CAROLINE BAUM Only: A singular memoir. Reviewed by Shelley McInnis
Baum’s memoir is replete with examples of emotional deftness of the highest order.
I have very much enjoyed Caroline Baum’s published essays, and it is a delight to see two of them appearing as familiar landmarks in this big map of a memoir. One, entitled ‘Estranged’, appeared in last year’s collection of essays Rebellious Daughters, edited by Maria Katsonis and Lee Kofman. In that piece, Baum wrote of her estrangement from her parents when she was in her mid-40s. Her rebellion came a little late, she admitted, but from what she told us it was not difficult to understand why it had come so late, and why it had become so necessary. Still, it was heartbreaking to read about it and when, at the end of that memorable essay, she spoke of a reconciliation and alluded to something that was about to happen for which she would have to summon up all the strength of her daughterly love, I was curious. What happened next?
I have my answer now, but before I got to it, I had to wade through the first part of the memoir describing the exotic and privileged lives led by the ménage of Caroline and her parents before their estrangement. I tired of the celebrity spotting, shopping sprees, holidays, and accounts of la cuisine and la couture, but all of this did serve to contrast the material richness of the cosmopolitan Baum lifestyle with the emotional poverty underlying it. Baum’s parents had traumatic childhoods, which affected their capacity to love. When Austrian-Jewish father Harry was ten years old, he was put on the first kindertransport out of Vienna; subsequently, he rescued his mother, but was unable to locate his father. Baum’s Parisian mother Jacqueline was orphaned at the age of five, when her father killed her mother and himself with a gun in a public place. In one especially painful scene, Baum revisits the site of this murder with her reluctant mother, in a desperate attempt to deepen their bond:
‘Would you like to get out?’ I say to my mother, preparing to ask the driver to wait.
But my mother shakes her head, very definitely. At the last minute, as we reach the corner she turns away deliberately, almost defiantly facing the other direction, resolute and unblinking, as if, after all these years, she could wipe away the facts simply by refusing to look.
And because I am so busy watching her, keen to harvest the moment for any shards of meaning, any emotional significance that might endow our stay with an extra layer of meaning and somehow bring us closer, I miss the chance to look until it is too late, the corner just glimpsed as we turn off.
If the first part of the memoir contains a multitude of examples of emotional near-misses, the second part, dealing with Harry’s decline and death, is replete with examples of the exact opposite: emotional deftness of the highest order. I have never read a book that so vividly and accurately renders the awful dissolution of dementia, and the challenges this poses for caring relatives. Baum deals gamely and effectively with all of it: not only with the frightening and baffling arguments with her father about car keys and bank opening hours, but also with the social workers wielding great gatekeeping power in the health bureaucracy. To help her deal with the latter, she channels CJ Cregg from West Wing.
In the second section, we see Caroline and Jacqueline join forces to get Harry into the best possible care home in London: Nightingale House, which sounds almost too good to be true, with its daily classical musical concerts and kosher meals.
For six years, until he dies of pneumonia, they look after him: Jacqueline visits every other day, and becomes a superb carer. Caroline Skypes daily and visits regularly. They confer about everything, including, for example, the objects to put into the ‘memory box’ located outside Harry’s room. They agonise about what to include, but Baum fears Harry is already too far gone to recognise any of it:
Possessions say so little, in the end. We cherish them, invest them with meaning, but their eloquence becomes muted with time. At a certain point, the things you want are not things. They are people and sensations. The sound of rolling thunder approaching, the folding ripple of a small wave in a sheltered bay, the feeling of large warm drops of rain on your forearm, the smell of basil, coffee, garlic, baking bread. Laughter. Love. Friendship. Beauty. Kindness. Music. The creative spark and flair of making a bouquet of flowers, or a meal eaten in fellowship, or finding the right words to put on the page.
Baum wonders what she might put into her own memory box, and decides that one of the things would be this book. Good choice. Helen Garner, one of Baum’s idols, has described it as ‘a rich and rollicking tale that deepens into the tenderest of daughterly tributes’, and I cannot say fairer than that.
Caroline Baum Only: A singular memoir Allen & Unwin PB 2017 384pp $32.99
Shelley McInnis is a Canberra-based health-care consumer advocate who cared for ten years for a father who suffered, as it happens, with vascular dementia.
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