The New York Times
The Memory Palaceby Mira Bartok
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When piano prodigy Norma Herr was healthy, she was the most vibrant personality in the room. But as her schizophrenic episodes became more frequent and more dangerous, she withdrew into a world that neither of her daughters could make any sense of. After being violently attacked for demanding that Norma seek help, Mira Bartok and her sister changed their names and cut off all contact in order to keep themselves safe. For the next seventeen years, Mira's only contact with her mother was through infrequent letters exchanged through post office boxes, often not even in the same city where she was living. At the age of forty, Mira suffered a debilitating head injury that leaves her memories foggy and her ability to make sense of the world around her forever changed. Hoping to reconnect with her past, Mira reached out to the homeless shelter where her mother is living. When she received word that her mother was dying in a hospital, Mira and her sister traveled to their mother's deathbed to reconcile one last time. Norma gave them a key to a storage unit in which she has kept hundreds of diaries, photographs, and mementos from the past that Mira never imagined she would see again. These artifacts triggered a flood of memories and gave Mira access to the past that she believed had been lost forever. The Memory Palace explores the connections between mother and daughter that cannot be broken no matter how much exists-or is lost-between them. It is an astonishing literary memoir about the complex meaning of love, truth, and the capacity for forgiveness within a family.
The New York Times
A disturbing, mesmerizing personal narrative about growing up with a brilliant but schizophrenic mother.
The book is comprised of two intertwining narratives. One concerns artist Bartók's mother, Norma Herr, and her struggle with mental illness. The other examines the author's midlife struggle with a traumatic brain injury. Norma was a gifted pianist whose musical career came to an unexpected end when she was diagnosed with schizophrenia at age 19. In the lucid intervals between the debilitating episodes of her illness, Norma—who married an equally gifted alcoholic—fostered a love of art in her two daughters. In so doing, she gave both girls the tools to survive her illness and their father's abandonment. Throughout their childhood and adolescence, Bartók and her sister used art as a coping mechanism for dealing with their mother's illness. As Norma's condition worsened, escape from domestic turbulence became more difficult. In an act of radical self-preservation, the sisters changed their names and severed nearly all ties with Norma; letters sent via PO Box became the only way they communicated with her. As a young adult, Bartók forged a life as a peripatetic artist haunted by the fear that her mother would find her. At age 40, she was involved in a car accident that left her with a speech and memory-impairing brain injury. From that moment on, her greatest challenge became recollection, which manifested textually as a slightly exaggerated concern with descriptive detail. She and her sister then discovered that their now-homeless mother was dying of cancer, and both decided to see her, 17 years after their decision to disappear from Norma's life. By chance, Bartók found a storage unit filled with her mother's letters, journals and personal effects—a veritable palace of memories. The artifacts she uncovered helped her to better understand her mother, and herself, and find the beginnings of a physical and emotional healing that had eluded her for years.
Richly textured, compassionate and heartbreaking.
- Tantor Media, Inc.
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Read an Excerpt
Come down! You insult our Gods, pale phantoms.
Holier is the saint who has known the abyss.
Gérard de Nerval, from the “Chimeras”
I still paint a picture of it every year:
Passiflora, the passionflower. In Latin, passio is “suffering,” flos means “flower” and the verb “to wander.” Passiflora: flower of martyrs and paradise lost. Some say it can cure insomnia, melancholy, even madness. After the tragedies of 9/11, I painted one with crimson petals and sent it to my mother, who had been sleeping in baggage claim at the Cleveland airport before they kicked all the homeless people out. She wrote back: Thank you for the package containing hosiery, warm gloves and the red flower. A ray of sunshine on a storm-ridden day. My mother made lists of plants and their medicinal properties in the journals we found at U-Haul. She stopped to draw plants on her walks and kept copious notes on how to make botanical tinctures for when she finally returned home. In her letters, she told me that if she discovered the right remedy, she could cure herself of hair loss, age spots, and the memory lapses she attributed to radioactive gas. She was particularly fond of the roses in the garden behind the house on West 148th Street, and in her diaries, she lamented her loss of the pink azaleas on the front lawn. My greatest regret, she said in one of her last letters to me, was that I never learned how to put something in the ground. Maybe when we all move back to Grandma’s house, you can teach me.
Two months before I got the call from the hospital, my mother wrote from the women’s shelter: Most plants spend their lives rooted in one place and produce seeds to make new ones. Plant cells have tough, thick walls made of cellulose and contain a special substance called chlorophyll. Almost all plants belong to a group.
Rachel has a birthday tomorrow. Where is the birthday girl? Where has everyone gone?
In my palace, I leave Medusa and my mother behind and pass through a pillared hall of shadows. I enter another room. The ceiling is high and arched like the nave of a small church; the walls are a pale and lustrous gold. On the wall, a passionflower, glowing like an icon. The colors are shades of crimson, ocher, a deep Prussian blue. If you saw the flower from a distance, you might think it a portrait of a saint.
Carl Linnaeus, the Swedish botanist and grandfather of order and taxonomy, once invented a flower clock. He discovered, after careful observation, certain flowers opened and closed at specific times throughout the day. As a child, I search for sleeping flowers in my grandfather’s garden. I know when they wake up each morning. My favorite looks like a tiny rose, its leaves juicy and small, its petals flashy neon pink: Portulaca grandiflora, the little moss rose. It closes when it’s cloudy and goes to sleep at night. I know when all the flowers go to bed, when the neighbors take their naps. When people are sick or sad I paint flowers for them. I make pictures for Mrs. Budd, the lady down the street, who drinks when her husband is away. I leave the pictures taped to her door when I know she is sleeping. I make pictures for my friend Patty’s parents, Ruth and Army Armstrong, who live across the street from my grandparents and hide my sister and me when our grandfather is mean and drunk. When my mother is asleep, I place pictures by her bed so when she wakes up she’ll find them. Maybe if I make enough pictures, pick enough flowers, she will stop talking to people who aren’t there.
