A Son Looks Back on Life With an Irascible and Beloved Mother

A Son’s Memoir
By Brian Morton

People are constantly changing on us. For writers, this gnarly fact of human nature is one we wrestle with on the page. We want to do justice to those we write about, yet our perception of them is ever shifting. The empathic imagination develops over the course of a lifetime. The young writer might be unforgiving, more willing to take potshots; the older writer may have learned a thing or two about the way life shapes us as water shapes stone.

Brian Morton, a gifted, compassionate novelist, has, over the course of five elegant novels, explored the moral complexity inherent in storytelling. How do we reconcile the frisson of ruthlessness we feel when we’re on to a good story with the fact that there are other people involved in that story? In his third novel, “A Window Across the River,” a young writer muses: “The stories she did try to publish were those in which she turned the magnifying glass on herself, or on her parents, who were safely dead.”

But are the dead ever safely dead? “Tasha,” Morton’s sixth book and first memoir, is about the final years of his mother, the titular Tasha, who has been a vexing, challenging figure all his life. She has also been something of a muse. In his most recent novel, the glorious “Florence Gordon,” the 75-year-old central character is described as “a strong, proud, independent-minded woman who accepted being old but nevertheless felt essentially young. She was also, in the opinion of many who knew her, even in the opinion of many who loved her, a complete pain in the neck.”

These words could describe Tasha, and then some. Irritable, a glutton for attention, stubborn as hell, Tasha gives good copy, as they say. She reminds me of my own mother, who after falling face-flat on the sidewalk in her late 70s, greeted me in the emergency room by asking: “Is there blood on my Ungaro?” and then, eyes glinting, followed up with “You can’t use that.” (I’m using it, Mom.)

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