The cover categorizes this slice of memoir from Becker (Arts/Columbia Univ. School of the Arts) as an “essay,” and it is also described as a “meditation.” The author begins and ends with her mother’s death, cremation, and interment, but the revelations in the body of the book do more than bring this full circle. “Shame exists even in the shame of feeling ashamed,” writes the author, as she examines how the mixed marriage between her Jewish father and his Catholic bride threatened to generate so much shame that they initially kept it a secret. Rather than developing tolerance, they transferred that stigma to their daughter; her “father disowned [her] several decades ago for having a relationship with a man of mixed race.” Though her love for her parents, and her mother in particular, seems unconditional in these pages, she says that their relationship “had not been easy or comfortable.” As her parents aged, they moved from their native Brooklyn to the warm haven of Florida, where they adjusted to new ways (and new friends) without giving up their own. Her mother was a widow in her 90s when her health started failing, and though the author “had always thought my mother would slip away gently…[t]hat was not the case.” Instead, her decline coincided with a destructive hurricane, leaving other residences leveled and the region without electricity for two weeks. Yet as her mother’s condition had been labeled “Failure to Thrive,” when she was allowed to go home to hospice care, the subtle struggle between mother and daughter eased as well. By the end of the book, Becker has seen death bring “the beginning of a new relationship with my mother,” one evolving through “minor miracles.” Readers may not believe in these, but the author does, absolutely.
A book written as much or more for the author as for any readership, but those going through similar trials will take much solace from the author’s story.
May 2, 2016
In this quiet, lovely essay, Becker takes readers through the years and months leading up to her mother’s death and the mourning period that followed, delving into the grief of losing a much-loved parent. Becker, a professor and dean at Columbia University, writes precisely and elegantly, and her background in literature and philosophy quickly becomes evident as she laces her prose with allusions to Roland Barthes, Simone Weil, and Samuel Beckett, among others. Spirituality and religion play a large role in both Becker’s life and her tribute; she wrestles with the Judaism of her father and the lapsed Catholicism of her mother, invokes mysticism and Buddhism, emphasizes the power of dreams, and tells myths about Hindu goddesses. The essay is organized not chronologically but by elements: fire, earth, water, and air, each of which corresponds metaphorically to a different part of the end of her mother’s life. Becker’s sadness is pronounced and pervasive, but she breaks through the heaviness with flashes of humor, such as when she describes the Neptune Society (located in a strip mall off the Florida interstate, marked by a giant cutout of the mostly naked sea god), a Florida crematorium that her mother had arranged to handle her cremation. The subject of this slim memoir may be intensely private and narrow, but Becker’s writing is so beautiful—and the process of grieving so universal—that it deserves a wide audience.