Leaving Tinkertown is a courageous and moving account of author Tanya Ward Goodman's relationship with her father, Ross, and their emotional journey together as he battles early-onset Alzheimer's disease. Told in her beautifully clear voice and in present tense, Goodman's story immediately draws the reader into the day-to-day reality, the moment-by-moment existence that is both the painful challenge and unique grace of Alzheimer's.
Goodman's parents meet as carnival workers. Though they settle into a permanent home to start their family, Ross continues to work as an itinerant carnival painter and creator of the ever-expanding home and roadside museum he builds around a hand-carved, small-scale Western town called "Tinkertown." As a child, Goodman is appreciative of her father's extraordinary talents and creativity but longs for a more conventional life and home. She grows up, goes to college and eventually moves away to Los Angeles to work as a screenwriter and build a life with her new boyfriend. But when her father is diagnosed with Alzheimer's, Goodman makes the difficult decision to return home and help her stepmother care for him and their roadside museum. "I'm here because loving Dad is the thing I do best," she confesses.
Throughout the narrative Goodman explores themes of growing up, growing old, making memories and losing them, caring for the needs of others and for the needs of the self. She paints a vivid portrait of her gifted and playful father and the miniature world he created. "I feel I know the dusty streets of Tinkertown better than I know any city in the country," Goodman writes. "I think Dad would like to live in the little town. It's a perfect world for him. There's a huge toy store, all the women are pretty, the only restaurant serves Chinese food, and the circus is permanently set up just around the corner."
Alzheimer's is a peculiar disease. Ross is still himself in many ways, but there are gaps and they grow wider. He and his unique family deal with them in unique ways. For a time he continues to build onto the museum, creating more bottle and concrete walls as he has always done. Goodman and her stepmother realize he is no longer shoring them up as he used to with rebar and wire; the walls are unsafe and liable to come crashing down, so each night, they tear down what he has built up, without his ever noticing. Ross begins collecting tattoos—each symbolizing something in his life he wants to remember. "Dad is relying on his body to remember what his brain cannot," Goodman observes.
As his disease progresses, though, hope of keeping Ross at home dims. He is growing incapable of caring for himself and becoming a greater physical challenge and danger to himself and his family. Meanwhile Goodman's plans to build a life with her boyfriend are painfully on hold. Her father's decline is inevitable, and the author and the reader both know that like him, she will eventually need to leave Tinkertown. She will have to follow her own life path, take up her abandoned career and start her own family. But before that second leave-taking we will have a precious chance with her to reflect on and honor her extraordinary father and the love between them.
Tanya Ward Goodman is the award-winning author of Leaving Tinkertown, a deeply moving memoir chronicling her return home to the roadside museum, "Tinkertown," where she grew up, in order to care for her father as he battled Alzheimer's disease. Ward Goodman's essays have appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the Cup of Comfort series published by Adams Media, Literary Mama, The Huffington Post, and Brain, Child Magazine. In addition, she has written film and television scripts and blogs for TheNextFamily.com. You can find out more on Tanya's website and on the Tinkertown Museum website. Check out our interview with Tanya.
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