After Medusa arrived on Triskett Road she never left for good. I quickly grasped the order of things. If I heard strange sounds in the living room I never went in there, for who knew what I might find? I told no one about the invisible guests who came late at night uninvited or the ghosts who whispered to her through the walls. On days of agitated pacing and our mother’s fierce conversations with herself, my sister and I stayed out of her way. We’d run to the back of our building, to the parking lot and small yard with the chain-link fence and rusty swing set, the overflowing trash cans, the lone pine. In the weeks leading up to these episodes, our mother would be nearly catatonic; she’d sit on the couch enveloped in blue tendrils of smoke, dismissing my sister and me with a wave of her cigarette if we said we were hungry. In our cupboards, these were our staples: pimiento-stuffed olives, moldy jars of cocktail sauce, TV dinners, stale melba toast.
“Grandma can feed you,” she’d say. “Or go to a friend’s.”
Rachel would grab my hand and pull me out to the street, careful to look both ways. She kept an eye out for mean dogs and boys, and hurried me across Triskett Road. We walked the three blocks to our grandparents’ house for the food that we knew would be there—corned beef on rye and kashkaval, the hard salty cheese from the West Side Market, honeysweet halvah, warm pita with tomatoes and feta, peaches and pears from the yard.
After stuffing ourselves, we’d slip out the back barefoot and run as fast as we could to the field and woods behind the house. On summer days there was always the scent of rose and honeysuckle in the air. We came and went as we pleased as long as our grandfather wasn’t raging at one of us for misplacing the butter dish, a pencil, or a spoon. “Hillbillies,” kids called us, but I thought of us like sisters of Mowgli from The Jungle Book. If things got worse, Rachel and I could always live in a wolf den in the middle of the woods.
Sometimes we spent the night at our grandparents’. Rachel and I slept upstairs in our grandmother’s room in two twin beds side by side. We covered ourselves with thin scratchy blankets while Grandma curled up on the love seat in the guest room. Our grandfather slept alone in the master bedroom, in his four-post king-sized bed. No one was to enter uninvited or they’d get the belt. “Good night,” I’d say to him from the doorway, the sinister red rooster lamp glaring at me from his nightstand. “Good night, girlie,” Grandpa would say from his bed, cigarette dangling from his lips, the air around him thick with smoke.
At breakfast, I’d tilt my head back so Grandpa could spoon orange-blossom honey into my mouth with his callused meaty hands. When I had a cold, he placed a string of garlic around my neck. Garlic and honey could cure anything; so could the raw eggs he tossed back in the morning with whiskey, or the yogurt he made in a vat, warm cultures growing beneath his brown leather coat. My grandfather told me what I should eat from his garden to make me strong and healthy—parsley for “the halitosis,” plums for “the constipation,” mint and apples to keep the doctors away.
Outside the house there was always something stirring in the deep ripe earth—green shoots poking up, rows of tomatoes and green beans, clusters of flowers and herbs. At our grandparents’ there were three yards: the front lawn, tidy for show, with a silver ball on a white plaster pedestal; the middle one, with rose beds, dogwood and plum trees, and the birdbath Grandpa always forgot to fill; and the backyard, where the garden was, a shady magnolia, fruit trees, and a lush carpet of grass. The backyard was connected to the Bentes’ and the Budds’; Rachel and I reigned over all three. Beyond the wall of trees that lined the yards was where the owls and the deer hid. At night I’d think about the quiet deer, and imagined wolves living in warm dark caves, waiting for my sister and me to come.
In the summer of 1965 I am six and Rachel is seven. Our mother sleeps all day and wakes right before dinner. She paces in the apartment or outside, where everyone can see her muttering under her breath. Will she have to go to the hospital? Who will call? Our grandma is ashamed to call but she’s the only one who does. Grandma says, “What will the neighbors say now?” as the ambulance screeches into the driveway on Triskett Road and muscular strangers come bounding up the stairs. Where does she go? When our mother returns weeks later, she walks like a drifting boat. She says that the Nazis hooked her head up to machines at the hospital; they set her brain on fire.
“That mother of yours better straighten up her act,” our grandmother tells us. And every few weeks, our mother seems to snap out of it. She dresses up, applies for a temp job as a medical secretary or stenographer, and for a few days or a week or two she is a working mom. “What a waste of those hands,” our grandmother says. “She should be playing Symphony Hall.” When she’s feeling a little better, our mother takes my sister and me to the art museum or the zoo. Once in a while she ushers at Symphony Hall so the three of us can get in for free. She doesn’t talk about the music, but there is something unspoken between us—the way she squeezes my hand when George Szell lifts his baton before the symphony begins. We almost always leave before the concert is over, though, because something inexplicable has happened that makes her whisper obscenities in the aisle.
In the summer the three of us go to the Impett Park swimming pool, rub zinc oxide on our noses, and nap in the hot sun, our mother’s little transistor radio always tuned to the classical music station. She places the radio right next to her ear, between her head and mine. Rachel and I do handstands in the water; we call out, “Look at me, Mommy! Look at me!” We swim, then play cards, the sound of someone else’s tinny radio bleating nearby, more voices invading my mother’s delicate brain—”Going to a Go-Go,” “Can’t You Hear My Heartbeat,” Gary Lewis and the Playboys crooning “This Diamond Ring.” Sometimes all that sound is just too much for her to bear. Within each song is the enemy’s menacing threat. We want to stay but she gets up abruptly, stubs out her cigarette, lights another, and hurries us into the blazing afternoon.
One summer day, Rachel and I are on our hands and knees in the grass behind our grandparents’ red brick house. We call out to our turtle, who is lost, “Henry, Henry, come back!” We search beneath stones, behind bushes. “Henry, please come home!” The phone inside is ringing. Grandpa shouts from the back door. Rachel and I snap to attention; we run as fast as we can to see what he wants. We can never run fast enough. “You, not her,” he says to me. “Smarties spoil the party.”
My grandfather and I climb into the shiny white new Chevy and drive east. I can smell the sun-warmed seats and my grandfather’s Old Spice aftershave cologne.
“Where are we going?” I ask.
“Girls should be seen and not heard. Just do as you’re told.”
We stop at a package store to pick up a case of beer. The black guys hanging out in front joke around and slap him on the back. He is everyone’s pal. He goes inside and is gone for a long time. It’s hot and humid in the car. The windows are all rolled up but I sit, hands folded in my lap, and don’t roll them down. When he returns, he totters back to the car, his face red and damp with sweat.
