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Designated Daughter: The Bonus Years with Mom

Web-Exclusive Book Review Julia M. Klein.

D. G. Fulford is fortunate in her flexibility: She has a freelance lifestyle, an empty nest, and no spouse to encumber her. So when her recently widowed mother needs her help, Fulford is able to flee small-town Nevada and return home, to Columbus, Ohio. Even more important, though, she has a history of warm relations with a mother she has always loved and admired. For that reason, her "designated daughterhood" will turn out to be less duty than pleasure.

Designated Daughter is an often moving account of a deepening late-life relationship, told alternately by daughter and mother. Three decades apart in age, they are two women of mostly like minds and senses of humor who revel in each other's company. They start each morning with a 9:30 a.m. phone call, talk several times a day, and plan regular outings to shop and eat, mostly at local chain restaurants. Both are writers (though Phyllis Greene comes to this avocation only in her 80s, with a memoir of widowhood), so they are even able to embark on a book tour together.

By the time this joint memoir is finished, the two will have shared a life—though not a living space—for eight years, to their mutual joy. Fulford sees her mother through various illnesses and ailments, including a broken spine, and is able, when it becomes necessary, to engage a physical caretaker to serve as a sort of au pair. Even as the daughter struggles with anticipatory grief, she is able to find solace in their bond. "I have been in the right place at the right time doing the right thing," she writes. "I was needed. I delivered. And I received."

As for Greene, when Fulford first told her she would be moving back to Columbus, she says she knew that she would now have "a sympathetic ear and a hand to hold and my daughter, designated the day she was born, to be my next life's companion." There are two sons, too, one of them the writer Bob Greene, but they remain engaged with her from a distance. Mother and daughter have their differences—Greene is both more sociable and more practical, she tells us—but they are nevertheless "joined at the soul."

Does this all seem a bit too good to be true? Does Fulford, despite occasional visits to her daughter and grandson in California, seem overly enmeshed with her mother? Briefly, Fulford permits herself that same thought: "Sometimes I'm afraid I've become so entwined with my mother that I have no room for another relationship." In another moment of candor, she reports feeling "stretched, divided, and tied down." But such moments pass, and the good times, though shadowed by the fear of loss, return.

Millions of women of the baby boom generation will, like Fulford, find themselves designated as emotional companions for their widowed mothers. For them—for all of us—Designated Daughter serves as a kind of Platonic ideal, laying out a relationship most of us will never attain, and a bond that will no doubt seem strangling to some. Nevertheless, when I finally set the book down, I picked up the phone and called my mother.

Julia M. Klein, a cultural reporter and critic in Philadelphia, writes for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Mother Jones, and other publications.

Share your own story about life as a designated caregiver or companion, and connect with others, on AARP.org’s Caregiving channel »

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