Alex Witchel: Taking comfort where she can find it

Associated Press Published: October 5, 2012
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"All Gone: A Memoir of My Mother's Dementia. With Refreshments" (Riverhead), by Alex Witchel

Some seek the comfort of bed or a therapist's couch to ease grief, but author Alex Witchel heads to the kitchen. In her new book, "All Gone: A Memoir of My Mother's Dementia. With Refreshments," Witchel shares the heartbreak of caring for a parent as illness slowly snatches her away.

Witchel, a New York Times food and arts writer, takes comfort in cooking to work through the frustration, anger and unspeakable pain. Finding solace in her spices, preparing meatloaf and potatoes provides consolation and makes her feel connected. "As my mother began the torturous process of disappearing in plain sight, I retreated to my kitchen, trying to reclaim her at the stove," she writes.

The book traces the relationship between Witchel and her mother, who — in many ways — was the great love of her life. The detailed descriptions of her suburban upbringing — from the sights and smells of the kitchen to errand runs in the car — are relatable and nourishing.

Witchel paints a romantic picture of her modern mom — the perfect combination of tender and tough — who rejected the typical housewife role to work and receive her doctorate. She's the kind of mother you wish you had or want to be. As Witchel grew older, she began to recognize her mother's small betrayals, but forgave her and learned to blame her father for the hurt. As an adult building a career, she had a serious boyfriend but admits to gaining more satisfaction from time with her mother.

When her mother starts to show signs of dementia and depression following several ministrokes, Witchel tries everything she can to fix her. Relentlessly thorough and inquisitive at their neurologist visits, she hires an aide and encourages new activities to keep her mind sharp and spirits high. As her mother's condition worsens, Witchel grips tighter, often changing her medications and routines, hoping the busy woman she knew would return.

Several years into the journey, at her mother's request, Witchel finally lets go and surrenders to her mother's inevitable decline. She still copes with the "ambiguous loss": her mother is alive but not who she once was.

Witchel writes beautifully from the heart, but with a journalist's clarity. She moves from past to present dexterously, and like a good reporter, proves her points with cogent memories. She has remarkable talent for describing each player with revealing anecdotes that speak volumes. Her unflinching honesty and humor draw in readers. She's candid about family relationships: indicting her emotionally detached father, exposing a long rift with her sister and disclosing pivotal moments in her marriage to acclaimed writer Frank Rich.

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