“Just look at those niggers doing nothin’ all day,” he says.
Grandpa lights up a big cigar, then starts the engine. “You want ice cream?” he asks. “Ice scream, you scream, we all scream for ice cream!” He tickles me hard in the gut until it hurts, singsonging, “Eenie meenie meiny mo, catch a nigger by the toe!” He buys a mint chocolate chip cone for me down the street, golden vanilla for himself.
“Who loves you most?” he asks.
“You do,” I say, ever obedient.
Grandpa smiles and lays his clammy hand on my little knee. He keeps it there all the way to his sister’s house.
When we arrive, Aunt Toda is slicing lemons. She makes lemonade just like Grandpa—lots of sugar, a squeeze of orange, and sprig of fresh mint. Toda is a wide woman in wide black skirts, with swollen feet and ankles; she keeps her coarse gray hair piled beneath a black net and a bright red babushka. My grandma says she’s a backward but well-meaning quack. My mother says never trust anyone who believes in saints.
We sit in her stifling kitchen, windows shut, bundles of herbs hanging above our heads. Toda, like my grandfather, believes the wind carries disease and destruction. Does he think that was how our mother got so sick? Grandpa pops opens a beer. He says something in Bulgarian and goes out back to take a look at her garden. Toda pours me a glass of lemonade and offers me komat, the same cheese pie made with feta and buttery filo dough my grandfather bakes on Sundays.
“Eat,” she says, pushing the plate toward me. “You want a little yogurt? You like the yogurt? How ‘bout a nice little peach?”
Toda’s kitchen smells of Bulgarian rose, a distillation she makes from hundreds of petals, then stores in miniature glass vials. Each vial is encased in a slim wooden bottle painted with a red rose, the word bulgaria burned into the side. The bottle tops look like the onion domes that crown my grandfather’s Russian Orthodox church. His side of the family is not Jewish, a fact, I gather, he is proud of, since he sometimes calls my grandma a “fat-ass money-grubbing son-of-a-bitch kike.”
Aunt Toda is talking to me but I can’t understand. I find her a little scary, her coarse stubby hands and ruddy face, her dark skirts and mustache, the little white hairs poking out from her chin. She tells me in broken English that I have “the gift.” She leads me to the back of the house, past icons lit by small red candles—the “Not-Made-by-Hands” bloody Christ, the “Tenderness Mother of God,” and “St. Theodosius,” patron saint of Grandpa’s and her church. Toda smudges the hallway mirror with ash from her finger to ward off evil. She smudges every shiny surface she sees. We go to where she keeps her concoctions and herbal tinctures, her seedlings under glass, strange roots floating in oil; I breathe in essence of rose, the scent of oranges, cloves, and something from the dark center of the earth.
“You are old enough now,” she says. “Sit.”
Toda teaches me the ancient doctrine of signatures. How God made plants to cure men’s ills. He gives us clues to guide us in selecting the right ones. Something in the way they look, an external “signature,” suggests the inner virtue of the plant. Red clover heals the blood, walnuts heal the brain; kidney beans cure the kidneys. Is there a plant that could heal my mother? Toda pulls out dried herbs and roots from different drawers, tells me to crush them between my fingers and hold them up to smell. She opens a book and turns the pages to a picture of plants surrounding a human figure, lines drawn to each corresponding body part. What marked me from birth, made me special in the eyes of God? Is it the birth defect I have, the way my arms bend out from the elbow when they should fall straight? Or the bump I have on the side of each foot? Is it the moon-shaped scar above my knee? Did I possess a special sign that could make my mother happy and well?
Toda shows me how to lay hands on the infirmed, how to concentrate and summon all my inner power, let it flow into their sick and dying bodies, and into their souls.
After my lesson, Toda takes out jars of legumes and seeds, trays of herbs and roots, and sets them on the big oak table in the kitchen. I help her sort, bundle, and count. “Bad peas here, good peas in the pot.” Grandpa returns from the garden with a basket of peppers and goes into the living room to take a nap. I can hear him hacking up phlegm.
“He’s got the bad lung,” says Toda. “I make him something to take home.” A lion roars on Grandpa’s Wild Kingdom show; the sound mingles with his coughing while the narrator drones on about survival on the African savanna. I separate peas and beans for my great-aunt, just like I do for Grandpa at his house. Toda looks like Baba Yaga, the witch in the Russian fairy-tale book our father sent from far away. She has the same heavy skirts and red babushka. She makes me divide and sort, divide and sort, cut, separate, and soak; I do everything I’m told. But I have a glimmer of hope burning inside me now. I will find a miracle to save my mother. I would go into the dark forest to search for magic plants to save her, spin a room of golden thread in a single night, weave a thousand golden shirts, cross a bridge of fire.
Grandpa snores in the living room, Aunt Toda naps in a chair by the sink, while I dream and sort, dream and sort, a thousand petals simmering atop the stove.
If I’m not at school, no matter what I’m doing, if my grandfather gets the call, we jump in the car and drive to Aunt Toda’s house. When my grandfather is drunk we swerve unsteadily along the roads while I hold on tight to my seat. Toda and I visit ailing pregnant women, sick old ladies, old men who smell like cabbage and pee. Once, we visit a little boy with no hair. “Poison blood,” Toda says in my ear when we leave. “From the Evil Eye.” I place my hands on all of them, close my eyes, and wait.
One day we go to visit a man named Michael, a relative on my grandfather’s side who suffers from multiple sclerosis. He’s in his forties but looks much older; the doctors say he is dying. Michael lies on a hospital bed in a dark room, his eyes fixed on the ceiling. A page from a newspaper is projected from a contraption someone has jerry-rigged so he can read what’s going on in the world. The room smells of urine and rosewater. The curtains are drawn, the windows shut tight. Like everyone else on that side of the family, Michael’s parents think that the wind carries evil and sickness into the home. Toda dribbles a foul-smelling tea down his throat, then motions for me to get started. I sit beside him like I sit beside the others Toda takes me to, and place my hands upon his arm. I close my eyes and imagine ivy springing from my fingertips, growing into Michael’s body, his lifeless arms and legs. Aunt Toda says my hands are magic. She makes me believe they contain rivers and clouds, valleys and colorful birds, someone else’s destiny. I sit in the silent room while Toda gossips and smokes in the kitchen with the family, drinks thick Turkish coffee from little gold cups. When we leave, Michael’s father hands Toda a slab of bloody lamb wrapped in brown paper and a fat envelope stuffed with dollars.
