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Arts

In 'Tasha,' a son tries to make sense of his smart, difficult mother

Cover detail of Tasha, by Brian Morton
Simon & Schuster

A third of the way through Tasha, novelist Brian Morton's superb short memoir about his relationship with his smart, difficult and funny mother, he recalls a professor he had in college "who once mentioned that he'd recently gone into therapy to work out some unresolved feelings about his parents."

Morton remembers his younger self scornfully thinking: "You're still trying to work out your stuff with your parents! Does it ever end! Christ, you must be thirty years old!"

"And here I was, at sixty," Morton dryly comments.

No, it never ends. But one thing that sets Tasha far apart from the usual one-sided literary conversation with a deceased parent is Morton's rigorous attempt to see his mother, Tasha, whole — as a person — not "just" in relation to him, or, God forbid, an eccentric "character."

Another thing that distinguishes Tasha is Morton's elastic style as a writer, by turns droll, emotionally wrenching, and profound. Despite the serious acclaim he's garnered for novels like Starting Out in the Evening and Florence Gordon, Morton is one of those novelists who's still under the radar of the larger reading culture.

Indeed, there's a scene here where Morton pokes fun at his own literary reputation. His mother Tasha has just been picked up by the police in his old hometown of Teaneck, N.J., after she's gotten into an argument with another elderly woman on the jitney transporting them to a nearby senior center. The police take Tasha to a state psychiatric facility. When a frantic Morton calls the police to find out what the heck happened, this screwball conversation ensues:

"You're the writer, right?" [The cop says.]

Was I famous? [wonders Morton] Was I such a famous son of Teaneck that my name was known to the police?

"Your mother kept talking about you" [says the cop]. "She kept saying you were going to write a book about the Teaneck police force and expose us all."

"I'm already on it," [Morton] says.

"You ever written anything I might have read?" [the cop asks]. "You as good as she says?"

"No," [Morton says.] "No to both."

Years before a series of falls and a stroke propel Tasha's descent into dementia, Morton tells us his mother was the kind of woman who didn't respect boundaries, bursting into his teenage bedroom, even offering to act as chauffeur on a date when Morton is in his 20s: "It took me years, even decades, to fashion a relationship with my mother in which I could affirm my love for her while placing limits on her."

With Tasha's deterioration, Morton fears there will be no limit to her claim on him.

In her prime, Tasha had been a beloved teacher in Teaneck; but after the death of Morton's silent, Irish father, Tasha had become an eccentric, turning into a hoarder. In one maddening scene here, she refuses to let Morton throw out even so much as a swizzle stick from her jam-packed, mouse-infested house.

Those of us who've already trailed a declining parent down this slope will understand what Morton means when he says that when it comes to senior services, the motto of this country is "You're On Your Own." At one point, Morton hires a highly recommended live-in aide, whom his mother ferociously dislikes. Unsure if Tasha's complaints are based in reality, Morton resorts to hiding a listening device in her cluttered house. When Morton listens in on a conversation, he's stunned by the caregiver's verbal abuse, but he's also aware of himself thinking, along with all his other thoughts, "At least she doesn't beat her."

Shortly afterwards, Morton embarks on the dizzying search for a good nursing home. He describes a tour of:

...a Jewish home that had a great reputation — it's like a country club a social worker had told me — ... [B]ut when I visited the main room it was the same old bullshit with the residents nodding out and the aides looking at their phones. You couldn't blame the aides: they were undertrained, underpaid, unorganized by any union, ... This was just the way things were, in the land of no mercy.

"The land of no mercy" would have been a fine alternate title for this powerful memoir. No mercy for the elderly in need; no mercy for the labor force that cares for them; no mercy for the guilt-ridden, exhausted adult children. It's a wonder that with themes this heavy, Tasha is such a pleasure to read, oscillating between past and present, horror and hilarity, the big social picture and one son's ongoing attempt to work out some stuff with his mother.

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