Learning and Unlearning

Cover of "The House on Beartown Road: A M...
Cover via Amazon

I love the way that the internet has opened up opportunities to get to know about books, articles, videos that you may never have had the opportunity to read or watch. I have reviewed one such book which was the wonderful “Maus” a cartoon biography about the holocaust and beyond by Art Spiegelman. I got to know about this book as a reference which started from a Tweet about cartoon books in education.

Recently, I followed yet another Tweet reference and found out about a book called “The House On Beartown Road” by Elizabeth Cohen. I looked the book up via a Google search and found out that it was a book about her experiences of living with her baby daughter and her father who had Alzheimer’s Disease.

I looked up my local library service here in the United Kingdom and found that they did not stock the book. Amazon U.K. didn’t either so I looked up Amazon in the U.S.A. and there it was and remarkably cheap as a second hand book (I later found out that it was an ex-library book from somewhere called the Colwich Community Library).

In what seemed like a very short space of time (about a week) the book arrived from the U.S.A. On the front cover there is a photograph of an empty rocking chair in the front of a house and just above it is the sub-title of the book “A Memoir of Learning and Forgetting”.

What had interested me in the book was that the author, Elizabeth Cohen, had presented a very interesting verbal image for me to think about. She said that at the time of writing the book she had exactly forty years between the ages of her daughter and herself and her eighty+ father, a retired, distinguished labor economist. She likened this to a kind of graph with a parabola, herself at the peak and centre, whereby her young daughter was like a sponge, knowing very little but learning all the time and becoming, as the book develops more and more skilled in coping with the world. She was the mature developed human being, able to cope with the world in which she has learnt the skills that she needs to survive on a daily basis and then there is her father, at one time a brilliant academic who seems to forget important life skills on a daily basis and in a sense is “unlearning” the skills that we all need to cope with our lives.

I expected to learn a lot about the nature of learning when I started to read this book but the overwhelming thing that I learnt from the book was about the nature of family ties and the importance of love. It is a beautifully written book and covers a very difficult subject without laying on the emotion in thick dollops. The fact that it is written unsentimentally is indeed its strength because at times she covers subjects that could so easily have been milked for their emotional power.

The other thing that I liked about the book was its honesty. The authoress  is a journalist  by training and brings all the skills of a really good journalist to bear in giving us the facts of her times struggling to live with her father declining right in front of her. She celebrates the times that he manages to remember things and then just reports the fact that he forgets important details or gets himself lost wandering downstairs. She is aware of her role as a nurse, a confidante, an advisor and most importantly, a loving daughter to her father, who at times does not even remember who she is or confuses her with her mother.

But there is another important aspect of this book. It is on the development throughout it of her infant child. Indeed the book was really written for her because it is about her development and her growth and it charts a significant period in her life. At the beginning of the book we learn that Elizabeth’s husband leaves her for another woman and therefore the only permanent male figure in her life is her grandfather who she calls “pop pop”.

Ava, Elizabeth’s daughter would be too young to have an accurate (indeed any) memory of this time. Her mother has therefore left a record that she will be able to use in the future when she has moved along the upward curve of the parabola towards adulthood.

Towards the end of the book she writes:

“That is why I will hang the picture up. So she can always see him. I am hoping somewhere deep in the neurological structure of her brain she will retain a sharp orange flare of Daddy. The man who followed her around one winter and worried about her falling down the stairs. The man who built a fire to keep her warm when she was sick; who said “Hi there, little guy,” every time she entered a room. Who loved her so completely, although he never learned her name.”

As you can see from the above paragraph from the book, this is indeed a beautifully written book that probably deserved much more attention than it received when it was first published, which is why I am bringing it to your attention in this blog posting in the hope that someone may do as I did and get hold of a copy and read it… it was certainly one of the best finds that I have come across in a very long time.

“The House On Beartown Road” by Elizabeth Cohen published by Random House, New York in 2003, ISBN 0- 375-50727-2

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