“They May Not Mean To, But They Do” by Cathleen Schine explores the relationships between adult children and their aging parents.
Jo Bergman lives in a rent-controlled apartment in New York City. At 86, she still works part-time as a con-servation consultant at a small museum which specializes in Jewish artifacts and loves her work. She continues to work because she and her husband, Aaron, whose health has deteriorated, need the money.
Joy is the central figure in the narrative, dealing with a husband who has had heart failure, colon cancer, bladder cancer, and Alzheimer’s. Aaron is a wonderful, caring person, who never did have much business sense and left them with dwindling savings. The dilemma they face is who will care for Aaron if Joy cannot and how will they pay for outside care when Aaron’s bad investments over the years have left them with little savings.
Joy is determined to keep him with her, and believes she is capable of caring for him; also to preserve their independence and dignity. The Bergmans raised Molly and Daniel as a close unit and the four appear to have an innocent faith in each other.
Daniel, a good son, lives nearby with his wife and two young girls. But he is a son, and what Joy really misses and wants is her daughter, Molly, who has moved to Los Angeles after leaving her husband for another woman. Joy is more disappointed that Molly left New York City. Both adult children feel guilty over their lack of involvement. There is an unspoken need by the children for their mother to be all right and to deal with Joy’s frustration with herself as she becomes increasingly frail.
The novel looks at a three-generational family as it incorporates in-laws, ex-in-laws and same-sex spouses and the entanglements it all creates. The way in which the author writes about how members of a family cope with the challenges of age, illness, and needs is realistic in terms of how Molly and Dan retreat from offering real support. Joy loves every single person in her family, but their hovering upsets her.
She doesn’t want to be a burden to her family, but being around them reinforces her idea that she already is. She feels out of place everywhere except in her cluttered apartment where unpaid bills, literature from the Neptune Society, and various catalogues occupy the entire dining table and the clothes she cannot decide whether to wear or not are still lying on every chair and even the bed. Joy feels like she doesn’t belong anywhere.
A good example of this is when Joy has to go down to the courthouse on an errand, dressing with care as she has always done, only to find all the other people coming to the courthouse are dressed in beach wear.
When Aaron dies, the reappearance of a suitor from Joy’s college days creates a possible solution that Molly and Daniel did not expect.
The author uses humor in a way that does not imply insensitivity or lack of empathy but instead as a vehicle to look at the fine balance between affection and exasperation that is created by the parent-child bond.