Whenever we return to Michael’s, it’s the same routine. Toda forces tea down his throat, mutters a prayer, and leaves me alone in the room. Michael never looks at me, or talks, just stares at the Cleveland Plain Dealer illuminated above. Sometimes, after I’m done, Toda and I have baklava and sweet black tea in the kitchen with Michael’s parents. Toda shows me how to read signs from tea leaves and Turkish coffee grounds. I drain my sugary tea, tip the cup over like her, and spin it three times. I turn it back up, stare into the bottom. The patterns of tiny clumps look like a dancing man, a greenish black heart, a furry monster, and a bird. She predicts I’ll have five children, and a rich husband from the Old Country who won’t beat me. She says nothing about our father coming back or if our mother will get better again.
It’s morning and my mother has been up all night pacing the floors. (When did the pacing start? Was it the day of Medusa? Was it the day I was born?) She gets ready for bed when the rest of the world is waking. Rachel is reading in our room, and I am in the bathroom watching my mother take a bubble bath. I’ve made a picture for her of a mother horse and its little brown colt. I hold on to it, a scroll rolled up and tied with ribbon, waiting for the right moment to give her the gift.
She lowers her languid body one limb at a time into the steaming tub, luxuriating beneath the lime-green foam. I sit on the damp floor and listen to her hum. The night before, I could hear her conversing angrily with someone who wasn’t there while Aida played on the stereo. (Or was it La Bohème, the scene when Mimi dies in Rodolfo’s arms? For every memory about her there is a melody hidden inside my brain.) After her bath, the moment never quite comes to give her the picture, so I stick it in a drawer. Later, someone is reading to me from Through the Looking Glass. My mother? My sister? Alice is lost in a garden of talking flowers.
“O Tiger-lily,” says Alice. “I wish you could talk!”
“We can talk,” says the flower, “when there’s anybody worth talking to.” The radio is on low while my mother naps in her bed. It’s still summer vacation, so Rachel and I run over to our grandparents’ to play in their yard. In the garden, my sister reads while I pretend I’m a bee. I sip nectar from honeysuckles and fly around the yard. I pluck little plums, split them open, scoop out the pits, and pop them in my mouth. When I’m outside I can hear singing. It’s the wind but I hear music too—arias, the trembling of leaves, mourning doves and sparrows, melodies my mother plays on the piano. Everything else is background noise—the Vietnam War and race riots, all the sick people Aunt Toda wants me to heal, my mother’s night voices, her despair. Lately a book called In Cold Blood distresses her. She says things like, “You never know who’s going to try to kill you when you’re asleep.” Or, “There are men with guns who watch you at night,” which she will continue to say for years to come. I block out her voice and listen to the mockingbird and chickadee, the goldfinch up above.
I spy a volunteer lily that has sprung up in the middle of the backyard. Light glows from the inside of the flower—maybe it’s the way the sun falls on it, maybe it’s magic, either way I am struck dumb by its radiance. Is there a fairy inside the bloom? Has it come to take me away, to leave another in my place? I tear the bloom apart to see where the light is coming from, to see what’s inside—sepal, anther, stigma, stamen. The flower smells sickly sweet; a lush river of seeds, sticky and pungent, clings to my hands. I press the petals to my face and cover my nose with pollen, then squish what’s left of the flower into my pocket.
When Rachel and I return home after dinner, I run into my mother’s room to show her what I have found. She’s lying on her side, her face to the wall. There are tiny drops of blood on the sheet; one of her arms is covered in gauze. I tap her back with my little hand. I am always afraid she will die. “Mommy? Mommy?”
“Leave me alone,” she says. “Let me sleep.”
“Look, look what I found.”
She slowly turns around, the color drained from her face. “What is it?”
I pull the wilted flower from my pocket and place it in her hand. She sighs and lets the petals, now stained red, fall to the floor. “It said ‘hello’ to me,” I say. “The flower said hello.”
When school starts up in September I enter the first grade. One day our teacher, Mrs. Atzberger, announces we are going to have show-and-tell. Mrs. Atzberger is big and loud and not at all like my kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Bemis. She tells us to get out the special things we brought from home. Each child clutches a small treasure—a Barbie doll, a stuffed bear, a little red car, a portrait of Jesus, a Cleveland Indians baseball cap. I hold my prize in a brown paper bag. One by one the children talk about their things. When it’s my turn I stand petrified in front of the class, bag in hand. Mrs. Atzberger tells me to show-and-tell what I have brought. I can’t speak. I haven’t brought a toy, a bear, or a blue-eyed Jesus. I have made a grave mistake. “Open it,” the teacher barks. I slowly lift a small dead sparrow, decaying in its nest, and hold it out to show the class.
Mrs. Atzberger’s face contorts in rage. “What is that?” she demands.
“Throw it away!”
I want to say to her and the other children that it’s a bird, and that it isn’t dead, it’s only sleeping, and that after I found it beneath a tree I put it on my windowsill by my bed so I could watch it change every day, and that the nest had soft green moss in it and little bits of colored string, and that the bird is magical, and how do they know that I can’t raise something from the dead? Who says I can’t save someone’s life?
My mother is summoned to school to meet with my teacher but she never shows up. The event is forgotten. I’m a good student, quiet and dutiful, and when we have show-and-tell the next time I bring in one of my three toys, Pony, my beautiful plastic horse. My mother gets invitations to PTA meetings and open houses at school but never RSVPs. She is just the signature, sometimes neat, sometimes wobbly, at the bottom of my report cards from school. My mother is the mother no one sees—at least not yet. Behind the house on West 148th, we each have our favorite things. Grandpa fusses over his tea roses, especially the red ones. He gently plucks Japanese beetles off their leaves each morning and drowns them in a jar of soapy water. He is proud of his fruit trees and has one of each: apple, plum, peach, and pear. Grandpa wears a sleeveless tee and baggy tan pants when he’s working in the garden, his belt loose around his waist. He clenches a cigarette between his teeth as he bends over the bed with his clippers and trowel. I watch and learn. “Dead heads no good,” he says, and shows me how to clip off brown leaves and dying blooms. How to pinch back the parsley, prune a rose’s long thorny stems.
