I recently unearthed a childhood photo album and spent some time flipping through it, gazing at half-forgotten faces and remembering random stories. Seeing my best friend and me at various ages and in different places, I remembered so much about her just by looking at our twin smiles.
Roger Rosenblatt’s Making Toast, a hauntingly lovely memoir about life after the death of his 38-year-old daughter Amy, has the same effect. Reading “Making Toast” is like perusing a family photo album in which there are conspicuously empty pages. The book is a collection of moments in the year and a half after Amy suddenly dies, and sometimes her presence is felt so strongly that it’s as if you’re looking at a family photo with her head neatly trimmed out.
After Amy’s death from heart failure, Rosenblatt and his wife, Ginny, move in with their son-in-law and three grandchildren: Jessie, Sammy, and James. The six, whose lives relied so unthinkingly on Amy’s effusive love, learn to lean on each other as they take up strange new roles.
As the sole mother figure in the house, Ginny, a pragmatic and even-keeled woman, moves into the mother role seamlessly, so much so that she tells her husband in wonder, “I think my whole life has led up to this moment.” She cooks for Harris, Amy’s husband; tucks the children in; sings nursery rhymes with James; cheers for Jessie at soccer games. “Now, in sorrow, she is in her element,” Rosenblatt observes. Ginny’s reaction is similar: “‘I am leading Amy’s life,’ she says in despair yet comfort, too.”
For others, however, the transition isn’t so easy. Seven-year-old Jessie keeps her feelings under wraps, occupying herself with school, friends, and sports. She cracks only once, sobbing, “It’s not fair!” when she sees “all the mothers present but her own” at the Fourth of July family reunion. James, the 2-year-old who goes by “Bubbies,” becomes more aware of his missing mother as he grows older, awaking in tears and calling for her.
Sammy, the practical and intelligent 5-year-old who found Amy’s body, matter-of-factly shoulders the burden of having seen his mother dead. His responses are always logical in a childlike way, and dealing with Amy’s death is no different. Rosenblatt describes watching a TV show with him: “A mother appears on the show. ‘No mom for me,’ [Sammy] says.”
Rosenblatt documents his own changes, identifying the breakfast routine as the most substantial one. Every morning, he assembles breakfast for the kids, pouring cereal and making toast, which he calls “the one household duty I have mastered.” His advances in toastmaking are mentioned periodically as symbolic landmarks of progress in the post-Amy world.
And landmarks are in short supply. The stabs of grief fade to a dull ache as time passes, but Amy is still a crucial missing link for the Rosenblatt clan. The careful, deliberate writing in “Making Toast” lays out every instance where Amy’s absence was noticed. Rosenblatt handles these moments delicately, often cloaking them in wit or anecdotes.
If there’s one shortcoming to “Making Toast,” it’s that Rosenblatt’s writing itself feels dispassionate. The descriptions of tough times don’t match up with the calm, unemotional explanation. Often he describes a struggle against dark emotions – “anger and emptiness remain my principal states of mind” – but we’re reading a placid, removed analysis. The anger that Rosenblatt mentions so frequently comes across as muffled and technical.
Yet Rosenblatt’s memoir commands your attention by other means, including the format. There are no chapters, rather journal-style entries. Some entries are pages long, others only a few sentences, but each isolated story makes your heart ache. “Making Toast” is a bleakly beautiful scatter plot of grief.
For bereaved readers, the barren emotional terrain might be familiar, and perhaps Rosenblatt’s restraint spares them from reliving their own grief. At the heart of the whole book is the idea that the day after the funeral, someone’s got to get up and make toast for the kids. Life goes on, writes Rosenblatt – and so must we.
Katie Ward is a former Monitor intern.