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A Son's Memoir
Table of Contents
About The Book
A Washington Post Best Nonfiction Book of the Year
In the spirit of Fierce Attachments and The End of Your Life Book Club, acclaimed novelist Brian Morton delivers a “superb” (Maureen Corrigan, Fresh Air), darkly funny memoir of his mother’s vibrant life and the many ways in which their tight, tumultuous relationship was refashioned in her twilight years.
Tasha Morton is a force of nature: a brilliant educator who’s left her mark on generations of students—and also a whirlwind of a mother, intrusive, chaotic, oppressively devoted, and irrepressible.
For decades, her son Brian has kept her at a self-protective distance, but when her health begins to fail, he knows it’s time to assume responsibility for her care. Even so, he’s not prepared for what awaits him, as her refusal to accept her own fragility leads to a series of epic outbursts and altercations that are sometimes frightening, sometimes wildly comic, and sometimes both.
Clear-eyed, “deeply stirring” (Dani Shapiro, The New York Times Book Review), and brimming with dark humor, Tasha is both a vivid account of an unforgettable woman and a stark look at the impossible task of caring for an elderly parent in a country whose unofficial motto is “you’re on your own.”
On March 13, 2010, driving at night in a thunderstorm, my mother got stuck on a flooded road near the Hackensack River. Her car stalled out and the electrical system failed, so pressing on the horn yielded no sound. She didn’t have her cell phone with her. The river forced its way inside the car, covering her ankles, moving up to her knees. She was eighty-five years old and in poor health and she knew that if she left the car she’d be dragged down into the water. She was sure she was going to die.
I was living with my family in Westchester. The rain had been crazy all day. In the morning I’d promised my kids that we’d go out to the toy store and the library, but although we wouldn’t have to travel more than half a mile, the storm was so wild that I grew doubtful about leaving the house at all. Heather was at a conference that weekend, and I had the kids on my own. Finally I told myself it couldn’t be so terrible to drive a few blocks, and I took them to the toy store. Driving there turned out to be an exercise in not letting them see how frightened I was—I could barely make out the road—and after they’d each picked a toy, I decided to skip the library and take them back home.
My niece, who was in high school, was giving a dance recital that night, but the drive took an hour in good conditions and would have been a nightmare during a storm like this. I wrote to my sister, Melinda, with apologies; she told me it was fine, and added that our mother was still planning to attend.
I can’t say I was surprised. My mother was like a child in many ways. She’d never been good at knowing her own limitations or thinking ahead. One of my early memories was of an evening when she took Melinda and me to see our grandparents off at Penn Station after they’d visited us in New Jersey. I was four and my sister was seven. Our grandparents were taking a train back to Pittsburgh. She felt it important to help them find their seats, though they were only in their early sixties and were perfectly capable of doing this themselves, and she felt it important to stay with them, soaking up every minute of togetherness, even after the announcement that anyone without a ticket had to leave the train. She told my sister and me to get off and wait for her on the platform. I don’t know what made her want to postpone leaving until the last possible moment. I don’t think there was any real reason; I think it was just hard for her to leave. That was one of the first things you got to know about my mother, if you knew her at all. It was hard for her to let anybody go.
My sister and I waited outside the train. We heard a second announcement, and then a third, and then we saw the train start to move.
I don’t remember what I was thinking. I don’t remember if my sister said anything. But I do remember that the train began moving and my mother wasn’t with us and I didn’t know what we were going to do.
Finally she emerged in the space between two cars. She looked at us, smiled nervously, looked down at the swiftly moving platform, and jumped.
My mother, it should be mentioned here, was not a graceful woman. She’d never been athletic, and a providential moment of nimbleness was not bestowed upon her now. She leapt from the train in an odd way—the position of her body reminded me of an angel in a cartoon, reclining on a cloud while playing a harp—and landed heavily on the platform, and cried out in pain.
At the distance of sixty years, I can see that she was lucky. The force of the fall was taken by the fleshiest part of her body. She didn’t break any bones. She didn’t hit her head. She didn’t suffer any serious injuries. But for months she bore a frightening bruise, covering most of her thigh and part of her backside. (She showed it to us more than once, even though, for me at least, once was more than enough. She might have thought it was educational for us in some way.)
To my four-year-old mind, this adventure seemed to say two things about her. Her leap and her bruise seemed to mark her as both heroic and unbalanced. I can’t deny that I thought there was something glorious about the sight of her leaping from the train, but neither can I deny that I understood, even then, that there was something off about it too, something that set her apart from other grown-ups, and not in a good way.
All of which is to say that in 2010, when I learned my mother was planning to attend the recital, it didn’t even occur to me to try to talk her out of it. I thought it was foolish, but I also thought it was just her, and I’d learned long ago that when I tried to talk her out of doing something she was intent on, I had no chance.