In spring I help Grandpa clean the beds and plant tiny seeds in rows. When shoots start pushing up through the soil, I weed the beds for hours. I am a good girl; Rachel doesn’t like to weed, she is bad. It’s as simple as that. In the summer, Grandpa takes us to pick yellow peppers on a farm somewhere in the hot sun. I like driving out of the city, the way the factories disappear and turn to rolling hills and fields of waving corn. I love the scent of earth when I’m pulling peppers off tough green stems. I stack the peppers in a basket and count them at the end of the day while Grandpa supervises, a can of Budweiser in one hand, cigarette in the other. He is waiting for my sister to make a mistake. I want him to think she is good. Things would be easier if he did. She planted a sunflower seed in the hard rocky yard out back of our apartment and it grew six feet tall but he doesn’t care. He doesn’t care that she teaches our new friend Stephanie, and Patty and me how to write poems in the basement at the house on West 148th. She writes one about seasons on a cracked blackboard on the wood-paneled wall: “Winter, Spring, Summer, Fall / These are seasons count them all / One, two, three, four.” We recite the poem together, then write it down. Rachel checks for our mistakes. My grandfather yells down into the basement, “What you girls doing down there? Smarties spoil the party!”
Rachel starts a secret club and we meet each week under the magnolia tree, and even though she’s the only one allowed to be president we don’t care because none of us wants the job. Grandpa calls her a little cunt, bitch, whore, words we don’t know the meaning of yet. But she gives us new words—poems and stories, and a phrase no one else can know except the members of our club: “Red snake over the green grass.”
My sister and I make things in the garden—pictures, stories, garlands of flowers for our hair. We write secret comic books together, a series called Grumps. I draw pictures of our grandfather leaning over the table, slurping up food with his hands. I draw him belching, farting, guzzling whiskey and beer, throwing chairs at us with expletives shooting from his mouth. I feel bad about the comics, but they make my sister and grandmother laugh.
Grandma only loves the garden when our grandfather isn’t there. She waters the lawn to get out of the house. She smokes Benson & Hedges beneath the magnolia tree after Grandpa whips her across the face with his belt for looking at him the wrong way. She smokes outside when he’s inside doing shots while rolling out filo dough and making his thick Bulgarian yogurt. She’d love for him to disappear so she could sit among the flowers, quiet and alone, with a tall glass of lemonade, a cigarette, and a slice of pecan pie.
“Hey, did ya watch today? I can’t believe she’d go marry that son-of-abitch,” my grandma shouts across the bed of roses to Mrs. Bente. Grandma and Edna Bente love the soaps—As the World Turns, General Hospital, Days of Our Lives.
“You don’t know what I have here,” she tells Edna, shaking her head and sucking in smoke.
Mrs. Bente invites my grandma over when Grandpa is on the rampage. She invites me in too, offers me milk and cookies and tells me jokes in her living room beneath the portrait of her dead husband, Al, who used to swing me around by my arms before he died. Mrs. Bente grows neat little rows of marigolds, snapdragons, and petunias. Her door is always open when I need a place to hide.
When my mother comes with us to visit our grandparents for the occasional Sunday dinner, she likes to go to the garden to smoke. Sometimes she walks in circles, taking quick puffs from her cigarette, talking to herself. The sunlight illumines her face; she looks beatific beneath the trees. She wears a sexy dress and high heels in the garden, sometimes a little scarf for color, red lipstick, and a dab of Tabu. Of all the things in the yard, my mother loves the trees most of all. They are giant green umbrellas; she can spread a blanket beneath the old blue spruce, sit and close her eyes, smoke her cigarettes, and rest. The shadow of the tree is soothing; her dark brown curls blend into the bark, making her disappear into the tree. Years later, when she is homeless, she will make charts of trees from all over the world. She’ll send me children’s books about the little animals that live inside them: squirrels, sparrows, chipmunks, and bugs. Even squirrels have a home to live in, she wrote me once on a McDonald’s bag from a Greyhound bus station. Even birds have a place to sleep.
Some Sundays, Grandpa takes me to Saint Theodosius, his green oniondomed church on Starkweather Avenue, not too far from the West Side Market where he buys his kashkaval and freshly butchered lamb. Inside the church, Saint Theodosius is luminous and foreboding in candlelight, walls covered with bloody saints and gold. My mother doesn’t like that my grandfather takes me there. She says the priest would like to murder all the Jews. My grandma can’t stand Grandpa’s church either, or any other. When she’s not working in the credit office at Acorn Chemical Company, she shuffles around in pink floppy slippers, hand on hip, cigarette hanging from her pink, pouty lips. She carries a little notepad in the pocket of her housecoat that hangs below her knees. She is two inches shy of five feet and everything she wears looks too long. Grandma writes down phrases by Trotsky, Lenin, and Marx and pulls them out as needed. “Religion is the opiate of the people!” she says, squinting behind Coke-bottle glasses.
At the eastern end of Saint Theodosius is a wall of icons rising up to the ceiling, the iconostasis—the golden wall separating sanctuary from nave. In the center is the “Beautiful Gate” through which only the priest and clergy can pass. People cry in front of the pictures and pray. The wall is a door between this world and the next, between sinners and the Incarnate God, His Mother, the angels, and the saints. In the church, there are deep voices chanting, incense and candles, and glowing things in every dark mysterious corner. What is on the other side of the golden wall? What do the pictures mean? Can a painting save a person’s life?
