For many people, the earliest experience of human loss that pierces their emotions and affects their everyday existence is the death of a grandparent, and that of a grandmother, I have found, anyway, seems to pack a particular wallop. Some grandmothers participate in a kid’s life as a kind of back-up parent, others as a safe place away from home. I’ve known grandmothers who have been the stability in their grandchildren’s lives, much more than parents. It’s not the case with every grandmother, certainly, but I have noticed over the years that grandmothers hold a particular place in people’s hearts and lives.
I keep this in mind while reading Rebecca Roher’s tender and open Bird In A Cage, which relates the final stretch in her grandmother’s life while opening up with personal details of her past to explain the whole woman in context of the family around her.
That’s how Roher encounters her grandmother for much of her childhood, in regard to the extended family gatherings at her place on an island that the family owned, but her first recounting of her grandmother begins with more biographical notes, accented by what has prompted this remembrance— she was hit by a car at age 82, which began the physical degeneration that would lead to her eventual death.
Roher traces this emotional road, but provides a history of her family while doing so, capturing the rituals through the years, the relationships, even some of the more sensitive aspects and darker moments that her family, particularly her grandmother, endured. What comes out of it, though, is a portrait of a close-knit unit with shared experiences and affections, and the woman at the center of it.
As with so many of us, it’s at the end of the grandparents’ life and within our own adulthood that we truly begin to discover our grandparents as people, and it’s not different for Roher. Particularly interesting is a section covering her grandmother’s shift to the Baha’i faith and the quiet struggles she had over the years trying to balance her family and her spiritual needs.
Roher’s memoir is rendered in lively, classic black lines that have the feel and energy of a real time diary. There’s a quality of clutter to the layout that I don’t bring up as a detriment, but rather a real emotional marker for all the aspects of the story she’s telling.
This is the kind of book that anyone can identify with, a chronicle of taking stock and coming to terms with loss, but measuring what has gone against what has been gained as a way to move on.
John Seven is a journalist and children’s book writer living in North Adams, Massachusetts. His books include ‘A Rule Is To Break: A Child’s Guide To Anarchy,’ ‘Happy Punks 1-2-3,’ ‘Frankie Liked To Sing,’ and others. Find out about all his things at johnseven.me.