They May Not Mean to, but They Do

They May Not Mean to, but They Do

by Cathleen Schine

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From one of America’s greatest comic novelists, a hilarious new novel about aging, family, loneliness, and love

The Bergman clan has always stuck together, growing as it incorporated in-laws, ex-in-laws, and same-sex spouses. But families don’t just grow, they grow old, and the clan’s matriarch, Joy, is not slipping into old age with the quiet grace her children, Molly and Daniel, would have wished. When Joy’s beloved husband dies, Molly and Daniel have no shortage of solutions for their mother’s loneliness and despair, but there is one challenge they did not count on: the reappearance of an ardent suitor from Joy’s college days. And they didn’t count on Joy herself, a mother suddenly as willful and rebellious as their own kids.

The New York Times–bestselling author Cathleen Schine has been called “full of invention, wit, and wisdom that can bear comparison to [ Jane] Austen’s own” (The New York Review of Books), and she is at her best in this intensely human, profound, and honest novel about the intrusion of old age into the relationships of one loving but complicated family. They May Not Mean To, But They Do is a radiantly compassionate look at three generations, all coming of age together.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780374712204
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date: 06/07/2016
Sold by: Macmillan
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 304
Sales rank: 17,112
File size: 5 MB

About the Author

CATHLEEN SCHINE is the author of The Three Weissmanns of Westport, The Love Letter, and The New Yorkers, among other novels. She has contributed to The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, The New York Times Magazine, and The New York Times Book Review. She lives in Los Angeles.
Cathleen Schine is the author of They May Not Mean To, But They Do, The Three Weissmanns of Westport, and The Love Letter, among other novels. She has contributed to The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, The New York Times Magazine, and The New York Times Book Review. She lives in Los Angeles.


New York, New York, and Venice, California

Date of Birth:


Place of Birth:

Bridgeport, Connecticut


B.A., Barnard College, 1976

Read an Excerpt

They May Not Mean To, But They Do

By Cathleen Schine

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Copyright © 2016 Cathleen Schine
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-374-71220-4


Molly Bergman moved to California, and it broke her mother's heart. There are daughters who spend their lives trying to escape their mothers, who move to their particular California the minute they're able to, who never stop moving to California. Molly was decidedly not one of those daughters. It was a painful move even before her parents got, so suddenly, so old.

Molly's mother was named Joy, and people said, Oh, they broke the mold when they made that one. People who loved her said it, people who did not love her said it, too, for the same reason. They found Joy disconcerting, and they were right. She was so intimate and so remote, as remote as a faraway, nameless planet sometimes; sometimes soft and sympathetic. She was talkative, yet she heard everything you said or thought you might say. She was wise and she was deep, intuitive, the kind of person to whom people confided their darkest secrets; she was scatterbrained and easily distractible and often forgot people's darkest secrets, which, she always said, was just as well.

She seemed to Molly, growing up, to be the busiest and most important mother in New York City. Joy's work was her vocation, that's what Joy said when she was happy. When she was frustrated and tired, she said it was a velvet coffin without the velvet.

She was also beautiful, radiantly beautiful. Like a doe, fragile and supple and quick. She was blond, but her eyes were as brown as a doe's. When she smiled, everyone around her smiled, and she smiled a great deal, though it was often from abstraction rather than any particular moment of happiness. She loved New York because, she liked to say, she fit in with all the misfits.

Molly and her brother, Daniel, began their lives with Joy and their father, Aaron, in a two-bedroom apartment with dinette on the West Side of Manhattan, the dinette converted into a third bedroom. Their neighbors were immigrants from Eastern Europe, émigrés from Brooklyn, teachers and violinists and opera singers. You could hear the opera singers as you walked down Broadway, arias amid the car horns. There were mom-and-pop dress shops and dairy restaurants and bakeries, and Molly remembered the square rooms, the high ceilings, the shutters that folded in on themselves, the deep windowsills on which she used to sit and look out at the street. But when Molly was eight and her brother six, their father inherited his family's manufacturing business, and the Bergmans left West Eighty-ninth Street. Aaron said the West Side was becoming seedy.

There were fewer Eastern European immigrants and Brooklyn escapees on Park Avenue, no dairy restaurants, more gentiles. It was a quiet, civilized neighborhood, at least until late afternoon, when the private schools let out. Molly and Daniel still went to their progressive private school on the West Side, but when Molly got off the bus, she could already hear the commotion of the East Side children at the corner store. She always waited for them to leave the store before buying her own candy and secretly envied them their noisy cabal and, even more secretly, their school uniforms.

