July 30, 2015
by RJ Carter
There’s a magic in the comic strip format that allows serious subjects to be broached with gentle humor and delivered in manageable bites. Tom Batiuk has tapped into this magic, both in his long running series, FUNKY WINKERBEAN, and with this collection of CRANKSHAFT strips entitled ROSES IN DECEMBER: A STORY OF LOVE AND ALZHEIMER’S.
This collection is not a complete collection of strips presented in daily order — by which I mean it skips over strips that do not contribute to this particular storyline that ran through the CRANKSHAFT strips. As such, you find yourself at a Thanksgiving celebration, then Christmas, and then shortly back at Thanksgiving again, indicating a period in the strip’s history where a different story became the focus before getting back to the one at hand.
This book focuses on two families — sisters Lucy and Lillian McKenzie, and husband and wife Ralph and Helen Meckler.
Lucy and Lillian are elderly spinsters who live next door to Ed Crankshaft and his daughter’s family. Ed’s granddaughter, Mindy, is a regular visitor with Lucy, to hear her stories and do needlepoint. Through Mindy, we get to see the progression of time, as we see her grow from a little girl into a young teenager. From the very beginning, we are given hints as to Lucy’s condition, hints that are ignored at first because she’s always been a little off the beam in a harmless way. However, as we get deeper into the story, the issues of memory become more pronounced, as she begins living in the past more and more, while acting out in the present. She forgets the most basic things, like how to get to her house from a few blocks away, or that her mother is dead.
When she finds a collection of her mother’s things, and finds that her mother also kept hand-drawn maps to help her get around, the revelation is driven home to Lucy that she indeed has the genetic condition of Alzheimer’s.
There were several places during this story that I wanted to complain to the printers for Kent State University, as I felt it was unacceptable that the plates should have been allowed to slip and publish such blurry images. However, when I would wipe my eyes, I would find that the pages were just fine — the blur came from trying to read through tears. So much of the story reminded me of incidents that my wife and I lived through as her mother went deeper into Alzheimer’s, a condition she forever dreaded would take her as it took her mother before her. ROSES IN DECEMBER, thus, is a very personally touching story to me, and will take up permanent residence on my shelves for this reason alone. Batiuk expertly captures the emotional distress — the frustrations and the guilty feelings — felt by everyone in Lucy’s circle.
The second storyline is no less touching, but perhaps a bit sweeter as we don’t have to watch Helen Meckler develop her Alzheimer’s; she already has it when we meet her. What we do get is the love story of Ralph and Helen, and a trip back to their younger days — how they met, who they were, and the deep and abiding love Ralph continues to hold for a woman who no longer remembers who he is. When an opportunity presents itself where she does remember Ralph, even if she is doing so in the past, Ralph takes hold of the opportunity and goes on a trip to New York with her, where they first met; he just doesn’t tell the nursing home staff that he’s doing this, setting off a panic.
If you have anyone with Alzheimer’s in your life, please pick up this book by Tom Batiuk and Chuck Ayers. It will capture your heart — and squeeze it tightly. I can’t give this book anything less than my highest recommendation.
Please click on the image below to make a donation to the Alzheimer’s Association.