I’m at our grandparents’, sitting on the couch with my mother, listening to the radio drone on about how many soldiers are dying. I learn the word amputee and hobble around, pretending I am wounded in the jungles of Vietnam. Everywhere I go I hear about kids who’ve lost their fathers in the war. It’s on the radio and television, in the Plain Dealer and the Life magazine that gets delivered to the house. Is my father there too? My mother listens to the news while I stare at the pictures in Life of corpses in mass graves, hippies holding flowers out to soldiers in tanks. I’ve been Aunt Toda’s apprentice for months now and haven’t healed a single man, woman, or child and I’ve yet to see a miracle in the church with the big green dome. I pray in front of the golden wall every time my grandfather and I go, but nothing happens. Everyone I’m supposed to heal is still sick or dead. I’d rather watch The Monkees on TV or play Pioneer Days in the backyard with Rachel and Patty than sit beside people suffering from cancer, heart disease, arthritis, and stroke. It’s hot and my thighs stick to the thick plastic covering Grandma puts on all the furniture for protection. The furniture is old but she keeps the plastic on anyway. “Someday everything will be nice and new,” she says, “just like in House Beautiful.” My mother sits smoking, staring into space. “Catatonic,” the doctors have recently decided. Every time she’s admitted to the hospital, they give her shock treatment and a different diagnosis: Disassociative. Antisocial. Manic-depressive. Delusional. Psychotic. Paranoid schizophrenic. Hysterical. Mad. The kids in the neighborhood call her a drunk.
I take my mother’s hand in mine. Her hands are cold, even in summer. Her latest obsession is the Jewish military leader, Moshe Dayan. She keeps a picture of him by her bed and takes it out from time to time to stare at it; she has conversations with him in her head. He wears a black patch over one eye just like I wore when I was five. I have no idea who he is but I think he’s a Nazi because his smile looks evil. There’s talk of my mother getting shock therapy yet again, of zapping the sick part right out of her head. She sits in silence, her ear tilted to news about massacres, jungles going up in flames. She smokes one cigarette after another. I picture my breath going into her body like a flowing river, a river of light, flowers, and vines.
My grandparents have only one plant in their house, a spindly pathos with heart-shaped leaves that hangs over the kitchen sink from a small brass pot that can barely contain its twenty-year roots. Grandma pours leftover coffee in it sometimes, old tea and juice. When my mother comes over, the place looks like a bar—there are three people smoking eight to nine packs of cigarettes a day between them. How does that plant keep on growing? Sometimes I picture it creeping from its pot, slinking along the floor across the living room to my mother, growing into her mouth, filling her heart and lungs with leaves, wrapping its tendrils around her bones.
“I have to tell you something important,” she says.
“Don’t drink milk before going to bed.”
“Because rats like milk.”
“A rat will eat your face off if it smells milk. And Myra?”
“You girls are my most precious possessions.”
“Promise me you’ll never leave.”
“I promise,” I say.
Years later, in one of her diaries, she will write: The same unhappy anxious dream as always: I am still young and have small children. The girls are ahead of me walking too fast. I don’t want them to leave. I try to call out their names but no sound comes from me. I have fear of radiation and cannot talk. The girls disappear. They always disappear in my dreams.
One autumn day, when Toda and I go to Michael’s house, everyone is in a hurry. People rush around carrying things; someone wipes his forehead while a nurse hooks him up to a big white machine. Michael’s eyes always look vacant but this time he stares right at me, like he finally knows who I am. There’s the smell of incense and beeswax burning, the smell of cloves. Toda mutters prayers over his body, tells me to go away. Michael is dying— why should I go away now? People from the church arrive, short ladies in black babushkas who don’t speak English, talking too loudly for the quiet dark room of a sick man. A woman blows her nose into a handkerchief at the foot of the bed.
“Go outside and play!” Toda insists, pushing me out of the room. There is no place to go, just a busy street with a tiny front yard. It’s chilly outside and it’s begun to snow. I kick stones down the driveway. I wish my sister were here. We could make games, or sing something from The Monkees, like “Another Pleasant Valley Sunday” or a song from a Broadway show. These people don’t even have a tree. More cars pull into the driveway, men slam doors, women kiss each other’s cheeks and give advice, cry and blow their noses, drink endless cups of thick black Turkish coffee. I sit on the stoop and wait.
At the funeral, the priest chants and glides toward Michael’s casket; his white and gold robes form a great sparkling bell. The crowd parts to let him pass. He stands over Michael’s long thin body and blesses him with holy water, then says a prayer as he swings the silver censer back and forth like a pendulum. The smell of burning spices makes me dizzy. I’ve never seen a dead body before. I had seen dead birds before and once saw three dead rabbits, but never a man lying face-up, like a mannequin in a box.
Toda leans over and kisses Michael’s forehead. “Now you,” she says.
“You kiss him. Don’t worry, I help you up.”
“Kiss him! People are waiting, now kiss!”
I start to back away but feel my body lifted off the ground. Toda’s big leathery hands are around my waist and she has me pinned against the casket. She pushes my head down so my nose touches Michael’s. Pee is trickling down my legs. I can feel everyone staring.
“Kiss him,” says Toda. “Do as I say.”
She hisses something in Bulgarian and pushes me down again. I squirm and kick. I can hear people whispering in the crowd. I’m afraid they will crush me or shove me into the coffin, slam the box shut, and that’ll be that. The line of mourners goes on forever, winding around the corner into the sanctuary of the church. Finally, I slip out of Toda’s sweaty grip and shove my way through the crowd to the door. I heave it open and run around to the back of the church. I pause beneath a crabapple tree and look for a place to hide. But here, in the world of the living, there is only the cold rainy street, the city beyond the hill, the impenetrable sky.
After Michael died that fall, our mother was sent to CPI, Cleveland Psychiatric Institute. She had stayed up several nights in a row, walking back and forth down the street in the rain, shouting about some man in California who she said raped her when she was nineteen. “I just want what’s due me,” she said. “That bastard has to pay up.” When she made cuts all the way up her arms, my grandma finally called the police. “What will people think?” was my grandma’s constant refrain.
I visit her in the psych ward with my grandma. At first we can’t find her, but then we see her in a corner of the common room, dressed in a nightgown, smoking and talking to herself, a television game show blaring nearby. Grandma and I start to approach her, but are intercepted by a young woman with greasy long dark hair. “Did you bring me something? What’d you bring?” the woman shouts. She looks right at me. I grab my grandma’s hand. “Who invited you to the party, bitch?”
