Harebrained, kooky, delirious, naïve, wacky, confused, foolish, hoodwinked: all adjectives that could be attributed to Edna and Leo Roper, the parents of author Elizabeth Roper Marcus. In her memoir, Don’t Say a Word: A Daughter’s Two Cents, Marcus takes the reader on a riveting journey into the last adventure her parents embark upon: they begin relocating three months a year from their long-lived safe haven of Manhattan to Ajijic, Jalisco, an hour south of Guadalajara in Mexico. Ajijic is a small city full of retired American and Canadian expats on the shores of scenic Lake Chapala. There’s nothing wrong with that; but the Ropers turn it into everything that can go wrong.
Marcus goes back in time to show how she was raised by her controlling, unyielding, unempathetic parents. They are successful in their careers, but seemingly not in their personal lives, though they put up a good façade. Readers get an idea of Marcus’ upbringing by this one question she poses early on: “Do all children imagine they live in a scary fairytale?” Edna and Leo constantly bicker with one another in high-pitched voices, neither backing down. But it is when, in their early 80s, they decide to have a condominium built for them in Ajijic that things really begin to unravel for the couple. Of course, they don’t see that.
“What my parents were after was a new frontier. Mexico offered a sense of discovery, a touch of exoticism, the thrill of a bargain,” Marcus deduces. However, she later realizes, “It was in Ajijic that my parents began to progress from cheerfully undaunted to alarmingly unfazed….Soon they’d be throwing themselves into cockamamie building projects and courting a cast of oddballs they might have previously crossed the street to avoid.”
They allow themselves to be hoodwinked by their condominium builder and supposed interior designer, Max and Edye Wolfe, a couple in their 60s. What transpires comes as an ongoing shock to Marcus, as one disastrous decision follows another in the building fiasco of their condominium. Marcus is a highly successful architect herself; yet, ironically, her parents do not seek her talent or even advice. They seem unabashedly enamored with the Wolfes, who, in their eyes, can do no wrong—no matter how much wrong they do at the Ropers’ expense. And what an incalculable expense it becomes.
It is through observing the never-ending, disastrous events that occur to her parents in Ajijic that Marcus finally comes to view her parents in their true light. She comes to recognize their insecurities and fears; neither feels quite adequate enough for the other. So they raise a daughter who feels the same way about herself towards her parents. She comes to realize that her parents are not infallible. And in spite of their decades of back-and-forth bickering, they held a deeply rooted love for each other—and for their daughter.
Marcus is a gifted storyteller, and her memoir is a page-turner. It is written in a way that evokes every emotion imaginable in the scenes recorded. Hers is a beautifully written tale that is likely true of many children observing their parents advance in age. Marcus’ writing is fresh, comical, revealing, poignant. It hits you in the heart from all conceivable angles.