"Across the park is as far as we go," Joy declared. "No farther, Aaron."

Daniel did go a bit farther when he grew up. He and his wife, Coco, and their two little girls lived on the Lower East Side. That was inexplicable to Joy and Aaron, moving to the tenements their grandparents had left behind. Inexplicable, yes, but accessible by subway, Joy said to Molly. The Bergmans were New Yorkers, she said, had always been New Yorkers. This was a fact, in a way that Molly's move to Los Angeles could never be.

* * *

Each time Molly left New York after a visit, Joy felt the air go out of the city.

"You're too attached," one of her friends said. "My daughter lives in Australia."

Joy shuddered. A daughter in Australia might as well be a dead daughter. Divorce was a terrible thing, and she was sorry Molly had given up a perfectly reasonable husband so she could be a lesbian in California. It was peculiar, having a lesbian daughter, though plenty of her friends did, too, it turned out. But many things were peculiar in this world, and Joy had overcome her discomfort with Freddie. She even called her "my daughter-in-law" now. Freddie was a lot of fun, warm, kind, gainfully employed, and low-maintenance, everything a mother-in-law could ask for. Joy did not blame her for being a woman, or tried not to. Molly was happy, Joy could see that, and it warmed her heart.

But what good is a warmed heart if it is also broken? Joy's heart was broken. By California.

"California" — even the name had become ugly to Joy, like "Lee Harvey Oswald" or "Sirhan Sirhan."

Joy's parents had moved several times during the Depression, first to places where someone could take them in, then to places where they took others in. Each move was a shock to Joy, an almost physical jolt. So many people left behind — shopkeepers, neighbors, the policeman on the corner, the ladies sitting on their stoops. They were what made a place a home. There were so many things one had to give up in this world. Why would you choose to give up your home? For California?

Perhaps she should move to California, too. Aaron might not know the difference.

"Would you like to move to California, Aaron?"

"Come if you dare, our trumpets sound," he sang. "Come if you dare, the foes rebound ..."

He could not tell you what day it was, but he remembered his Purcell.

It was Sunday and she had ordered him a dinner of French toast from the coffee shop. New York was good for the elderly in that way, the deliveries. She had come to include Aaron in the category of "the elderly," she realized with a pang. And where does that leave me, she wondered vaguely. At any rate, it was too difficult sometimes to herd Aaron and his walker out of the apartment and down the street to the coffee shop. She could have made French toast, she supposed. If there had been eggs. Or bread. If she still cooked.

"Isn't there a joke, we could have ham and eggs if we had ham ..."

"... and we had eggs!"

They laughed, repeated it, "We could have ham and eggs ..."

Aaron took a bite of French toast and made a face.

"You love French toast, Aaron, so stop it."

"Do I?"

He was hunched over the dining-room table. There was a bath mat on the seat of his chair as well as a blue chux pad. Joy leaned over and straightened them.

"You going to work today?" he said.

"No, dear, it's Sunday."

"Oh yeah?"

He took a bite of French toast and made another sour face.

"Stop that," she said. "Anyway, you need a haircut."

"You going to work today?" he said.

Sometimes Joy thought he was doing it on purpose. "No, not today. Today is Sunday."

"Oh yeah? What is this, anyway?" he said, poking at the French toast.

"Your dinner."

"I'm not hungry."

Joy grabbed his plate and brought it to the kitchen and scraped the French toast into the garbage.

"Joy! Joy!"

She stuck her head back into the dining room.

"You going to work today?" he asked.

"If you ask me that one more time, I'm putting a bag over your head," she said mildly.

Aaron brought his face down to the teacup and took a sip, then looked fondly at his wife. He pointed to the cup of almost colorless liquid. "Join me, sweetheart?"

He began to sing in his once clear voice, now heavy and hoarse. "Tea for two, me for you ..."

He sang pleasantly to himself while Joy fetched herself a cup of tea, and they sat looking out at the traffic's red brake lights, something they'd both always found festive as the evening drew in.


