Incontinent on the Continent: My Mother, Her Walker and Our Grand Tour of Italy by Jane Christmas. Greystone Books, 2009.
As the baby boomer generation ages, so, of course, do their parents. Many boomers, having seen their kids leave home, are now turning to issues of caring for their aging parents. Seeking the best possible care for your parents, trying to help them with the challenges of old age, it’s all unfamiliar territory as the child becomes the caregiver and roles begin to reverse. It’s a time, for some, to grapple with issues of difficult relationships, and perhaps a last opportunity to try to resolve them. It was with something like this in mind that Jane Christmas set off for a 6 week vacation in Italy with her Mom, an attempt at repairing five decades of clashing.
First, it has to be said that the title is inspired. It also reveals a lot about the tone of the book. Christmas pulls no punches. I was surprised by how candid her account is. Indeed, if the point was to heal relations with her Mom, this book doesn’t seem likely to be helpful. She does not portray her Mom in a flattering manner and it struck me that if such openness is integral to the book, waiting some years before releasing it might have avoided more potential clashing.
Christmas is not very flattering on her own behalf either. I was forced to conclude she’s a bit of a ditz. She complains that her mother misled her, claiming her health was better than was revealed to be the case when they reached Italy. Hmmm. How could she not have been aware before booking the trip that her mother was not in good shape? It seems that she had not seen much of her Mom before hand, just dropping in for a visit once every few weeks. Surely if she had taken her Mom out to a movie or some other activity she would have quickly become aware of how restricted her mobility had become. And six weeks? Surely three would have been more realistic, even if her Mom was well.
Once in Italy, it appears that she has spent very little time on advance planning. They have tickets to attend mass on Easter Sunday at St. Peter’s and she didn’t even bother arranging hotel reservations in advance, yet that must be one of the busiest occasions of the year. Her Mom struggles endlessly with her walker and Christmas rails at the delays, yet she never mentions trying to talk her Mom into letting her purchase a portable wheelchair for her. Indeed, she mentions that her Mom is ready to collapse into a wheelchair any time a museum has one available. Why didn’t she just go out and buy a folding chair? Jane gets lost while driving with regularity. Her wardrobe is completely inappropriate for the weather. Did she do no research? She decides not to take a cellphone with her. I would have wanted a phone just to be reachable in the event of an emergency with one of the kids. Her daughter is just 16 and off doing a semester in France.
All that said, I still enjoyed this book and found it engaging. The travelogue aspect was interesting in itself. Christmas delivers some entertaining portraits of the places and people they see along the way. Although her mother could be annoying, on the whole it was hard to see what gripes Christmas had with her. Christmas doesn’t go into their background together very much, beyond saying her parents always seemed stiff and distant. I took some comfort from her relationship with her mother. It made my own seem much more sound! For anyone who has struggled with an elderly parent, this is a worthwhile read.