A son’s memoir

A son’s memoir

Novelist Brian Morton talks about his unusual, difficult mother

Tasha Morton with her son, Brian, in 2006.
Tasha Morton with her son, Brian, in 2006.

Often when people age, they become more truly themselves. It’s as if time whittles away all the soft bits, blows away the fluff, and reveals the real person, who’s really been there all along.

Brian Morton’s mother, Tasha, was eccentric, contrarian, combative, funny, incisive, creative, and very difficult. He wrote a sort-of-memoir about her — sort of because it’s partly about her, and while it’s not about him as a character, except cursorily, it is about his changing understanding of what aging and family mean, both in theory and in fact. He’ll talk about that book, “Tasha: A Son’s Memoir,” on May 1, both online and in person in Teaneck. (See below.)

Mr. Morton grew up in Teaneck; his family moved there when he was a small child, and his mother lived there until soon before she died, when finally, against her will but out of absolute necessity, she was convinced to move to a local nursing home. So Mr. Morton’s story can speak to local readers on a few levels; not only is it about the problem that we all face if we’re lucky enough to have parents who have grown old, but it’s also about living in the New York metropolitan area. He now lives in Westchester, so the roads between his house and his mother’s are familiar to local readers. But it’s specific about Teaneck, which is a very specific place.

Tasha Morton, according to her son, was a teacher in Teaneck’s public school system for 25 years. “She was a character, for many a beloved character, to many people in town,” Mr. Morton said. She taught kindergarten and first grade; “she started in the days of the open classroom, and she believed that her main role was to encourage the natural love of learning that every child has. She was devoted to that job.” After she retired from teaching in 1985, a year after her husband, Richard, died unexpectedly and unfairly young, she was elected to the town’s school board, a position she retained for another 20 years. Even after she retired from the board, she’d show up diligently at its meetings.

The book describes a little about his mother’s earlier life, but it focuses on the years between 2010, when she had a stroke, at 85, and 2015, when she died. It was during those years that her oddities combined with her encroaching dementia in ways that often were funny but more often, and often at the same time, were terribly sad.

“She was one of the most stubborn people on earth,” Mr. Morton said. “Her temperament became more problematic after she had the stroke” — a stroke caused by her characteristic insistence on being where she shouldn’t be, this time at a family event on an icy day; she slipped on the ice and hurt herself badly. “She was seriously compromised. We — that’s my sister and my wife and I — tried very hard to get her into a better situation, but she fought us tooth and nail. So part of the memoir is about trying to do your best by a very headstrong parent, and part of it is about how screwed up eldercare is in the United States today.”

He details how he, his wife, his sister, and his brother-in-law hunted for home health care aides, and found some who were highly recommended. “But after a while I found out that they were verbally abusing her,” he said. “She was complaining about them,” but she no longer was coherent enough to explain what the problem was. Eventually, Mr. Morton found a small recorder that he was able to hide amid the detritus that filled her house — she was a serious hoarder, who fought off decluttering attempts and at one point in the book quibbled about how many dead mice might possibly be in the kitchen and denied unconvincingly that there possibly could be more than one. And he learned that food was being withheld from her punitively, and that the verbal abuse — the name-calling, the belittling, the nastiness — was happening, and that it was horrific.

Another strand that ties the book together is Mr. Morton’s “trying to be good to a parent who is resisting your attempts to help her.” It’s about the awkwardness of parenting your parent, particularly if your parent is entirely uninteresting in such a rebalance of the relationship that as far as she was concerned was just fine already.

Tasha Morton with her grandson Gabriel, in 2006 or so. “They were doing some arty-craftsy,” Gabriel’s father, Brian, said.

“My mother and I had worked out a modus operandi that suited me well,” Mr. Morton said. “I was not seeing her much. But she always felt like she was not getting enough from her kids, so after she began to decline I had to change in order to be there for her. Part of my book was about that effort to change, and about its limits.”

Tasha Morton was Jewish, the daughter of an actor father who moved around from city to city as his need to go someplace new overwhelmed him. He would find work performing in local Jewish institutions — his grandson writes with amazed nostalgia about a time when the Jewish community could support such semi-itinerant actors — and about six months later, his wife would pack up their kids and move to be with him. During the times that he was apart from his wife, he would live with his long-time girlfriend, a woman who Tasha later supported when she was alone and needed help, because among her other characteristics was deep and surprisingly quiet kindness.

When Tasha was born, she was Esther; she decided to change her name for a less generic one. She left home at 16. She was not standard-issue in any way, Mr. Morton writes.

