Cathleen Schine: They May Not Mean To, But They Do


I’m not normally a fan of American family dramas, but I did enjoy this one.

Joy, 86, is the carer for her husband Aaron who has dementia. Aaron flits in and out of his old charming self, one minute singing hymns, old vaudeville songs or bits of Purcell, the next fretting and nagging and asking the same question over and over:

‘If you ask me that one more time I’m putting a bag over your head,’ she said mildly.

Aaron brought his face down to the teacup and took a sip, then looked fondly at his wife.  He pointed to the cup of almost colourless liquid. ‘Join me, sweetheart?’

He began to sing in his once clear voice, now heavy and hoarse.

‘Tea for two, me for you…’

He sang pleasantly to himself while Joy fetched herself a cup of tea, and they sat looking out at the traffic’s red brake lights, something they’d both always found festive as the evening drew in. (7)

Aaron and Joy’s long shared life is beautifully created. Close as they are to their two children, they’re a unit that doesn’t really need anyone else. When Aaron dies, Daniel and Molly step in to manage and protect Joy, and on one level she seems to need it – she’s dishevelled, eating badly, and her apartment is a shambles. But she isn’t demented. She’s mourning in her own way. Why do her children want to protect her from something so normal? And why do the children become the judges of what’s appropriate, as in this case when Joy’s relationship with an old admirer seems to be developing into something more?

They may not mean to, but they do is very neatly turned round from a judgment of our parents to a judgment of us as children.  How often well-meaning children decide their parents are big babies who need protection from themselves. Here’s to an old age in which you can do all the stupid things you want, just the way you’ve always done.


9 thoughts on “Cathleen Schine: They May Not Mean To, But They Do

  1. I can see why you’ve singled out this novel, Gert, a piece to tickle your fancy as well as tug at the heartstrings. Though the title is a bit of a mouthful it seems to encapsulate what your fine overview is more than hinting at.

          1. You clearly fear that Philip Larkin will cause my view of life to darken, but do not worry, I’ll take no ill; life’s bitter draught? I’ve had my Phil.

  2. Thank God this hasn’t happened to me yet, but perhaps if I become dishevelled? Not sure that I would want to read the book but it sounds well written and important in content.

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