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Memoir details wintry life

THE HOUSE ON BEARTOWN ROAD, by Elizabeth Cohen; Random House, 256 pages, $23.95.

When she was 40 years old, Elizabeth Cohen had her first baby. Soon after, she began to care for her 80-year-old father, who was slipping into dementia.

Cohen begins her book, "The House on Beartown Road," by exploring the symmetry. Three generations, each 40 years apart. Little Ava learns about the world while Cohen's father, just as rapidly, forgets the world.

From the first chapter, Cohen's husband, being only 25, seems out of place, out of the pattern. He's not part of the sandwich generation.

So Cohen's husband seems a minor character. When he leaves, a few days after his daughter's first birthday — headed for a warmer climate and an 18-year-old girlfriend — the reader can't help but think, "OK, now we'll get to the meat of this memoir." And sure enough, after he's gone and the winter sets in, Cohen's story turns into a modern-day "Little House on the Prairie." It's the story of a family alone in the vast wilderness of life.

Cohen's memoir tells of a year as a single mother/Alzheimer's caregiver. Cohen also held a full-time job that year, reporting for a small-town newspaper.

She lives in upstate New York in an old house on a hill, surrounded by farms. Cohen and her husband had purchased the house together. This was not a life she'd have chosen to live alone. The home's furnace was ancient. She didn't make much money at the paper. The rural county's social services didn't offer much for the elderly. To add to the drama, the winter of 1999-2000 turned out to be a snowy one.

Cohen writes:

Yet another storm hit us hard. . . . The snow is very wet and thick and as usual the plows have pushed it to the side of the road in icy mounds higher than the car. I cannot get out of the driveway.

This time, nobody comes to plow us out. I go outside with a shovel and dig at the ice for awhile until I am covered in sweat. I have made little progress on the five-foot tower blocking the driveway. . . . Snow is becoming the theme of our lives, our leitmotif. It underscores the truth of us, that we are isolated in our situation. . . . I finally give up and go back inside, but it is lonely in there with the two of them. Strangely, Daddy and Ava seem to be able to communicate just fine — they jabber back and forth to themselves and to each other . . . ."

Cohen describes it all quite vividly — the confusion of daily life, the messiness of the house, the baby's fevers, the time the electricity was down and her father went outside for firewood and wandered off into a blizzard, and the horrible week they all had the stomach flu at once. Reading of her life, you wonder when she had time to take notes for the book.

At the end of the memoir, she explains how she wrote it. It is as you feared. Her father wandered around at 3 a.m. and her little girl was sick a lot, and sometimes Cohen herself couldn't sleep for worry. When she was awake in the night, she wrote.

In June 2000, her husband came back. At the end of the book, it is not clear that he will stay, or that she wants him to. Also at the end of the book, after she and her sister in Seattle tried various arrangements to care for their parents, Cohen helped her parents move in together in an assisted living center. Cohen takes her dad for weekends, to give her mother a break.

In this memoir, Cohen skims the surface of her marital problems. She certainly doesn't blast her husband, as she might have. Still, the reader is left thinking that this already troubled marriage will suffer more by the book's publication, since Cohen bears such well-written witness to the winter she went through while he was gone.


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