By Gale Walden
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Due to her father’s early onset of Alzheimer disease, author Tanya Ward Goodman is dealing with caring for her parent before she has her first child. She is reverse parenting in reverse order. In some ways, the topsy-turvy is not completely foreign to Tanya, who grew up in Tinkertown, a quirky museum near Albuquerque, conceived and built by her father, Ross (or Roscoe) Ward, who was a visionary of the whimsical.
But this is Alzheimer’s that Ross, at 55, has been diagnosed with—while humor occasionally makes an appearance within the disease, whimsy does not—and when Tanya moves back into the museum in which she was raised, the incongruence seems almost too much. At one point in the narrative, almost everyone is taking antidepressants amidst the “workings of Tinkertown” where “carefully bent wire hangers, pulleys made from strips cut from old inner tubes, and wooden thread spools along with dozens of sewing machines bring all the figures to life.”
Yet, against all odds, this is not a depressing memoir—it’s more of a testament to the power of women and the ways they can take not only of the man they love, but also of his memory. In addition to Tanya, Ross’s mother, Rose, also moves back home from Aberdeen, South Dakota, to help care for her son again before ending up in a nursing home with Alzheimer’s herself.
One of the most vivid characters in this memoir is La, Tanya’s stepmother, a woman who helped raise her, after Tanya chose to stay with her divorced father. Tanya recognizes the strengths she has been given from La, who is the realist in a family of dreamers. She is no saint and not always likeable, but it is clear Tanya respects and loves her. It’s incredibly refreshing to see “the stepmother” portrayed in a way that is not a caricature, but as a complex person, and to be given a place, not only in the story, but in Tanya’s life: “Thanks to my mother, I have the ability to identify plants and discern a raven from a crow (the raven is bigger and looks blue in the sun). From La, I get my drive to action, my need to fix things. These forces brought me to New Mexico.”
New Mexico itself is a force in the memoir: “On bad days,” Tanya says, “the wind picks up and blows tumbleweeds, dust, and empty paper cups across the roads, filling the sky with a brown dirt haze. But on good days, when the sun is out the sky is the clean blue of a robin’s egg, I can think of no place I’d rather be.” The west is almost a character itself in the memoir—Tanya moves from Albuquerque to LA and back again, and the adage “you can’t go home again,” is tested multiple times.
Why Tanya, as a youth, chose to stay with her father in Tinkertown when her parents divorced is not explored fully, and that might be understandable, given that her mother is still alive; one of the admirable things about this memoir is that it refuses to throw anybody under the bus. It doesn’t completely sugarcoat either; Roscoe’s drinking is noted, although not dwelled upon. Tanya’s brother, Jason, has a tendency to disappear when the going gets tough, but everyone’s good qualities are rendered also. The author’s ethics and balance in trying to be honest and yet not hurt her family is visible and admirable.
One vision I did want to see more clearly was Tinkertown itself. The museum is a backdrop, a mission, a steadying force in this particular life, and, for someone who has never been there, it is difficult to visualize or to figure out what exactly it looked like, (even though there are some pictures), so for the reader who hasn’t been there, you might be left with enough curiosity to go.
But Tinkertown, as metaphor, that place where we all leave slowly when we marry or have children, or when we start to care physically for the people who have raised us, is a place that is more familiar, as is the reluctance to leave it.
Gale Walden lives in Urbana, Illinois, with her 15-year old daughter, Zella, and their dog, Junebug, and is currently writing a memoir.
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