Skip to main content

Tasha: A Son's Memoir


Tasha: A Son's Memoir

In 2006, Merriam-Webster officially added the term “sandwich generation” to its dictionary to describe the predicament facing middle-aged adults in the uncomfortable position of caring for elderly parents while raising children of their own. Novelist Brian Morton’s TASHA is the tale of one man caught in that sandwich. But above all, it’s a beautifully rendered story of filial love that paints a vivid portrait of both its subject and its author.

In novels like FLORENCE GORDON, Morton has created memorable characters, but the cantankerous, colorful Tasha Morton ranks with any of them. This isn’t the first time she has appeared in his writing. After reading his first novel, THE DYLANIST, Tasha was so upset with her fictional rendering that she left a message on his answering machine that began, “Brian? This is your former mother…” In moments like that one, and without resorting to caricature, he reveals his Jewish mother’s feisty, irrepressible personality, one that found her in her last years retaining “an unbendable intensity of sheer will, trained on the one clear goal of living her own life.”

Tasha, who was born Esther but changed her name “partly because she liked the sound and partly because it wasn’t the name of anyone she knew,” was an innovative, highly regarded teacher in the public schools of Teaneck, New Jersey. Along with her late husband, a labor organizer of Irish heritage, she worked for the integration of the town’s neighborhoods. After her retirement, this “patriot of Teaneck” was elected to the board of education, serving for 20 years.

"Morton is unsparing in cataloging his mother’s idiosyncrasies, but he always does it with a gentle spirit, frequently leaving one oscillating between laughter and tears, occasionally in the space of a single page."

Yet, for all her accomplishments, as Morton reveals in the excerpts he shares from a diary he discovered after his mother’s passing, Tasha silently battled depression her entire life, especially after the sudden, premature death of the husband she outlived by more than 30 years. She also struggled with hoarding in a house where she had been “piling up junk for thirty-five years,” creating danger for herself and headaches for Morton when it’s finally time to sell the home.

Even though the story of Tasha’s final years opens with the 85-year-old nearly drowning in the rising floodwaters of the Hackensack River, and involves some frantic searches and a couple of late-night visits to the Teaneck police station, its overall arc won’t be unfamiliar to anyone who has dealt with the hardship of caring for an elderly parent. The path of Tasha’s decline is slow but inexorable, and the plateaus grow ever briefer, each one settling at a lower place.

With its eloquent blend of humor and pathos, Morton’s perspective brings to mind fellow baby boomer Roz Chast’s CAN’T WE TALK ABOUT SOMETHING MORE PLEASANT? Like Chast, Morton is unsparing in cataloging his mother’s idiosyncrasies, but he always does it with a gentle spirit, frequently leaving one oscillating between laughter and tears, occasionally in the space of a single page.

And as honest as Morton is in describing his mother’s foibles, he’s equally frank in portraying his own ambivalence and recurring guilt at the decisions her condition thrusts upon him. Throughout, he wonders if he should abandon his search to find a safe place for his mother to live and simply bring her into his own home. He reminds himself that “life gives us a limited number of chances to be the person we want to be,” and in assessing how he dealt with his mother in her final years, “I need to judge myself as well.”

Morton isn’t an activist, but he takes the opportunity to point out some of the deep flaws in how America cares for its elderly. Comparing his struggle to locate adequate caregivers for his mother as she slipped deeper into dementia with the relative ease of educating himself about his young son’s blood disease that required a bone marrow transplant when he was four years old, he observes, “One of the striking things about it all was how little help we could find. How few resources.” He describes disturbing incidents of neglect and verbal abuse involving two of his mother’s caretakers, which serve as a chilling reminder that even the most conscientious effort to find adequate support for an aging parent can fall short.

Among TASHA’s most poignant scenes --- and there are surprisingly many in a book of just under 200 pages --- is a conversation that Morton orchestrates between his mother and Rabbi Zierler, the spiritual leader of the Orthodox synagogue whose Jewish Center improbably provides a social support system for the atheist Tasha. Acknowledging her frustration at the ailments and limitations that have led Morton to attempt unsuccessfully to persuade her to enter an assisted living facility named “The Five Star Residence” for a trial visit, the rabbi gently consoles her:

“You’re still everyone you’ve ever been. Your past still lives within you. And it’s important to respect your past and honor your past. And the way to do that is to act in a fashion that’s consistent with the way you’ve acted in the past…. You have different challenges now. But you can meet those challenges, soulfully and intelligently, and in a way that honors your life and your children’s lives.”

The message is an eloquent reminder to all of us that, as we age, our changing appearances and diminishing capabilities are only snapshots in time --- nothing but superficial manifestations that don’t reveal the richness of all that is embodied in living a long and fruitful life. In TASHA, Brian Morton has honored his mother and has brought that truth memorably to the page.

Reviewed by Harvey Freedenberg on April 29, 2022

Tasha: A Son's Memoir
by Brian Morton

  • Publication Date: April 11, 2023
  • Genres: Memoir, Nonfiction
  • Paperback: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Avid Reader Press/Simon & Schuster
  • ISBN-10: 1982178949
  • ISBN-13: 9781982178949