Roger Rosenblatt’s Making Toast (HarperCollins, 2010) is a book I stumbled across on a table display in good ol’ Barnes and Noble. I had never heard of it before, but the title caught my eye and once I read the back cover copy, I decided to go for it. Marketing strategies at work, people!
When the author’s only daughter, Amy, unexpectedly dies at age thirty-four from a rare heart condition, everyone she leaves behind is hurtled into the fog that comes with figuring out how to lead a life you no longer understand. For Roger and his wife, Ginny, this means rediscovering how to traverse the world of small children, as they leave their home to move in with Harris, their son-in-law, and their three grandchildren, Jessie, Sammy, and James (“Bubbies”), ages seven, four, and one, respectively. Suddenly thrust back into the world of birthday parties, soccer games, and bedtime stories, Roger and Ginny learn to take each day in stride. Three generations come together as Roger, Ginny, Harris, and the children begin to reassemble their lives, reconstruct their family, and support each other as they navigate the course of their grief.
The main issue I take with many memoirs is the sense of self-importance that can so often accompany this genre. It’s understandable, I suppose, given the nature of telling your own story. (That’s where a good editor comes in!) However, Making Toast does not for one second fall into that sticky tar pit. Instead, Rosenblatt paints a witty, honest portrait of grief, showing us that it is—perhaps surprisingly—rather other-centric.
Making Toast follows a relatively nonsequential (though loosely chronological) format; for anyone well-acquainted with grief, you know this is the only way to write a book like this. Your endeavor to keep up with the hops, skips, and jumps of Rosenblatt’s flashbacks, memories, and present-day activities earns you a day pass to the surface level of Rosenblatt’s grief experience. This entails most notably his unabated anger at a God who shows no benevolence and whose presence will not be found with their family. Unfortunately, the book never seems to penetrate any further than this, as Rosenblatt keeps up a wall around his deeper feelings, leaving you constantly wishing to see just a little bit more.
The most impactful aspect of this book was the reminder to me of what a beautiful thing it is to be known. Several sections of Making Toast focus simply on personality traits and quirks of the characters—Jessie’s favorite winter coat, Bubbies’s way of sitting with his hands locked behind his head, Harris’s stoicism, Sammy’s favorite Power Ranger, each child’s breakfast preferences as R0senblatt engages in “the one household duty [he has] mastered”: making toast. And Amy. Amy as a child, Amy as a teen, Amy in medical school, Amy the doctor, Amy the wife, Amy the mother.
It is in this subtle, quiet way that Rosenblatt reveals the depth of his emotion for his family. Through his awareness of each person, that close familiarity gained through the intimacy of family and tragedy, he pays tribute to each family member. Toward the end of the narrative, Rosenblatt gives voice to my own thoughts:
“Odd that I seem to know Amy more completely in death than I did when she was alive. I do not know her any better . . . but there was so much life that I was unaware of until now. The distance of death reveals Amy’s stature to me” (141-42).
A testament to the powerful force of a united family, Rosenblatt’s memoir reminds us all of the human capacity to live with grief without ceasing to love. However, there is no room for sentimentality in Making Toast. There are books to be read, children to be raised, and, of course, toast to be made.