And her husband was not Jewish; when Mr. Morton did some genealogical research, he learned that the pattern in his father’s Irish family was for a widow to move in with her kids, he said. “That was entirely standard in the 19th century. It is not standard now. So although this book is personal, and none of it is a sociological essay, part of it is pondering why this has changed, and whether it is a good thing.

“We have gotten rid of the family social supports that we used to have, but we really haven’t put anything else in their place.”

Although Tasha Morton was a specific and unusual person, many of the problems her children faced as she declined are the same problems that other children of aging parents confront. But because Mr. Morton is a novelist, he had an extra problem.

“I wrote my first novel after my father died,” he said. That book, “The Dylanist,” came out in 1991. “I sort of idealized my father in the novel, and I satirized my mother.” This did not make her happy.

“When I gave her a draft of the book before it came out — I wanted to give her time to make any changes that she insisted on — I got a phone message from her, saying, ‘Brian, this is your former mother.’”

Now, decades later, Mr. Morton “wanted to write about my mother in a more three-dimensional way,” he said. “I wanted to make restitution.”

Brian and Tasha Morton in 1990, when she was relatively newly widowed and retired.

This might be a good place to list his credentials. He’s written five novels, he’s won a Guggenheim fellowship, a Koret Jewish book award, and the literature award from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He teaches writing at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, the school from which he graduated in 1978. He knows how to write. His mother comes across as both complex and funny as he describes her.

He talks about an exchange she had with a nurse at the Helen Hayes rehabilitation center in Nyack. “At one point, the nurse comes to try to take her blood pressure, and my mother notices that she has a cross around her neck,” Mr. Morton said. “She refuses to let the nurse take her blood pressure, and she starts arguing with her. ‘You are a person of science, so how can you believe in this supernatural being?’ She started interrogating her about God — this was after her stroke, and she’d seemed out of it, and I was so pleased that fighting about religion brought her all the way back.

“My mother is going on, asking what about God and the Holocaust? What about God and the slave trade? The nurse says, ‘God doesn’t interfere in the world,’ and my mother is like, ‘God is watching us like he was watching a TV show that he doesn’t like but he doesn’t bother to change the channel?’

The question of God and religion brings us to Teaneck, which was a very different place when she moved there, in 1963, then it became later. “My mother was like a patriot of Teaneck,” Mr. Morton said. “She took such pride in the fact that it was the first community to voluntarily integrate its schools. We moved to Teaneck for the schools.”

She was a proud Jew and at the same time a militant atheist. “She was a red-diaper baby, but she was very very Jewish,” Mr. Morton said. Still, she stayed away from most of the organized Jewish world that grew up around her in Teaneck for most of her life.

“But then, at the very end of her life, when she was doing poorly, a lot of her friends just disappeared,” Mr. Morton said. He writes about that, using pseudonyms that hide his mother’s onetime friends’ identities but not his disgust with them, in his book. “She found community in an Orthodox senior center,” he said. It was at the Jewish Center in Teaneck.

He and his sister had confiscated their mother’s car keys because her continuing to drive was dangerous both for her and for everyone else, and she never forgave them for that, he wrote. She refused to take a cab, because of a new, unspecified, but deeply held principle. But the Teaneck Jewish Center had a jitney that brought her to its programs every day but Shabbat, and on Shabbat, a shul volunteer, breaking with halacha because he thought it was more important to give Tasha community, drove her to services there.

So she ended up going to Shabbat services every week, and she developed a relationship with the rabbi there, Lawrence Zierler, who comes across as someone genuinely committed to helping her, even when she did not want anybody’s help. “She used to marvel at being the least religious person she knew, and how still she could enjoy spending all her time there,” Mr. Morton said.

“There’s one other strand in the book,” Mr. Morton said. “I don’t really know if this is true, but it feels this way. It feels like men find it much easier to think about what they owe their fathers than what they owe their mothers. I don’t know if it’s true, but I feel like it is. So I play around with that question. Mainly, at the end of the book, I think about all the things I owe her.”

Near the end of his book, Mr. Morton has a startling, provocative interlude where he thinks about his mother’s last words; about how not everything about a parent/child relationship is all unicorns and glitter, about how hatred and resentment grow and boil, and how they can be present at the end of life. How feeling unloved can linger and color everything.

There’s a lot in this book. Some of it is funny, some of it is uncomfortable, and all of it rings true.

Who: Brian Morton

What: Will talk about his new book, “Tasha: A Son’s Memoir”

When: On Sunday, May 1, at 8 p.m.

Where: At Congregation Rinat Yisrael, on 389 West Englewood Ave. in Teaneck, or on Zoom

To get the link: Go to Rinat’s homepage, rinat.org, and then to adult ed news, at the top right, or go directly to www.rinat.org/adultednews. Or you can call the shul, at (201) 837-2795.

read more: