The title of this variegated narrative hardly does it justice. Though some of the most eloquent passages are about the lingering death of the author's mother, Ruth Johnson, from esophageal cancer, it is, just as centrally, the writer's memoir of growing up with the woman she has just seen through her final years of diminishment and loss, and commentary on her mother's art as testimony to her quirky, original, unconstrained, sometimes jaundiced, often hilarious view of the human comedy.

Hillary Johnson returned to Minneapolis from New York to be with her mother and stepfather after years of only intermittent contact and in the process of reentering her mother's life, came to reassess her own. Ruth chain-smoked, drank freely, lived spontaneously, painted uninhibitedly (40 illustrations include examples of her artwork) and often bestowed her art without price wherever it was appreciated. She was a local celebrity and the daughter, who has achieved her own success, finds in her mother's life a new measure of her own. In retrospect, she recognizes the costs, both to her mother and to herself, of the bohemian way of life she knew as a child, and the pain she didn't at the time fully recognize as such.


This is a compelling narrative of unsentimental love and discovery. Any adult child who has returned to care for parents and to watch them die will find here an articulate rendering of some of the kinds of confrontations with self and parent that take place in such seasons, either tacitly or, if one is lucky, in conversation.

The theme of forgiveness is only lightly treated, but runs like an undercurrent through the whole memoir as the past is gathered into the present and death reframes a life exuberantly if not always prudently lived. The writer's discomfort with some of her own unpredictable feelings as she struggles to claim what matters and let the rest go rings true and could be very helpful to any for whom ambivalence is a chiaroscuro surrounding the luminous moments of memory and recognition as a parent dies.


St. Martin's

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