Molly had been a daddy's girl when she was very young. Her father was the only father she knew who had a beard, and the beard, a neatly combed beard that came almost to a point, was her pride and joy. He would carry her inside his coat, against his chest, like a kangaroo, and she would snuggle her face against his, against that extraordinary beard. Her father and his beard were so obviously superior to other fathers with their flabby pink cheeks. Her father was superior in height, as well. He was so tall that she and Daniel used him as a unit of measurement. How many Daddies high was that tree in the park? What about the elephants at the Museum of Natural History? It was Aaron who read to them when they were little. Push-me-pull-yous and the cat's meat man; bump, bump, bump down the stairs — books that had been his, books he wished his father had read to him. He bundled up the children and led them to the roof to look at the constellations. He took them out to the park to climb the rocks and along the river to the boat basin to play pirates and launch paper boats that tipped and sank while they sang "Blow the Man Down." It was Aaron who encouraged them, egged them on, when they begged for a dog, Aaron who went to the animal shelter with them to get a cat when Joy had expressly forbidden it. Aaron's father had failed him when he was a child, too busy steering the business out of the Depression. Aaron would never do that to his children, he told Joy. True to his word, she would say later: it was the business he failed.

Aaron and Joy were so different from each other that Molly and Daniel had been able to recognize the distance even as young children, Aaron sentimental and unreliable and brimming with love and obvious charm, a man who made you feel you did not have to work too hard because good things were coming to you, from somewhere; Joy distracted, forgetful, thoughtful, brimming with love, too, and oddly inspiring, causing Molly and Daniel to want to work their hardest because working hard seemed such fun. Molly wasn't sure why she compared them to each other like that, as if she had to make a choice, as if she could make a choice, because different as they were, there was no choice between them, no space between them. They were as one. They held hands when they walked down the street, they fed each other tidbits like lovebirds. It was embarrassing for the children, having such lovey-dovey parents. And reassuring. Like the trumpeters and singers in the Bible, they were as one.


"You'd better come home," Joy said to Molly on the phone. "Daddy's on the floor."

"He fell?" Molly tried to calm herself. "Is he okay? Did you call 911?"

"He slid out of his chair. I never should have gotten it in leather. I gave him a cracker."


"The handyman's coming in a minute. He'll get Daddy up. Never a dull moment, right, Aaron?"

The phone was handed to Aaron. "Never a dull moment."

"Daddy, are you all right?"

"Your mother gave me a cracker."

"I'll be home soon," Molly said. She repeated it when her mother got back on the phone. "I'll be home soon, Mom. I arranged an extra week off in November."

"November?" A pause. "Oh." Then, "Wonderful, Molly! And how are your students this semester?"

Molly heard the strain in her mother's voice and hurried through a rundown of some of the more interesting students. "Anyway, nothing to write home about."

"Daddy's having a hard time, Molly. He gets confused sometimes."

"I know. But he does have dementia."

"Don't be disrespectful."

Joy didn't like the word "dementia." "Alzheimer's" was worse.

"Sorry," Molly said. "I just meant, you know, it's natural that he'd be confused and forget things."

"Well, he doesn't like it. He doesn't like it one bit. And he doesn't admit it. Which is tiring for me, I can tell you."

"Maybe —"

"We can't afford it."

"Well, what about —"

"Absolutely not."

"Not a home, exactly —"

"He has a home," Joy said. "His home is here."

* * *

Molly poured herself two fingers of bourbon, just as her father had taught her. No bourbon for him these days, just Ensure, many fingers of Ensure.

"I should be home," she said to Freddie. "I'm a horrible daughter. I might as well shoot myself."

Freddie thought, You are home, Molly.

"How many times can the doorman scrape him off the floor? At least she tips them at Christmas. I really have to go back. This is ... it's ..."

"What about your brother?"

"What about my brother?"

Now they would have a fight.

"I don't want to have a fight," Freddie said.

"Then don't mention my brother."


"See? You do want to have a fight."

She went out to the garden, and Freddie followed. It was six o'clock and still hot, which was unusual where they lived, near the beach on the west side of Los Angeles. It had been an unusually hot summer, though. Molly brushed miniature pink petals off the chaise before sitting.

"Autumn leaves," she said, examining one blossom on the tip of her finger. She smiled. "What a place we live in, what an amazing place." She patted the cushion, motioned Freddie to sit beside her. "My brother is perfect," she said.

Freddie laughed. Molly's brother was off-limits. Absolutely, completely, utterly off-limits. She knew that. It was like criticizing Stalin in Moscow in 1939. Except her brother wasn't Stalin. More like a Dostoevsky innocent.

Molly's entire family, in fact, was off-limits. They were like a cult, one that did not accept disciples or converts. They had been through a lot as a family, it had drawn them together, but what family hadn't been through a lot? Well, every family has its myth, she supposed. The myth Freddie's family told itself was one of freedom. Her sisters and brothers were scattered across the globe, all of them — with the exception of Freddie — too independent and too far away to notice that their father wrecked the car three times in six months, or at least too far away (one hoped not too independent) to do anything about it.

