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‘Making Toast’ Author Mixes Grief, Family Over Breakfast

February 23, 2010 at 12:00 AM EST
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Jeffrey Brown talks to author Roger Rosenblatt about coping and caring for grandchildren after the death of his daughter. Rosenblatt's new memoir on grief and family is called "Making Toast."
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TRANSCRIPT

GWEN IFILL: Finally tonight: an intimate look at a life lost and a family redefined.

Jeffrey Brown has our story.

JEFFREY BROWN: In December 2007, Roger Rosenblatt’s daughter Amy, a 38-year-old pediatrician, wife, and mother, suddenly collapsed and died of a rare heart condition. Rosenblatt and his wife, Ginny, left their Long Island home, and moved into their daughter’s house here in Bethesda, Maryland, to help their son-in-law raise three young children, just as they had raised their own three children decades earlier.

“How long are you staying?” then 6-year-old Jessie asked.

Rosenblatt responded, “Forever.”

In his new memoir, “Making Toast,” many other small and big questions are asked, and familiar and difficult moments recounted.

Roger is, of course, well-known to “NewsHour” viewers as our longtime essayist.

And he joins me now.

Welcome to you.

ROGER ROSENBLATT, author, “Making Toast”: Thank you.

JEFFREY BROWN: “Making Toast,” that title characterizes so much of what you’re recounting here, the life that really must go on.

ROGER ROSENBLATT: Just that. It started out simply as my activity. I get up very early in the morning, and I get the kids’ breakfast ready. And then I make toast. And some kids like it in one way, and some of the kids like it another way. And I like it yet another way.

And I found that, over the course of the last couple of years, it became a metaphor for our continuing and our survival. It’s a simple act. A friend of mine said, is it like the bread of life, the staff of life?

And I would like to think that I had meant that, but I didn’t. I just meant that it was getting on with it.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, speaking of simple acts, you know, the — the question of why write about this? I mean, I know one answer in part is that’s because that’s what you do. You’re a writer. But — but part of it must be about processing what happened.

ROGER ROSENBLATT: For me, it was therapeutic. I simply had — didn’t know what to do. I was helpless in the face of this catastrophe. And so I did what I did for a living. I just took some notes.

And then, when I thought that this might coalesce into a piece, I spoke to David Remnick, the editor of The New Yorker, and he said, OK, if you do this essay, write with more grace than pain, which was a wonderful…

JEFFREY BROWN: More grace than pain.

ROGER ROSENBLATT: More grace than pain.

And it was a wonderful piece of advice. Not only was it as a friend, but in terms of craftsmanship, because, if you write the pain, then nobody will feel the pain. But if you write with restraint, and you have a story that is compelling, the more restrained you are, the more you will get the message across that this is worth reading.

JEFFREY BROWN: And then, as you’re — as you’re doing this, it’s clear in reading that things come into focus in many new ways, obviously, the grandchildren, who you are now acting in — as you were with your own children, your daughter, who you knew, but now have to know in a very different way, as someone in the past, in a sense.

ROGER ROSENBLATT: Some way in the past, some — in some ways in the present.

You’re aware of your children as they grow up and they grow into likable adults, as people you would like to know, whether or not they were your children. But what I was unaware of was Amy’s stature in the world. She was a wonderful doctor. She was admired by her colleagues. She was needed by her patients, loved by her family, of course, and made friends in every quarter.

The woman who sells shoes in Nordstrom’s, children’s shoes, missed her. The Terminix man was in touch. The people who occupied small moments in her life, they — they now come together in a kind of monument to our daughter. And you would rather have the daughter than the monument, but it’s something.

JEFFREY BROWN: One of the things you do during the day is institute a word of the day for the children, right?

ROGER ROSENBLATT: Right.

JEFFREY BROWN: What — and there’s a little section here that you talk about.

ROGER ROSENBLATT: Yes. I don’t know how that started. It was just an idea that actually occurred the first day, the first morning after Amy died. I just put on a post-it a word for the children somewhere between the levels of Jessie, who was then 6, and Sammy, who was 4.

And — and that just kept up. And then James, moving into his tyrannical 3′s, now wanted his own word of the day. So, we give the words for both of them. And we have done it every day since that first day.

JEFFREY BROWN: Would you read that passage?

ROGER ROSENBLATT: Certainly.

JEFFREY BROWN: James is known as Bubbies.

ROGER ROSENBLATT: James is known as Bubbies…

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes.

ROGER ROSENBLATT: … when he is not pursuing his career as a future Latin American dictator.

ROGER ROSENBLATT: “I wake up earlier than the others usually around 5:00 a.m., to perform the one household duty I have mastered. After posting the morning’s word, emptying the dishwasher, setting the table for the children’s breakfast, and pouring the MultiGrain Cheerios, or Fruit Loops, or Apple Jacks, or Special K, or Fruity Pebbles, I prepare toast.

“I take out the butter to allow it to soften and put in three slices of Pepperidge Farm Hearty White in the toaster oven. Bubbies and I like plain buttered toast. Sammy prefers it with cinnamon with the crusts cut off. When the bell rings, I ship the slices from the toasters to plates and butter them.

“Harris usually spends half the night in Bubbies’ little bed. When I go upstairs around 6:00 a.m., Bubbies hesitates, but I give him a knowing look, and he opens his arms to me. ‘Toast?’ he says. I take him from his father, change him, and carry him downstairs to allow Harris another 20 minutes’ sleep.”

JEFFREY BROWN: There’s a point in here where you write about how you’re not inclined to talk about your emotions that much, even with — with your wife. But there is some emotion here. I mean, there is anger that comes out. There is a lot of feeling about fate, about God.

ROGER ROSENBLATT: Yeah.

I didn’t want to write too much about myself in the book, because I was controlling the whole story. So, in a way, it was all about myself, my way of seeing it. My anger at God has abated a bit. It will probably do so more. And it doesn’t get you anywhere, in any case.

The — the opponent is too grand. But the — it would have been easier had I not believed in God. Many of my friends don’t believe in God. And, so, if some calamity happens in their lives, they attribute it to bad luck.

I, too, in a sense, do that, since my view of God is not a superintending hands-on God. My God is like James Joyce’s God, who stood back paring his fingernails and letting the world spin and saying, in a sense, good luck to you.

But then, when it happens to you, when bad luck happens to you, then you become very childish and superstitious. Or I did. And I’m trying to get out of that now. And, in fact, most of the day-to-day life of our family is not noticeably different from a lot of families.

The kids are wonderful. They’re very smart. They’re very funny. Our son-in-law is of great — of monumental strength and a wonderful fellow. We thought before this calamity. So, we think so more now. And we take care of the daily making toast life that has been dealt us.

But we live in the context of Amy’s death. And, in that context, my thoughts go to larger things.

JEFFREY BROWN: And I started by saying that you — that line where — you have early in the book about staying forever, one never knows, I guess, right?

ROGER ROSENBLATT: You don’t.

Ginny and I never — my wife and I never conferred on this, by the way. We knew that this is what we should do. We should do it for our daughter. We should do it for our grandchildren and our son-in-law. And we should do it for ourselves, because friends say, how are you able to do this?

It didn’t even come to us as a serious question. What would we have done? Returned to our home, stare at each other over dark silences, and not know what to say, whereas, here, we are useful. Here, we actually are doing something.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, the book is “Making Toast.”

Roger Rosenblatt, all the best to you and your family. Thanks.

ROGER ROSENBLATT: Many thanks. Thank you.