As a fifteen-year old, I found a battered paperback on my grandma’s piano. Hungry for anything to read, I devoured it cover to cover. I laughed, and I cried, and I never forgot Erma Bombeck’s If Life is a Bowl of Cherries, What am I Doing in the Pits?
As I delved into Kristen Hansen Brakeman’s debut memoir, Is That the Shirt You’re Wearing?, I experienced the same feels. Like Bombeck, feigning no pretense, Brakeman celebrates the highs, the lows, and the many places in-between as a sandwich generation mom of teens and an aging mother.
A long-time humor writer, Brakeman has finally combined her favorite essays, a slew of new material and a series of journal entries written over the course of two summers which take the reader on a roller coaster ride every mother in America can relate to. It’s great having the kids home for summer. It’s a nightmare having the kids home for summer. We all know that feeling, and Brakeman’s humor reminds us we’re normal, not evil.
Brakeman’s writing is at once smart, sharp and poignant. While describing her husband’s frightening battle with Prostate Cancer, we follow Kristen from the Millie and Mike Hersch Family Surgical Center, to get a drink from the Samuel G. Weiss water fountain, out to the Wilt Family Garden where she sits on the Nathan and Ruth Diamond bench waiting for her husband to come out of surgery. Like Bombeck, Brakeman has the ability to make us laugh, even in the toughest times.
Brakeman’s penchant for confessions draws us in. We know the college fund was used to resurface the pool and erect the neighborhood’s finest fence. We know she barely made it a week gluten-free after her daughter was diagnosed with Celiac Disease. And we know she avoids her mother, ruined Facebook and is annoyingly thin. Yet we love her anyway. Brakeman’s honesty allows us to exhale and accept our own inadequacies as spouses, parents, caregivers and just plain old human beings. We follow Brakeman down her riotous rabbit holes because we, too, live insane lives.
Although there is plenty of hilarity in the stories of her girls finding her high school year books, shopping at Hollister, and subbing on her husband’s softball team, some of the most striking moments come when Brakeman writes about her aging mother. Somehow Brakeman is able to convey the guilt, joy, relief, dread, beauty and fear that seem to accompany loving aging parents. One minute we’re laughing as Brakeman expresses frustration that her mom won’t call the cable company because the customer service rep might have an accent. In the next, we’re in awe of Brakeman’s patience as she takes her mother to visit an old friend in a retirement community.
Brakeman gently reminds us that life moves too quickly to have regrets. Let the kids do the laundry, mute the phone in the event Mom calls, and treat yourself to Is That the Shirt You’re Wearing? Who knows? If Brakeman’s first book sells enough copies, maybe she can write her second from the Kristen Hansen Brakeman bench in her local library.
Is That the Shirt You’re Wearing? by Kristen Hansen Brakeman, published May 5, 2017, Tidal Press $17.98.