The Bergmans, on the other hand, were a clan, tight knit and suspicious of strangers. They were tribal and closed, bound by blood. They were one, the world the other. Freddie was used to them now, used to their insular ferocity. She didn't often make the mistake of even implicit disapproval. There were worse things than loyalty and family love in this world. Sometimes she envied Molly her certainty, the way the atheist sometimes envies the believer.

"I know Daniel works very hard," she said. "I know he's incredibly busy. I love your brother, I think he's wonderful to your parents, and to us. I didn't mean anything, Molly. Really."

She did mean something, that Daniel was a son not a daughter, and they both knew it, but it wasn't his fault, and they both knew that, too.

"He can't be there every second," Molly said.

But neither could Molly, even if she was the daughter, Freddie thought, and the unspoken words hung between them.

"I could change my ticket, go to New York a week early. I could Skype my classes, right? I have to keep an eye on those two crazy old people. Check on their medications, clear up their bills, talk to the doctors, hire someone to come in, something. I have to do something."

"They won't let you hire anyone."

"I know."

"Maybe it's really time to start thinking about —"

"I'm one hundred percent sure you're not going to say what you're about to say, because no one is sending my father anywhere, okay? He would hate it. He'd be so confused. So please don't even mention it."


"Anyway, I already tried talking to Mom about it."

Freddie laughed again.

"She said he had a home."

"I wonder," Freddie said, "what would happen if they called them 'nursing hotels,' instead of 'nursing homes,' if people would be more receptive."

"You'd still get infections."

"Like a cruise ship."

Now and then Freddie wished someone would send her to a Home. Assisted Living — couldn't everyone use a little assistance in living? Three meals a day — nice comfort food, too. And a room of your own. You would be retired, of course, so you could read novels all day long without feeling guilty, assuming you could still see through the inoperable cataracts you might, at that age, have developed. Really, if people were sent to old-age homes at a younger age, they would get so much more out of them.

Freddie had already moved her own father into three different assisted-living facilities. The first time, he went to the Motion Picture Home in the Valley, an inviting-looking place with its gardens and neat paths and scattered terraces and benches, though no one could walk on its neat paths or sit on its benches or gaze at the fat roses from the terrace. It was simply too hot, it was always much too hot. Her father had been lucky to get in, though, hot or not — there was always a long waiting list. He was an actor, Duncan Hughes — a minor actor you might see in a party scene of a romantic comedy with Doris Day and Rock Hudson, lifting his martini glass above people's heads as he squeezed through the crowd and made a few humorous comments to the stars. He had been dapper and not quite dashing when he was young. Now his face showed the good life he had attempted to live. Decades of professional disappointment, as well as his attempts to comfort himself in that disappointment, had left their mark on his florid drinker's face.

Duncan had always attributed failure to bad luck. He was a believer in luck and had never reconciled himself to not having any. But at last, Freddie thought, he had hit the jackpot, not one he had expected, certainly not one he had dreamed of, but a jackpot nonetheless: the Motion Picture Home.


Excerpted from They May Not Mean To, But They Do by Cathleen Schine. Copyright © 2016 Cathleen Schine. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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They May Not Mean to, but They Do: A Novel 4.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 6 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Cannot express enough how well this book touched me. It's sad, in that the story is of death, and all the pain of dying. It is also a story of growing older, and losing your place in life. Even though the topic of death, grieving and old age is full force in this book, the main character, Joy is charming and witty on her take in the whole story line. As I read the last page of this book, I thought, "I am going to miss Joy's insights, as well as her family. I read a lot, and this book was a true gem. Loved every page of it.
Anonymous 10 months ago
Really funny and so true. Guilt is what Mother’s do. I love them.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Joy is a charming, witty, realistic character -- lovable. Wish I had her for a friend or neighbor.
eagle3tx More than 1 year ago
Sad, Touching but Not Hilarious. Based on other reviews i had great expectations for this book -- none of which were met. The story of spousal devotion into the aging years of mental and physical deterioration were sad and emotional. I have experienced this story with my parents and i expected to identify with these characters and empathize. The dying process took fully half the book or more, so the anticipated story of the wife learning to be on her own and the children learning she was fine making her own decisions just took way to long to appear. And none of it was humorous.
LisaP More than 1 year ago
This is a deeply moving novel in which realistically flawed, yet inherently decent, people interact as a loving family. Although the central plot point involves a poignantly intimate examination of physical decline, death and devastating grief, it is ultimately a sweet and uplifting story of hope and the power of love to heal and forgive. All of the characters are intricately developed, and I hope there will be a sequel so I'll know what happens next to each and every one of them.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago