Making Toast: A Family Story
by Roger Rosenblatt
By the rules of American book reviewing, I ought not to write about this beautiful book. I am hobbled by the most damning disqualification of all: I have a conflict of interest. Not the appearance of one; an actual one. It is not that I once met a man whose second wife went to school with a woman who had a drink with a cousin of the dentist who treats the children of the book's copy-editor, which would have been damaging enough. It is that I know the author of Making Toast. Worse, he was my predecessor in my distinguished position, which is distinguished not least because he once held it. Still worse, he has been my friend for over thirty years. Worst of all, I adore him. So I am hopelessly compromised. Like many people who are about to do something that makes them feel bad, I could read a few pages of Niebuhr, feel sad about feeling bad, and get on with it; but I do not use the great man as a salve, and I do not feel bad when I say that Making Toast is a beautiful book. The judgment is true. I do not think that Making Toast is extraordinary because of my friend; I think that my friend is extraordinary because of Making Toast. I would admire the man who had the inner resources to produce such a book even if I hated him. Anyway, impartiality is no guarantee of honesty.
I should add that I wish this book had never been written, because it is the account of an unbearable sorrow, and I wish it had never befallen Roger Rosenblatt. On December 8, 2007, his daughter, Amy Rosenblatt Solomon, thirty-eight years old, the mother of three children, a pediatrician, collapsed at home in Bethesda and died. Rosenblatt and his wife (make that two conflicts of interest) immediately left their home on Long Island and drove to their mutilated family. When one of his little grandchildren asked how long he is staying, Rosenblatt replied, "Forever." This book is the journal-like narrative of the first year-and-a-half of Rosenblatt's new life, of his broken-hearted and soldierly attempt to hold his family together. It is a collection of anecdotes about parents and children, grandparents and grandchildren, relying upon love for their improvisations against loss. It is written with modesty and with calm—with a restraint that it is itself a great achievement in the aftermath of a cosmic cruelty. Rosenblatt's powers of observation—his descriptions of his family have an Ozu-like clarity-were unimpaired by his pain. Indeed, they seem almost to have been sharpened by it. He understands that the first challenge of sorrow is cognitive. Making Toast is a small glowing jewel in the literature of grief.
Rosenblatt is a learned and literary man, and his bereavement is punctuated by philosophical and psychological reflections. He is repeatedly brought back to the most crushing feature of death, which is its finality. "Nothing will ever be normal again." "We will never feel right again." He notes about himself that "anger and emptiness remain my principal states of mind." "My anger, being futile, flares in the wrong places and at the wrong times." Sometimes his anger extends to the metaphysical: "my anger at God remains unabated." "I cursed God. In a way, believing in God made Amy's death more, not less, comprehensible, since the God I believe in is not beneficent." But generally Rosenblatt is not inclined to such speculations. He records that he and his wife "avoided religions ourselves and reared our children without one," and so in the wake of his daughter's death "God was not with us." There is nothing complacent about his reluctance to explore these matters any further. He is simply too wounded for disputation. The problem with theodicy, and with the arguments against theodicy, is that it is all so abstract. Brilliance is for the whole days, not the broken ones. When one buries one's dead, one's first thought cannot be that Leibniz was wrong, even if Leibniz was wrong. And so Rosenblatt does not write here as an intellectual. He writes as a father and a grandfather; as a man with chores.
The chores are Rosenblatt's real subject, and the reason that his book is so affecting. Here is an example:
I wake up earlier than the others, usually around 5 a.m., to perform the one household duty I have mastered. After posting the morning's word [a game he invents to improve the vocabulary of his grandchildren], emptying the dishwasher, setting the table for the children's breakfasts, and pouring the MultiGrain Cheerios or Froot Loops or Apple Jacks or Special K or Fruity Pebbles, I prepare toast. I take out the butter to allow it to soften, and put three slices of Pepperidge Farm Hearty Whites in the toaster oven. Bubbies [his youngest grandson] and I like plain buttered toast; Sammy prefers it with cinnamon, with the crusts cut off. When the bell rings, I shift the slices from the toaster to plates, and butter them.
Making toast, in other words, is a spiritual exercise, but its spirituality is to be found entirely in its concreteness. Rosenblatt's book is a tribute to the consolatory power of the concrete. "MultiGrain Cheerios or Froot Loops or Apple Jacks or Special K or Fruity Pebbles": the inventory is the point, the naming of nourishing things, the amassing of small particulars against a big particular, so that the facticity of life becomes a retort to the facticity of death. In an existence viciously robbed of its banality, Rosenblatt brandishes the banal, it is his defense against disorder and despair. It represents a kind of triumph-not over death, which has already won, but over suffering, which can still destroy. But not if he empties the dishwasher! If he empties the dishwasher, life wins.
In his chronicle of dailiness, his humble catalog of quotidian gestures, Rosenblatt discovers the anti-apocalyptic potency of the ordinary. He has written what Tzvetan Todorov, in a penetrating study of seventeenth-century Dutch painting, calls an éloge du quotidien. Like those still lifes and those genre scenes, Rosenblatt's account of the saving force of domesticity is a kind of argument. It argues that the integrity of the inner world may sometimes be secured by the integrity of the outer world. The subject may sometimes be rescued by objects. You feel this method of fortification working again and again in Making Toast. As he recognizes that he cannot protect the members of his family from their melancholy thoughts and moods, Rosenblatt learns that he can at least serve them, and with his diligence and his wit keep their world continuous and intact. For the mourner, though I can hardly imagine mourning my own child, there are no higher ambitions than continuity and intactness. And so the battle for meaning is fought, and occasionally won, in the kitchen.
There are circumstances in which prose is poetry, and the unornamented candor of Rosenblatt's writing slowly attains to a sober sort of lyricism. But this is more than just a moving book. It is also a useful book. Perhaps because beauty is the antithesis of use, there is something especially marvelous about useful beauty. Making Toast, a memoir of helpfulness, may actually help some of the people who read it. There are not many books that are important in this way: Helen Garner's The Spare Room, a shatteringly honest and artful account of assisting a friend through her dying, is another such book. The epigraph to Garner's austere masterpiece, from Elizabeth Jolley, captures also the large spirit of Rosenblatt's book: "It is a privilege to prepare the place where someone else will sleep." Rosenblatt's children and grandchildren chose their father and grandfather well. His toast is buttered with wisdom.
Leon Wieseltier is the literary editor of The New Republic.