In this era of hands-on parenting, the mothering memoir has become a bookshelf staple; as our population grows older, the adjacent shelf of aging parent memoirs is also getting crowded. What makes Sybil Lockhart's contribution to both shelves stand out is the fact that she is not just a loving mother and daughter, she's also a neurobiologist who writes with exquisite clarity about the brain.
Lockhart's memoir, Mother in the Middle: A Biologist's Story of Caring for Parent and Child, is an account of the half dozen years during which her two daughters were conceived, gestated, emerged and grew—and her mother descended into Alzheimer's. Lockhart describes the frustrations of being torn between the caretaking demands of the two generations, but she also pays close attention to the parallel processes of development and deterioration happening right in front of her.
Mother in the Middle breaks no new ground on topics like maternal love, marital stress and becoming a writer. But when Lockhart turns to the brain and the nervous system, which, happily for the reader, she does frequently, the book enters a world that will be new for many and enlightening for all. Her discussions of subjects like neurons, embryonic development, what Alzheimer's does to the brain, and the biological nature of memory are riveting (to the surprise of this non-scientific reader). In precise, accessible language and illuminating images, she elucidates words, phrases and concepts we encounter everywhere from high school biology class, to the doctor's office, to the daily news.
At the end of Mother in the Middle, Lockhart is no longer in the middle. Her mother is gone and her children are no longer as needy, she and her husband have reached a new and happier stage in their relationship, and she has come into her own as a writer. In the last pages of the book, she sells her childhood home and moves forward into the future, accompanied by a comforting sense of her mother's presence. We can only hope that future includes more dazzling science writing.
Rebecca Steinitz is a writer in Arlington, Massachusetts.