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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  • First Published:
    Jan 2011, 320 pages
    Paperback:
    Aug 2011, 336 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Elena Spagnolie

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Lining the walls in my studio was evidence of a life intersecting art and science: books on art history and evolution, anthropology, polar exploration, folklore, poetry, and neuroscience. If I brought her here, would my mother really be happy? There was a cabinet of art supplies, an antique globe, a map of Lapland. I had star charts, bird charts, and a book of maps from the Age of Discovery. Had my mother ever been truly happy? Had she ever passed a day unafraid, without a chorus of voices in her head?

The questions I wrote down before I left for Cleveland: How long does she have to live? Does she have a coat? Will she remember me? How will I remember her, after she is gone?


The next day I flew into Cleveland Hopkins International Airport. I almost always travel with Doug now: he is my compass, my driver, my word-finder and guide. How would I fare in this place without him? When I collected my suitcase from baggage claim, I half expected my mother to appear. She had slept on one of the benches off and on for years. Sometimes people came up to her and gave her money but she never understood why. Once she wrote to say: A kind man offered me five dollars at the airport for some reason. A bright moment in a storm-ridden day. I bought a strawberry milkshake at Micky D’s then pocketed the rest.

I had flown to Cleveland just two months before to go to my thirtieth high school reunion. The day after the reunion, Doug and I drove to Payne Avenue near downtown Cleveland to see the shelter where my mother lived. She had given me her address in 2004, not a post office box number like she had in the past. I had no idea she had cancer then, nor did she, even though her body was showing signs that something was seriously wrong. I live in pain on Payne, she had written to me several times. I am bleeding a lot from below. But how to know what was real? Are you sick? I’d write her; she would respond: Sometimes I am taken out of the city and given enemas in my sleep. It’s what they do to Jews. In her last few letters, she always ended with: If you come to see me, I’ll make sure they find you a bed. Doug and I parked across the street from the shelter; I put on dark sunglasses and wouldn’t get out of the car. “I just want to see where she lives,” I said. “If I go in, she’ll want to come home with me, and then what?” I sank low in the seat and watched the women smoke out in front, waiting for the doors to open. It was windy and trash blew around the desolate treeless road. “I wish I could take her home. It looks like a war zone,” I said to Doug as we drove away. “At least I saw where she lives. It makes it more real. But now what?”

I felt worse, finally knowing where she lived, knowing exactly what the place looked like. How could I turn my back on her now when her sad life was staring me in the face? And if I didn’t do something soon, what was to stop her from moving on yet again, to another shelter, another town?


I had been communicating with my mother’s social worker for the past year about reuniting us, with a third party present for support. I wouldn’t do it without a third party, without my mother living somewhere under close watch, in a halfway house or a nursing home. Even though she was now elderly, in my mind she was still the madwoman on the street, brandishing a knife; the woman who shouts obscenities at you in the park, who follows you down alleyways, lighting matches in your hair.

I had no idea if my sister Natalia would want to see her at all, but planned to ask her when the time came. The organization that was helping my mother, MHS (Mental Health Services for Homeless Persons, Inc.), had been trying to arrange a legal guardianship for her so she could be placed in a nursing home where she could get adequate care. She would finally have an advocate—someone to make decisions for her about finances, housing, and health. But when MHS presented my mother’s case before the court, they lost. It didn’t matter that she slept outside on the wet ground some nights, or that she was incontinent, nearly blind, and seriously ill, or that she had a long history of suicide attempts and hospitalizations. The judge declared my mother sane for three simple reasons: she could balance a checkbook, buy her own cigarettes, and use correct change. It was just like when my sister and I had tried to get a guardianship for her in the past.

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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