To say that Brian Morton’s mother, Tasha, was “a woman of stubborn energy” is an understatement; from start to finish, she was a bona fide contrarian. For instance, after agreeing to a short trial stay at an assisted living residence in Teaneck, New Jersey, she literally did an about-face on move-in day. “I’m not going in there,” she said. “Take me home instead. Or take me to the city dump. Just dump me with the chicken bones. Or better yet, take me to the cemetery. Save yourself a trip later on.” Refusing to even step inside, she simply walked away, and Morton later found her sitting on someone’s porch, eating a banana.
Such are the myriad confrontations Morton describes in his hilarious yet tender memoir, Tasha. A novelist and professor at Sarah Lawrence College, he had spent much of his life trying to maintain distance from his mother, whose concept of boundaries could generously be described as “loose.” In junior high, if he was late for dinner, she would begin calling friends, hospitals and the police to search for him. Once he became an adult, she had little inclination to loosen the reins. However, once her health began to fail in 2010, after a stroke and the onset of dementia, Morton knew he had no choice but to step in.
At the age of 60, Morton was already juggling the demands of both his career and his family, including two sons in middle school. He is wonderfully honest about his hesitation to take on additional responsibilities for a parent or navigate the duties of the sandwich generation. He’s also careful to paint a complete picture of his mother’s life, including her nonstop educational activism and excellence as a pioneering elementary school teacher, particularly with disabled students. When Tasha’s husband suddenly died in 1984, she retired and sank into a despondency (likely undiagnosed depression) that she never overcame. Hoarding ensued, and in one memorable scene, Morton can’t convince his mother to throw away even one of five swizzle sticks—the mere tip of a true iceberg.
Morton excels at bringing his novelist’s eye to many such standoffs, including picking up his mother at the police station on more than one occasion. As he addresses the harsh realities of taking away a parent’s independence, trying to make that parent happy and trying (and failing) to procure adequate care, his superb storytelling skills add a helpful dose of levity. As a result, Tasha takes a difficult topic and transforms it into a soulful and often funny memoir about spirited mothers, refreshingly told from a son’s point of view. The book’s unique ending, which gives Tasha the last word, is an absolute tour de force.