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All Gone: a Memoir of My Mother’s Dementia, with Refreshments ~Alex Witchel

ALL GONE  was a great read and a good read about a tough and difficult change taking place in the author’s life.  Alex Witchel is a professional writer for the New York Times and started her career writing magazine interviews of celebrities.  Witchel always added a bit of interest to her interviews by sharing their favorite recipes and foods.  She shares her own deeper family history through a series of yummy recipes included at the end of each chapter.

Witchel’s mother was different from other mother’s in the 1950s.  She received her doctorate in psychology and taught in various colleges in New Jersey.  She had had polio as a child and was very driven to succeed and not let this disease compromise her living fully.  Her mother smoked and put her husband first and was not a terrific cook, and yet she produced a number of traditional Jewish recipes with her own grace and gift for connection.  She was a woman heavily criticized by her own mother who was a marvelous cook and disliked by her mother-in-law who was a fancy cook.  Witchel benefitted from all the cooks in her family and good traditional Jewish foods helped her to bond with her step sons.  The family was bonded by the love shared through these traditions and meals.

ALL GONE  is about the caregiving that boomer children are having to undertake as their parents are living longer and some are experiencing a slow dying process.  The caregivers are experiencing the pressure of maintaining their careers and family at the same time as they are doing all the care and paperwork of a person leaving this earthly realm.  Witchel was able to hire a daytime, fulltime care giver for her mother who was suffering with the onset of dementia. Her mother was depressed and confused and greatly missed her students and work experiences.  She refused to go to adult daycare or participate in senior activities as she grieved the loss of her former self.

The publisher’s blurb that came with the book said – “that she uses that voice – consistently frank, bittersweet and often funny – to provide an intimate look at increasingly familiar form of heartbreak – caring and grieving for an ailing parent.”

Only barely touched upon in All Gone, is the realization that the Medicare and pension programs that their parents received will not be there for their departure.  One is confronted with that as they are packing up the house and moving parents to apartments and assisted living centers, it is almost a daily reminder was one has to leave work for emergencies and doctor’s appointments  and loose precious income in their own  nest eggs.   Witchel has a good career and employed supportive spouse so she is able to only briefly share concerns in this area and she was able to pay for the needed caregivers and support workers.

What is important is Witchel’s sharing of the toll the grieving process takes upon a person when it is a drawn out dying process and not a sudden intrusion or change.   It is an amazing story of how one understands when the mind is gone and the body is still performing – it is only the tradition foods which keep the connection and the love bonded.

The book was a comfort to me as my mother was teaching and working when I grew up too, she was not a terrific cook, and though her mind was sharp and vigorous to the very end (her body gave up first) it is also her recipe box that I keep and use often.  I have translated her traditional recipes into gluten free and organic and they bring comfort and connection to our table.

What is it about the death of a mother that changes us and sometimes only food will comfort us?

I received an advance copy of this book from Riverhead Books and Irwin O’Donnell in order to review this book.  I appreciated reading it and the delightful wisps of humor found there within a tough change in the author’s life.

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Related Reading:
The Long Goodbye
So Far Away
The Somebody Who
When Women Were Birds
The Love Ceiling

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4 Responses to “All Gone: a Memoir of My Mother’s Dementia, with Refreshments ~Alex Witchel”

  1. susan Says:

    Hi Patricia,
    After going thru a decade of my mother-in-laws dementia, I’m afraid this book would have as much appeal to me as old chewed gum on a bedpost. Perhaps it is the 65-ness of my life now, but I enjoy reading of people’s uncommon accomplishments and successes – the uplifting themes. Filling my head/mind with truly life-sustaining stuff, not violence or struggles or sadness is my current recipe of choice. Speaking of recipes, I have two cookie recipes of my mom’s that I make at Christmas. That’s about it.
    (Just getting over a bout of food poisoning – the thought of food right now is grossing me out)

    Patricia Reply:

    Hey Suzen,
    So sorry about the food poisoning – it is awful. I got it on choir tour in college – and I vowed and prayed never again.

    This author thinks her family was fairly dysfunctional, but the Jewish humor and wit not to mention the yummy recipes actually pulled it together to be a quite a read. I think we will see more books like this as the baby boomers age…

    I know exactly what you mean…after many years of taking care of a special needs kid and then 5 years of gentle care and 5 years of 24/7 care of my mother…these things bring back a great number of memories that a hard to revisit and just make me feel exhausted.

    I work at finding the light each day…today being Halloween and the Day of the Dead….not my favorite events…I am thinking about fun foods and kid foods…not really candy…I am giving out frozen blueberries to my 2 diabetics on the street, but it is raining so very hard I wonder if any little goblins will even come by?
    Sump pumps ran all night…I appreciate finding you here…

  2. Sara Says:

    I don’t know if I’d read this book, but that’s mainly because I am right now in my life as on older woman. My parents are both dead. That said, I know of people who are in this situation and I think a book like this, which has humor and shows that there can be a connection, even when a parent is experiencing dementia.

    I also think this must one of the hardest things for a child to experience. You don’t grow up expecting to take of your parents, who become more childlike. It has to scary and extremely difficult. As I watch some of friends in this situation, I am almost relieved I didn’t have to go through this. I know that sounds terrible, but watching them shows me what an emotional challenge it is it and makes me admire the ones who stick it out with their parents, rather than dumping in a home.

    So, thank you for sharing this book. It might be for me, but there are a lot of other people who I think can benefit from it.

    Have a great rest of the week, Patricia:~)
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    Patricia Reply:

    I think we will be seeing more and more of these kinds of books because the transition of losing parents can be a huge trauma and before the baby boomers – it just was

    Folks need more help these days, because with all the medical and nutritional advances people are just living longer and many healthier. Those who are not working at being healthier are costing a lot more money to care for….and our children are getting stuck with huge bills.

    By reading these books and reviewing them I am trying to prepare myself for the next round…I want those words “I will not be a burden” for my children to be true.

    My children have so many education loans they can not afford to purchase a house or condo…and because I am a older parent who is not on Medicare or Social Sec. yet the amount of money I still need to earn to care for myself until I am 86 or so…is phenomenal.
    It is no wonder that only the rich will be able to survive…the very rich…

    There are so many people on the planet, that maybe the mother in the book SO FAR AWAY is more the model we need to figure out?

    That author had to put her father in a home because with his dementia he became so violent.
    Lots of questions.
    I like the connections made in this story through traditions and food – the humor gave it relief from the hard questions we all need to ask ourselves.