Excerpt from The Memory Palace by Mira Bartok, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Memory Palace

A Memoir

By Mira Bartok

The Memory Palace
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  • Hardcover: Jan 2011,
    320 pages.
    Paperback: Aug 2011,
    336 pages.

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I picked up a rental car at the airport and met my childhood friend Cathy at my hotel. We had seen each other for the first time after thirty years when I came to town two months before. Except for a few extra pounds and some faint lines etched around her blue eyes, Cathy hadn’t changed. I could still picture her laughing, leaning against her locker at Newton D. Baker Junior High—a sweet, sympathetic girl in a miniskirt, straight blond hair flowing down to her waist.

As we were going up the elevator at University Hospital, I told Cathy about what the doctor had said to me earlier that day on the phone. He had said that my mother’s abdomen was riddled with tumors, and that he had removed most of her stomach and colon. He explained what stomas were, how her waste was being removed through them and how they had to be kept clean. I said,“He claims she’ll never go back to the shelter. They’ll get her into a good nursing home and make her as comfortable as possible before she dies.”

That’s a relief,” she said, taking my hand.

“I don’t know, Cathy. I still think she’ll just get up, walk out the door, and disappear.”


The door was slightly ajar when we arrived at my mother’s room. I asked Cathy to wait in the hall until I called her in. The lights were off when I entered. I watched my mother sleep for a few minutes; the sun filtered through the slats in the shades, illuminating her pallid face. She looked like my grandfather when he was dying—hollow cheeks, ashen skin, breath labored and slow. Would she believe it was really me? She thought that aliens could assume the shape of her loved ones.

“Mom,” I said.“It’s me. Your daughter, Myra.” I used my old name, the one she gave me. She opened her eyes.

“Myra? Is it really you?” Her voice was barely audible and her cadence strange.

“I brought you a little gift,” I said, and placed the soft orange scarf I had knitted for her around her neck.

I sat down and took her hand. How well could she see? She had always written about her blindness, caused by glaucoma, cataracts, and “poisonous gas from enemy combatants.” I wondered if she could see how I had aged. My dark brown hair was cut in a bob, like the last time I had seen her, but I had a few wrinkles now, a few more gray hairs. I still dressed like a tomboy, though, and was wearing black sweatpants and a sweater.“That’s a good look for you, honey,” she said.“You look sporty. Where’s your sister?”

“She’ll be here in a couple days,” I said.“She sends her love.”

I was relieved that I could say that. What if my sister couldn’t bear to come? What would I have said?

When the nurse came in I asked her how much my mother weighed.

“Eighty-three pounds. Are you her daughter?”

“Yes,” I said, then hesitated. “I haven’t seen her in seventeen years.”

I expected the nurse to reproach me, but instead she was kind. “How nice that you can be together now. I hope you two have a great reunion.”

My mother brought her hand up to shield her eyes. “Turn that damn light off.”

“It’s off,” I said.

“Shut the curtains. It’s too bright in here. Where’s my music? When am I going home?”

“Where do you want to go?” I asked.

“Back to my women.”

Did she mean the women’s shelter? Or did she want to be with my sister and me in her old house on West 148th Street?

“Where’s my little radio? Did someone steal it again?”

The last time I visited my mother in a hospital, it was over twenty years ago. She was in a lockdown ward at Cleveland Psychiatric Institute (CPI) and had asked me to bring her a radio. She had always needed a radio and a certain level of darkness. In her youth, my mother had been a musical prodigy. When I was growing up, she listened to the classical radio station night and day. I always wondered if her need for a radio meant more than just a love of music. Did it help block out the voices in her head?

Excerpted from The Memory Palace by Mira Bartók. Copyright © 2011 by Mira Bartók. Excerpted by permission of Free Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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