An elderly white nurse is passing out tiny cups of pills and water. Another nurse, a hefty black woman, doles out cigarettes, one to a patient, then lights them. The nurse with the cigarettes is in earshot. She turns her head. “Hey, you little slut,” says the dark-haired woman. “Where’s my money?” The woman is coming straight toward me. “Where’s my fuckin’ money?” The black nurse puts the tray down and walks in long strides over to us. She places her hands on her hips and stands in front of the woman, blocking her path. The dark-haired woman backs off, cowering, and shuffles back to her chair.
Grandma and I go up to my mother and I hug her carefully, as if she were made of glass. She looks up, then quickly looks away, like she is looking for someone who didn’t come.
“He says . . . he says . . . They tie you down here,” she says. “They use microphones, camera tricks.”
“I made you some pictures,” I say.
“Where are my cigarettes? Where’s Rachel? You’ve got to get me out of here.”
I offer her a stack of drawings—bunnies, flowers, horses and dinosaurs, Snoopy and Charlie Brown. For years to come I will make pictures and bring them to the hospital, but her smile, when she sees them, will be ever so brief. My mother ignores the pictures, takes a quick puff on her cigarette. She is trembling and cold. How can I stop her from shaking? I wish I had painted a tiny icon she could wear around her neck—a golden saint lifted up by birds or a Madonna with a wreath of flowers around her head.
“Where’s your sister? You kids have got to get me out of here. They’re poisoning my food. Did someone kidnap Rachel? They’re killing me in this place.”
I wish I had made a towering wall of luminous saints and flowers, a hundred vats of rosewater, a thousand pots of magic tea.
She tells me they’re going to perform a lobotomy on her and take out her womb. “It’s common knowledge they sterilize the poor.”
“Get ahold of yourself, Norma. You don’t know what I have to contend with,” my grandma tells her daughter, who is rocking back and forth. “It’s hard enough with that bastard, and now I got the girls. If you know what’s good for you, you’ll behave.”
“Give me a cigarette. I’m dying here,” my mother says. “The cheapskates only give you three a day.”
Later, I’m in the garden with Rachel. I don’t want to tell her about the hospital, the zombies in pajamas, the nurses with their long trays of pills. All that suffocating smoke, the windows with bars, the crazy lady going after me. Instead, I open and close the mouth of a yellow snapdragon, pretending it can talk. We are putting on a play using snapdragons as characters. The cast is made of tiny lions; the cluster of colorful stones and violets by our feet is our stage. We are the Queens of the Flowers, rulers of earth and sky. My sister will make up stories with anything at hand. She can’t help herself—a bunch of wilting daisies, a rotten apple, a caterpillar, or a rock. Outside we can do anything, be anything at all. When we finish our play we run fast holding hands across the three adjoining yards, our grandparents’, the Bentes’, and the Budds’. We run out behind the row of spruce and pine trees, out to the fields and woods to no-man’s-land.
We would like to keep running and running away. She could write stories and I would paint pictures and explore the world. We could travel to France or maybe to the Amazon. We could live in the jungle or Paris or London or maybe someplace in Africa where people eat breadfruit and antelope meat. We don't want to be martyrs or priests, doctors or saints. We would like to be wolf pups or birds. We would like to be fast horses. We want to be all the flowers of the field. How far can we go in this stretch of tall grass and goldenrod? How far in this forest of fragrant trees?
What People are Saying About This
Meet the Author
Mira Bartok is a Chicago-born artist and writer and the author of twenty-eight books for children. Her writing has appeared in several literary journals and anthologies and has been noted in the Best American Essays series.
Hillary Huber is a multiple Audie Award finalist, an AudioFile Earphones Award winner, and an AudioFile Best Voice. She has recorded close to three hundred titles, spanning many genres.
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I have been reading books of this genre, perhaps searching for a way to reconcile my own feeling towards my own mother and her mental illness. I have read Glass Castles, Hopes Boy and now The Memory Palace. Well written, I literally "felt" this book. In the end Ms. Bartok gave me a gift, the ability to accept, understand and let go. Thank you.
There have been a number of reviews that discuss the content of The Memory Palace, which is indeed rich with the story of struggle, of survival, and of finding one's way out of a quandary that is as difficult as any brought to Solomon. How does a person navigate a life away from, yet intertwined with, a damaged, gifted, brilliant mother who surely loves you? Bartok shows us her navigation through murky nightmares of living with a profoundly mentally ill loved one. She shows her heart rending decision to let her mother go; those of us who have experienced similar decisions marvel at her courage. The way in which Bartok manages to keep a loose tether to her mother, while creating a full artistic life for herself is one the strongest aspects of this book. The other thing that makes this an outstanding book is its structure, one that requires the reader to look beyond the surface of the book. Bartok's illustrations, and chapters beginning with her mother's letters are deftly juxtaposed with the narrative of her own travails and travels. There are points at which the narrative abruptly changes, and for a moment you think that that you might have missed something. I find this one of the book's strengths. One of the brilliant parts of the book, the occasional abrupt change of scene where people and places seem to disappear from the narrative, is clearly one of the books strengths, marking it as a work of literature. I see this occasional disjointedness as a literary technique, a brilliant one. I love this aspect of the narrative, for the few missing pieces seem to mimic the disjointed nature of the writer's life and the literal dislocations described in the book. Also, it seems to me that the style of writing perhaps mirrors Bartok's cognitive processes while recovering from her traumatic brain injury. Now, I could be reading a bit into this, but there is something of the abruptness of the change, of scene, of work, of lovers, of lands, that in technique, mimics what is happening in the writer's life. This is an important book. This is a brilliant book, and while completely different in terms of genre, it reminds me of some of the best contemporary long poems wherein the occasional gap and juxtaposition makes the work enjoyable and memorable. Read the book; savor it; ruminate over it after you are done. A wonderful read!
It is inexcusable how the author and her sister abandoned their mentally ill mother to pursue their own interests. Norma, their mother, pleaded for help, but they changed their names and kept their addresses a secret. They had no contact with their mother for 17 years. Mira questioned her mother's whereabouts, what she was wearing in the cold, where she was living, what she was eating - but she never came in contact with her, even the day she went incognito to the home Norma was living. She wanted to see the home, but not her mother. It was not until her mother was dying in hospice that the author and her sister finally came to spend time during their mother's last days. This book, although very well written, was more like a novel. I did not need a history lesson of the different places Mira went to live. The book brought tears to my eyes of how selfish and self-centered two daughters can be and how they can toss their mother aside when she so desperately needed moral and physical support.
