The so-called long goodbye, suffered publicly by Nancy Reagan and privately by so many others, keeps threatening to become cliché — or yet another memoir. As the U.S. population ages, dementias are proliferating, and so are their chroniclers. Memory loss seems inevitably to spur an urge to remember — to capture sharp images of a beloved parent, spouse or other intimate before he or she fades entirely away.
To this burgeoning and often heart-breaking subgenre, we can now add Alex Witchel's "All Gone: A Memoir of My Mother's Dementia. With Refreshments" — a readable and modestly affecting tribute whose gimmick is the inclusion of home recipes meant to conjure better times.
Witchel has had a mostly enviable life: Her biography describes her as a staff writer for the New York Times Magazine, originator of the Times Dining section's "Feed Me" column and the author of three previous books. She is married to Frank Rich, writer-at-large for New York magazine, who had a distinguished career with the Times as a theater critic and political and cultural columnist.
One of the memoir's more pleasant diversions from its central story of loss is Witchel's entertaining account of how she and her husband got together. Their slow-burning romance, which began with a chance meeting and was sparked by a Witchel phone call in search of writing tips, is a sweet lesson in how luck, timing and moderate assertiveness can pay off.
Witchel's mother, Barbara, was unusual for her generation: While married and raising four children, she earned her doctorate and taught psychology at a small college, a job she loved. To her daughter, she presented a model of both caring and competence. But as "All Gone" begins, in media res, Barbara Witchel is already declining.
A series of small strokes have caused memory loss, confusion and depression, forcing her into retirement. She experiences physical fallout as well: To correct poor circulation, she must undergo aortobifemoral bypass surgery, involving the implant of artificial blood vessels. As the only sibling who is both local and unencumbered by young children, Alex falls readily into the caregiver role, overseeing doctor's visits, hiring an aide and monitoring her mother's deteriorating condition.
The caregiver needs care, or at least comfort. And Jewish home cooking helps provide it. It evokes the past, an idealized family life, a mother who nurtured her rather than the other way around. So Alex seeks refuge in preparing recipes her mother has left her, including meatloaf and roast chicken, as well as recipes adapted from her grandmother and other sources.
"As my mother began the torturous process of disappearing in plain sight, I retreated to my kitchen," Witchel writes, "trying to reclaim her at the stove." She admits: "Picking up a pot was not the instant panacea for illness and isolation and utter despair that I wanted it to be. But it helped."
Like many memoirs, "All Gone" shuttles back and forth between past and present, giving equal weight to the author's life and her mother's. Barbara Witchel seems to have been a powerful but benign force, imperfect but nearly always well-meaning. She signed letters to her daughter, "The One Who Always Knows Best," but was never too busy to listen to every detail of Alex's day. "She was fierce in her protection of us, and I was equally fierce in my devotion to her," Witchel writes.
Alex's father, by contrast, was a refugee from a hard-luck childhood that he never quite surmounted. "Sometimes he seemed intolerant, almost disdainful of my mother," Witchel writes. And he seems to have been intermittently harsh, perhaps even emotionally abusive, to his children.
In one stunning instance, he even punches Alex in the nose, and then demands that she apologize to him for allegedly provoking the action. Alex's mother betrays her by backing him; she won't go against her husband, even when she knows he is wrong. And Alex, understanding this, forgives the betrayal.
Years later, with his wife ailing, Alex's father vents his own grievances. "I started hearing from my father on a weekly basis, brimming with complaints," she writes. He is outraged that when he asks Barbara to scramble his eggs, she fries them instead. He suggests she's doing it on purpose. Alex explains to her father that, no, her mother simply couldn't remember his request to have them scrambled. There is, of course, worse to come, as Alex's mother resists any changes in her routine that might slow her decline or improve the quality of her life, and Alex's sister, Phoebe, is diagnosed with breast cancer.
Alex helps as much as she can, struggles with denial, and feels her own memory slipping, as if in sympathetic response. "All I wanted was magic — the perfect recipe that would make Mom better, sane, herself again," she writes. We all know how that will turn out.
Julia M. Klein is a cultural reporter and critic in Philadelphia and a contributing editor at Columbia Journalism Review.
By Alex Witchel, Riverhead Hardcover, 214 pages, $26.95