The result is a recently completed, humorous memoir, “Don’t Say A Word!”
It recounts my discovery over ten years that my parents were not at all the people I’d thought, as I watched their reckless, screwball plunge into very old age.
My mother and father--two previously sensible and fiercely demanding professionals in their 80s--begin wintering in Mexico, where they suddenly change into ditsy risk-takers. Rushing into dubious real estate ventures with unlikely new friends, they are blithely indifferent to the mounting, disastrous fallout and refuse to hear a single word from me, their only child.
The story unfolds through a decade of family holiday visits to Mexico in the 1990s. Part 1 focuses on my mother’s growing attachment to a pair of slippery, amateur developers whom she trusts over me, an architect, culminating in the discarding of my plans and the building of a farcical, unlivable house she nonetheless loves. My mother’s sudden death has several unexpected consequences, not the least of which is the launch of my father’s search for her instant replacement. Part 2 focuses on my father’s desperate attempt to maintain a facsimile of his former life with a string of loopy companions. Even when he is courting lunatics and drug-addicts and sexually harassing his housekeepers, I am as unable to influence him as I was my mother. Only after both my parents have died, can I decipher their curious late-life transformation, their 60-year marital war, and their tangled relationship with me — to discover I’d had them wrong all along.
With adults over 80 the fastest growing segment of the population, the frustration of dealing with aging parents has become a key issue for many of the 77 million baby boomers, like me. Just this summer, The New York Times launched a blog on the subject to which over 700 readers posted its first day up. After all, with each new stage of life, we boomers consistently turn to books to help us cope and for a sense of shared angst. Among recent memoirs, those that have been particularly successful are often, like mine, humorous but with serious underpinnings (Sedaris, Buroughs, now, Bob Morris). As luck would have it, my parents’ wild and wacky end-of-life provided me with a very funny story to tell, plus one that raises intriguing questions about the unraveling of personality in old age and the challenge of knowing your parents as complex human beings.
My first book, A Life, To Go, portrays travel as it is rarely depicted but actually experienced by the millions of globetrotting families today. A blend of storytelling, memoir, and travel writing, the essays focus on the intersection of some feature of the destination and the often-comic struggles of my family-of-four.
· Traveling to the Monarch butterfly’s mountain sanctuary sheds light on what seems to be an impossible dream of generational harmony.
· In Tuscany, Italy’s bloody history of regional rivalry mirrors my children’s no-holds-barred fighting and, curiously, gives me reason for hope.
· Touring Portugal with my daughter--and without my husband and son–-I find myself mysteriously infected with saudade, the peculiarly Portuguese mentality of seeing everything in terms of loss.
· A surprise encounter in a remote Belize jungle underscores the sad fact that traveling with children makes the feeling of "getting away" nearly unattainable.
From a college tour to a trek across Rajistan by horse, the journeys provide just enough distance to offer a fresh, often comic perspective on family life itself.
In the decade covered by these stories, the characters (a distracted psychiatrist husband, a feisty daughter chronically at odds with her tender-hearted younger brother, two cantankerous grandparents, and an ever-anxious mother) all age and change and remain reassuringly themselves. The essays take me from being a parent in the thick of bringing up kids to an empty-nester facing life as part of a twosome again. As a result, the stories grapple with common mid-life struggles that are central issues for the boomer generation today: accepting limitations, grasping the true identities of children and parents, dealing with loss, facing up to change. The stories in A Life, To Go offer readers what travel offers me -- an amusing, thought provoking opportunity to peer though the lens of the unfamiliar and, in so doing, see the familiar from a new and enlightening perspective.