I had never heard of a Memory Palace before and found that the title for this book fits perfectly. A Memory Palace is created by creating an Escher like space in your brain to link memories to pictures. Mira Bartok uses her mentally ill mother's belongings and journals to create a Palace and takes you through her childhood based on the objects of her mother that are found in a storage container. This memoir is probably one of the best I have ever read and I am amazed that the author keeps a sense of humor, honor and dignity while relating this tale. Bartok's mother has suffered with schizophrenia for all of her life and after the author and her sister move out and her home is sold, she spirals downward into homelessness. No matter how much Mira and her sister try to get their mother help, it never works. This becomes so heartbreaking and the grief is evident and yet, Mira tries again and again. When that fails, the girls move away, leave no forwarding address and change their names to escape the nightmare their mother has become. They do reunite when her mother is on her death bed. I really recommend this one and while it is a difficult read at times, it is worth the effort. I received this book from the publisher at no charge for my honest review.
Mira Bartok uses her lyrical prose, keen sense of wonder and detail, and gorgeous artwork to describe her heartbreaking story of life with a beautiful, brilliant, but deeply mentally ill mother. The achingly delicate balance she strikes between fear, love, and compassion will stay with you as you savor every word of her story. This is a complicated told in a loving and understanding way. Beautiful!!
This book is a tough one. If you cannot tolerate reading the in depth story of abuse, then move on. I read these not so much for what happened as to how they survived. To get thru to the other side and survive it all.
To those lamenting Bartok "abandoning" her mother and passing judgement, you obviously read this book for entertainment purposes. It must have been nice to come home after school and find cookies and milk waiting for you. After being beat up and ruthlessly tormented by classmates, I came home to a mother crushing her head between her hands screaming for the brainwashing waves to stop. The only safe place I had was a shelf in a linen closet. You may call it abandonment, I call it survival and commend Bartok for her resiliency.
This book beautifully explains what it's like to live with a severely mentally ill family member. Each person copes differently in order to survive. I feel less alone after reading it and am thankful to the author for writing it. I've recommended this book to every person that has asked what schizophrenia is really like.
This is a disturbing story of the wreckage mental illness has on the lives involved. The emotional toll that this family experiences is frightening. There is no help or hope for those exposed and the emotional damages are permanent. A mother and two little girls walk through a nightmare called life.
It is a story of enduring love and devotion, which although sometimes brought into question, was always evident. Mira begins this memoir in her voice as the child, Myra, her real name. The prose is lyrical, almost poetic at times, and it makes you feel comfortable. There were moments when you could almost feel as if you were a witness to the events, as in the final scene of her mother Norma's dying days, which had a great emotional impact. There were other times, however, when there was an absence of the emotional tug that would make you feel completely captivated. With the help of her mother's diaries and other memorabilia that she has found in a UHaul storage facility, Mira has reconstructed the shattered remnants of the many lives that influenced her growing up. Using fragments of her own memories and recollections that stem from paintings and drawings she once presented to her mom, plus sentences from letters she and/or her mom wrote to each other long ago, during the long period of their separation (17 years), Mira opens a window onto the world of neglect and abuse that was her childhood and allows us to glimpse the sadness and chaos that surrounded her life. Always ready to protect herself from her mother's voyages into her fantasies, she is constantly on guard, but also, she is ever mindful of her mother's needs and the "absence of her actual presence", in her life. Abandoned by their father, raised by a schizophrenic mother forgotten by society, surrounded by superstitious and abusive relatives ashamed of Norma's mental illness, Mira and her sister (Natalia, aka Rachel) muddled through their lives until their mother's violence forced them to abandon her, move away and assume new identities. After a catastrophic car accident leaves Mira with her own brain injury involving memory loss and confusion, Mira begins her own journey back to "normal". In trying to reconstruct her life and its memories which have been lost, admitting that some memories may or may not be parts of her real memory, she tries to create a palace in her mind of rooms filled with memories that will trigger others and make her past life more complete. Like her mother, now she has difficulties remembering, but she is strongly attached to the real world and her mother is not. The bonds between herself and her mom were never severed completely, but they were distant and charged with fear and resentment because of her mom's erratic and dangerous stalking behavior. Perhaps she had to run away.perhaps her sister did too, but perhaps they could have done more, while they were gone, to guarantee their mother's safety, rather than simply think it was the responsibility of the state to take care of her and, therefore, justify their own escape. We can not really know the answer having not walked in those shoes, and surely it would be better if there were services available to help people in such devastating circumstances. The one thing that was completely obvious, throughout the telling of the memoir, was the deep bond between Norma, the mother, and Myra, the child, and even Norma the daughter and her own mother as well, who cared for her, albeit resentfully sometimes, until she was no longer physically or mentally able. That bond between mother and child was never broken.
Thoroughly enjoyed this book. As someone in the field of mental health I loved how Mira Bartok illustrated the complexities of how mental illness can impact the family system and an individual's life. Beautifully told.
Mira has spent most of her adult life hiding from her schizophrenic homeless mother when she gets a call through a friend that her mother is in the hospital dying of stomach cancer. When she finds a key to a storage locker that her mother rents, she finds artifacts from her childhood and memories start flooding back. With this memoir Mira has written a captivating story of a childhood filled with hope and fear. She reads from her mother's journals and opens the reader's eyes to what it is like to live in such a world. This is a book of love and forgiveness and finding truth. I recommend you keep a box of tissues close by.
The Memory Palace is brilliant and also an amazing piece of writing. Spiritual, inspirational, beautiful, and heart-wrenching, I can only say what an incredible book it is. Mira is one of two sisters challenged by their schizophrenic, yet brilliant mother, Norma. Mira and her sister are resourceful, thoughtful, angry at times and forgiving. They are fabulously resilient. Mira does her best to portray her mother's brilliant, intense side and makes it clear that that coincided with her mental illness. This is a remarkable, provocative, stimulating book.
A truly honestly heartfelt story, i loved reading this and have recommended it to several friends.
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