The Family on Beartown Road, by Elizabeth Cohen
The Family on Beartown Road is a beautiful, heartbreaking memoir of a staggeringly painful and difficult year in the life of a family. At the center of this family, holding it all together as she herself struggles not to fall apart, is the author, Elizabeth Cohen.
The book begins with the following series of numbers: 0-40-80. These numbers represent the ages of the three main characters: Cohen’s daughter Ava, herself, and her father, who has Alzheimer’s disease:
I celebrated all my daughter’s firsts. Likewise, I had to mourn all my father’s losses. There were numerous coincidences. She said “Mama” ont he same day he first asked me who I was. She said “Baby Aba”–her name is Ava–the same week we received our census and my father looked for a long time at the form before asking me his own name.
Throughout the narrative, Cohen exams the steps that brought her to her current situation. In a fit of romantic idealism, Cohen, a journalist, and her husband, an artist, had moved to rural, upstate New York from New York City to raise their daughter. For a while, life was very sweet, indeed.
At the book’s outset, however, the shit has hit the fan. Cohen’s father has moved in with them and her husband has deserted them. And then winter comes. Cohen, the sole breadwinner, cook, and bottle washer, quickly slips into survival mode, which mostly entails struggling to keep her infant child and aging father from hurting themselves. Dealing with an active toddler or an aging parent on your own is more than enough for one person to handle, but dealing with them both at the same time seems nearly impossible from the outside looking in and yet, over time, Cohen manages. Part of how she manages is by accepting help from neighbors, coworkers, and far-flung friends. Mostly, though, what she does is live in the moment and accept the tender mercies all around her:
I must admit that, while the management of day-to-day affairs can seem impossible, things are sometimes pleasant. I think of our lives as something akin to the way that people in covered wagons might have felt. Exhausted, scared, but grateful for certain moments. We take pleasure in small things. Daddy likes the smell of coffee brewing. Ava likes to blow bubbles with her saliva while mouthing the word “Mama.” I like to sit int he kitchen with the two of them, eating, cleaning up around them, feeling like I have a bit of control. That they are getting nourishment. That I am doing something right.
Even if you have never been a caretaker of the young, the aged, or the infirm, I’m certain this book will resonate for you because at the core, there is a beating heart and a voice–Cohen’s own, strong, clear voice–that will remind you not to take for granted how very much you have right now, living in this moment.