After Elizabeth McCracken’s mother died, she found herself in London, a city her mother loved. As she walked the streets, ate in restaurants, and went to the theater, McCracken thought about and missed the woman who raised her. McCracken’s memoir attempts to protect her mother’s privacy by calling the book a novel so we can decide for ourselves what’s real and what’s fiction. In the end, that doesn’t matter because anyone who picks up this beautifully written account will recall someone they loved within the pages.
The Hero of This Book is well timed. How many have lost someone during the pandemic and not found the time and space to mourn, grieve, and take the first steps towards healing? McCracken’s method for remembering and paying tribute to her mother by recreating a special time they shared, allowing memories to surface – some exhilarating, some painful – serves as a guide. Oftentimes it’s the small moments, not the grand occasions, that bring us closer to a loved one. And jetting off to London, or another far flung destination, isn’t necessary. Special times can be more meaningful when they once happened closer to home.
Elizabeth McCracken (Photo Credit: EdwardCarey)
The narrator of this memoir tells us that her mother, Natalie, was born in Des Moines, the oldest of twin girls. She was Jewish, her relatives from Eastern Europe. She met her husband while they were students at Drake University and they both eventually ended up teaching at Boston University.
Natalie was a force of nature, all the more surprising because of her physical disabilities. A combination of birth defects and botched operations meant that Natalie spent her life stiff-legged, depending on canes and motorized scooters to get around. No obstacle, however, could stop her indomitable spirit. She was adventurous, daring even, curious, and never allowed herself to be cowed by a stranger’s stare or an unkind word. If she fell, which often happened, she got up and moved on. She was helpful, not helpless, inspiring those who worked for her at the university. She thought about others, often spending hours coming up with the perfect gift for someone special. No wonder her daughter chose to spend so much time with her! Every outing was exciting, fascinating, never a chore. And when this incredible woman died, the void she left in her daughter’s life was immense.
What better way to relive those moments than to return to London, where this mother-daughter duo spent so many happy times. Natalie loved the cabs in London because the drivers carried around a map of the city in their heads and also drove vehicles equipped with ramps making it easy for boarding. (Anyone attempting to get in and out of a New York City taxi these days will understand the attraction.) Natalie loved food and dining out. “The only foods she couldn’t bear were peanuts and peanut butter, and it drove her crazy when people suggested she was allergic: She just didn’t like the taste,” McCracken writes.
She was opinionated and not a pushover. She would sometimes disagree with her daughter about a play they had seen or a book they had read. She abhorred organized sports, finding them meaningless and wasteful. She loved clothes, had a great sense of humor, and was prone to exaggerate about her accomplishments, claiming, at one point, that she invented the mojito and children’s Tylenol.
Both she and her husband were hoarders and their daughter had no success getting them to downsize. The situation worsened after he died. And while Natalie had funds squirreled away in an account, she would often run out of money and ask her daughter for a loan. Detailing Natalie’s shortcomings makes her more human and more likable. Perfect people are boring and Natalie was anything but.
Natalie suffered a brain aneurysm and a fall. Which one came first didn’t matter. The injury put her in a coma. Once, when the nurses sat her up, she opened her eyes, but that turned out to be a reflex, not an awakening. Her daughter drew comfort from the thought that both of her parents lived good lives and good deaths. Because her father had died before his wife, sitting in his recliner at home, and Natalie had died before Covid kept relatives out of hospitals, she had reasons to be thankful.
“I hated to see them go, both of them, my cheerful mother the enthusiast, my encyclopedic and voracious and sentimental father, but from this angle especially, a quiet death in old age, people you love nearby: It feels like luck.”
The Hero of This Book
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