I did whatever I did with the kids that night. I imagine I made them some nutritionally questionable dinner—chicken fingers for Emmett, mac and cheese for Gabe—and watched a movie with them and waited eagerly for them to fall asleep. After that I’m sure I either wrote or wasted time on the internet. The storm didn’t die down. If you care to look it up, just search for “storm” and “March 13, 2010” and “New Jersey.” I remember that I thought about my mother once or twice, wondering how she’d fared in the miserable weather. I wrote her an email at around midnight, and was surprised when I didn’t hear back—she liked to stay up late, and she was always on her computer—but I have to admit I didn’t think about it very much. I assumed things had turned out fine.
In the morning I checked my email and saw that she’d written to me at two. She told me what had happened—she’d finally been found by the police as they patrolled the flooded streets—and said that it had been the worst night of her life.
A few days later, Melinda visited her and noticed that her balance was off. She took her to her doctor, who sent them to Englewood Hospital to determine whether she’d had a stroke.
I met them at the hospital. My mother had already had a few tests and they were waiting for results. She was sitting in one of those backless gowns, which seem designed to humiliate you and thereby render you willing to do what you’re told. She was normally an irrepressibly chatty person, but now she was sitting on the examining room table with a doleful expression, not saying a word. Occasionally she swung her legs in the air, looking like a disappointed child.
When she did speak, it was hard to tell if she was slurring her words. If you listen carefully to anyone at all and ask yourself whether they’re slurring their words a little, it can be hard to be sure.
I was worrying about many things.
I was worrying about her, of course. I was worrying about how much damage she might have suffered; I was worried about whether she was going to be able to continue living on her own. But I was also worrying about myself. I had successfully kept her at arm’s length for many years, not really doing much for her except having dinner with her from time to time, and this was comfortable for me. Now it seemed that I might have to call on different capacities in myself, and I didn’t want to.
- Publisher: Avid Reader Press/Simon & Schuster (April 11, 2023)
- Length: 224 pages
- ISBN13: 9781982178949
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Raves and Reviews
“I found Tasha addictive. I couldn’t even slow down. Why? Its startling details, fearless depictions and the curiosity this sparks: How might Morton “solve” the unsolvable?”… Tasha stands as both a cri de coeur and vibrant testament—the painstaking, brave, generous piecing-together of a wildly difficult puzzle.” —Joan Frank, The Washington Post
“Superb… one thing that sets Tasha far apart from the usual one-sided literary conversation with a deceased parent is Morton's rigorous attempt to see his mother, Tasha, whole — as a person. Another thing that distinguishes Tasha is Morton's elastic style as a writer, by turns droll, emotionally wrenching, and profound. … [A] powerful memoir… Tasha is such a pleasure to read, oscillating between past and present, horror and hilarity, the big social picture and one son's ongoing attempt to work out some stuff with his mother.” —Maureen Corrigan, Fresh Air
“Brian Morton, a gifted, compassionate novelist, has, over the course of five elegant novels, explored the moral complexity inherent in storytelling. … With humility and grace, he tells us that he has failed his mother by not seeing her as a full and complete person, one with great courage, complexity and strength. But it is a gift of mature adulthood — and perhaps the work of writing memoir — to see our parents as people who exist outside of their centrality in our lives… [a] lucid memoir.” —Dani Shapiro, The New York Times
“Morton’s affecting, funny tribute captures the complexities of the mother-son bond, the crazy-making choices of caretaking and the mixed blessings of small-town life.”—People
"Unstinting yet tender… a tour de force... Part gut-punch comedy, part eulogy, this tribute is dazzling” —Publishers Weekly *starred review*
"One of the truest, most insightful mother-child memoirs I have ever read.” —Vivian Gornick, author of Fierce Attachments
"This profoundly moving memoir is both an absolute delight and a punch to the gut: Brian Morton writes without flinching about his often exasperating mother, his own considerable failings, and the impossible demands of balancing safety and independence, love and anger, guilt and grief. I urge you to read this astonishing work: part family comedy, part prayer for the dead, and wholly unforgettable —like Tasha herself." —Will Schwalbe, author of The End of Your Life Book Club
“A searing and tender memoir, written with candor, warmth, and heartbreaking grace.” —Betsy Lerner, author of The Bridge Ladies
"Yes, Tasha is an indelibly memorable character, but what makes the book really soar is the combination of her plus the author's truthful self-portrait: the two are locked in a pas de deux, for better or worse, that epitomizes the impossible-to-satisfy love of mother and child." —Phillip Lopate
“Empathic, elegantly written… Morton’s sharp condemnation of the lack of national eldercare propels Tasha, but its real animating force is his psychological insight and generous spirit.” —The National Book Review
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