I first came across the work of Roger Rosenblatt at a local bookstore, where the paperback of his memoir, Making Toast, was on display on the front table. When Rosenblatt’s 38-year-old daughter died suddenly of a heart defect no one knew she had, he and his wife Ginny moved in with their widowed son-in-law to care for their three small grandchildren. Making Toast is a beautiful and deeply painful book, shot through with the author’s raw grief. Kayak Morning: Reflections on Love, Grief, and Small Boats, takes up where Making Toast left off. At the time of its writing, Rosenblatt’s grief has not abated. If anything, it has grown sharper. This book, like the one before it, is stunning. It is associative, like the best long-form essays, meandering from subject to subject, from esoteric fact to watery remembrance.
The book is shot through with meditations on water, solitude, Quogue, and kayaking, as well as surprising revelations (Rosenblatt interviewed several presidents; among them was Nixon, who remarked that Rosenblatt’s tape recorder was “better” than the old tape recorders).
My first thought upon reading this book was that it is the kind of book I would like to have written. But then I realized I was mistaken. Kayak Morning, like Making Toast before it, draws its weight and its beauty, its utterly crystallized emotions and startling sensitivity, from grief. I would like to have the talent to write this book, but I would not like to have the experience that made this book possible. The death of Rosenblatt’s daughter is on every page, it colors everything. His daughter died before him, his daughter whom he remembers with such specificity as his little girl, and he cannot get over it. What father could? What parent could? The book comes from a place no parent wants to go.
In this way it reminds me of Joan Didion’s Blue Nights. Blue Nights, which addresses, among other things, the unexpected death of Didion’s adult daughter, follows the narrative thread of The Year of Magical Thinking, a memoir about the year following the death of Didion’s husband. Both of these two Didion books are incredibly good, but The Year of Magical Thinking is, in my mind, the more masterful one. In Blue Nights, Didion is doing battle with time, with the stark realities of her own aging body and her aging mind; she worries, in fact, that she no longer possesses the powers of narrative that she once had. Beyond that, however, Blue Nights, beautiful as it is, is a book without hope. At the end of The Year of Magical Thinking, her daughter is still alive; at the beginning of Blue Nights, she is not.
Didion’s approach to the narrative of grief is perhaps the more obviously intellectual, Rosenblatt’s the more dreamy. Both are deeply felt, unforgettable. Didion writes Blue Nights, it seems, in the depths of grief and in the absence of hope, while Rosenblatt writes Kayak Morning in the depths of grief but the presence of hope; he has his wife, his two sons. More important, perhaps, is the fact that he still has his daughter’s children, his grandchildren, whom he cares for every day. During the school year he and his wife live in a single room of their son-in-law’s house. He writes in this room while the children are in school, and when they are not, they are always welcome to pile in and pile on. One does not get the sense that Rosenblatt will outlive his grief; and yet, his book’s two-word title includes the word Morning, a sharp contrast to Didion’s two-word title, which includes the word Night.