During our marriage, my ex did all the cooking, although I did try my hand at preparing dinner a few times, with dismal results. After our divorce, when I mentioned to Rick that our son was complaining that I’d never made him a home-cooked meal, he responded, only half-joking, “Make him one. He’ll never want another.”
Which is to say that I might not be the ideal reviewer for Alex Witchel’s All Gone: A Memoir of My Mother’s Dementia, with Refreshments. A mother’s dementia is a compelling (and timely) topic. But “refreshments”? This refers to the fact that there’s a lot of writing about food in this book. (Witchel is the food writer behind The New York Times’s popular “Feed Me” column.) And there are cherished family recipes scattered throughout.
The last thing I want to learn when I pick up a memoir about dementia is how to roast a chicken.
And yet, Nora Ephron’s Heartburn is among my favorite books, and it too contains recipes. When I read it, I just skipped them. That’s what I did here too.
All Gone is a riveting dysfunctional-family memoir, with a focus on the swift and frightening decline of Witchel’s mother into dementia, following a series of strokes. The author shares her struggle to cope with this loss, as well as painting a vivid portrait of Barbara Witchel in her heyday.
Barbara Witchel was both a mother of four and a dedicated teacher adored by her students. Insecure and charismatic, she was a working woman in an era of stay-at-home moms and a suburbanite who preferred reading to shopping. Married to a volatile, angry man, she was very attached to (and emotionally invested in) her daughter, whom she depended on to be strong when she herself could not. She believed in her daughter without reservation, and pushed her relentlessly.
For Alex Witchel, it wasn’t a happy childhood. One early scene reveals their screwed-up family dynamic: when Witchel’s father, furious at his teenaged daughter, punches her in the nose, his wife demands that their daughter apologize to HIM.
Which she does.
To say that everyone involved could have used therapy is an understatement.
But from this fraught beginning, the author manages to pull together a fabulous life, thanks, in part, to her mother‘s support. Although everyone else seems hell-bent on undermining her daughter’s self esteem, from the angry dad who belittles her to the writing teacher who belittles her prose, Barbara Witchel has no intention of raising an underachiever. The daughter benefits both from her mother’s belief in her and from her example. Failure is never an option for either of them. Refusing to take “no” for an answer is a family value.
The author overcomes any number of obstacles to grow up sane and stable, and enjoys both a terrific career as a journalist and a great marriage (to author Frank Rich). But when Barbara Witchel begins losing her mind, her daughter takes on the burden of her care. And as she goes through the hell of watching her mother’s personality evaporate and trying to help her, her own younger sister receives a cancer diagnosis.
To embrace the food metaphor, Witchel’s life becomes both sweet and sour.
Witchel, one of the best writers around, is able to do justice to the increasingly ordinary yet absolutely devastating reality of parental dementia. You’ll never find a more lucid description of everything falling apart. It seems odd to say that a book about dementia was a pleasure to read, yet I consumed it in a day, then searched the Internet for Witchel’s byline, hungry for more. The mother may come across as challenging and abrasive, but the daughter, throughout, is excellent company.
My only quibble is with what the author refers to as “the Proustian pull” of the potato latke.
Food, and writing about food, is clearly Witchel’s comfort zone. Revealing too much of herself, just as clearly, is not. Rather than digging deeply into a difficult situation or a devastating feeling, she goes only so far before turning away to describe a memorable family meal or share a recipe. While she deftly mixes together insights about love of food and love of family, I wish she’d saved the food writing for another book and focused this memoir entirely on her family story.
Which is just another way of saying that I’d rather read a book as emotionally nourishing as this one than eat the most delicious meal described in it.
The book ends rather abruptly. Her sister has cancer. Her mother is declining rapidly. We’ve come to care about these people and want to know what happens to them. But in the final chapter the author pulls back to describe a happy family dinner with her husband and stepsons, followed by a recipe for the meal we‘ve just read about.
We’re left, not with closure, but with directions for cooking chicken with rosemary and garlic.
Is All Gone worth reading? Absolutely. Will it leave you satiated? It may not. But I’m not entirely sure the author wants you to rise from this particular table feeling happy and full.
Is the recipe for the “Frankfurter Goulash” on page 97 worth making? You’ll have to ask another reviewer.