My mother waited in a corner chair. I was late, but she wasn’t disappointed. It had been a long time since I’d come to visit, but she was just glad I’d made the time. Everyone should be so lucky to have someone who thinks so well of them and forgives their limitations, even when they don’t do the things they ought to.
I was on my way to a book event for my novel, taking me through the town where my 93-year-old grandmother lived in a nursing home. My mother was coming for the reading, but she would have come with me to visit her mother-in-law anyway. It’s her maternal buffering reflex.
I have limited experience with dementia, and I’ve been told my grandmother is becoming increasingly agitated by small things. She likes dessert rather than dinner, sometimes tv over talking, and doesn’t like to be pressured on the things she no longer remembers, which is most everything. I knew she wouldn’t recognize me, and I wouldn’t press for it. I was there to give her a lovely half hour with a pleasant, if forgettable, young woman around her granddaughter’s age.
I brought flowers and a photograph of my five kids, a simple prop because most people enjoy the smiling faces of young children. She wanted to know which ones behaved and which ones caused trouble, and I narrated the circle of faces like I was telling a story. Then I told her I remembered visiting her house when I was a child (though I worried this hint of familiarity might distress her), and that I’d enjoyed playing hide-and-seek in her upstairs closet.
“That was a big closet,” she said, to my mother’s surprise. This might have been a spark of recall, or a throwaway comment disguised as one. My grandmother has been savvy for years about hiding the shortcomings of her memory.
Memory is a funny and fleeting thing, bobbing out of reach like an inaccessible sea creature. We’ve all read the studies about sensory triggers, the memories brought on by a few bars of music or wafting perfume. For me, the smell of an old, dry, wood structure puts me back in my grandparents’ garage filled with equipment from my grandfather’s metal company, and evokes a spirit of exploration of old things not meant for children. The songs “Proud Mary” and “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy” still bring up the dark comfort of a motel lounge just off a midwestern interstate, where we were stranded during a snowstorm in the late 1970s. Oddly, it’s a warm memory, relief and safety in an exotic setting reconfirming a child’s belief that her parents can take care of anything nature dishes out.
But I’ve never read anything about the power of words to evoke memory. People talk about rereading beloved books, and many say they experience a new dimension and appreciation each time. Some say poetry, prayer and mantras offer fresh calm and perspective. But that isn’t the same thing as memory, either.
Can words live in corners of our minds the way scent and sounds do, certain verses linked to specific experiences in our past? Can prose evoke nostalgia for period in time — the people we used to be, the people we used to know?
Maybe. My mother vividly recalls some lengthy nursery-rhyme poem she used to read me during potty training, something about a kitty sailing the ocean blue. She’s still sad when I admit I don’t remember it as she does. My other grandmother used to recite Longfellow’s The Wreck of the Hesperus (http://www NULL.poetryfoundation NULL.org/poem/173920), a poem she’d had to memorize in school. But I don’t know whether in her mind the verses evoked grammar school in the 1920s. All I remember is the way she’d said I looked like that after playing too long in the woods — the wreck of the Hesperus.
The nursing home visit with my grandmother went so well that I returned a few weeks later with my two youngest sons, ages 3 and 5. It was a rainy Friday morning the week before Christmas. The elevator doors opened on the third floor, and I saw it through my boys’ eyes: The hallway plain as a boiler room, high narrow walls painted grayish mauve, with exposed pipes at the top. Residents in wheelchairs lined the narrow hall, many dozing with gaping mouths. A few reached out to touch the boys as they walked by, which unnerved them as if furniture had moved. I pulled them close and helped them wave and say hello as we passed, hoping they saw the happy responses they elicited in the residents and not just their jarring appearance.
My grandmother was as motionless as the others, but she didn’t perk up when we came near. I asked if we could sit with her awhile, and she said that would be fine, that she didn’t care either way.
We ate cookies we’d brought her and showed her family pictures, and every so often she’d turn to one of the boys as if noticing him for the first time. “Well, aren’t you a handsome and well behaved fellow. What’s your name?” Or, “Oh hello there. You look a bit like this fellow over here.”
I’d also brought a copy of ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas in case the boys got bored, and the 5 year old asked me to read it. As I began, my grandmother leaned forward in her wheelchair, so I included her in the audience. I didn’t change my singsongy cadence, though it felt insulting to read in a childlike manner to a woman who’d been a Second Lieutenant nurse in World War II, raised four children and run a pharmacy. The book had beautiful silhouette pop-up images, and she touched the cut-out figures through windows and doors. Then she joined me reciting parts of the poem.
“His eyes how they twinkled! His dimples how merry!” She was delighted, almost giddy. “His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry!” The print was tiny; she couldn’t have made out the words on the page.
What part of the brain contains the verses of old poems and stories?
What if words — like scent and taste and music — could be a conduit to a whole range of recognition and emotions, to a place where familiar faces and names still live, just waiting for the right verses to pull them up? Was she remembering having it read to her as a child, or reading it to my father ? Was there a chance that in that moment, she linked me to him and my children to me, a daisy chain of words and identity?
I started thinking about the books I could bring next time, poetry and essays I loved that might lead us to some new place, a limbo bridging strangers to fondness. But the truth was, she wasn’t a reader. If words mattered, I suspected it would have to be because they were familiar and beloved to the listener, not just the person reading them. If the words did not matter, then what counted was the warmth of a friendly face, reading. Which was lovely, but a different thing from evoking memory.
Before we left she let me take a photo of her with the little boys, even though she’s never liked to have her picture taken and doesn’t smile much. In it she’s leaning toward the 3 year old, struggling to understand what on earth he’s saying (as we all often do), but with a visible half smile in profile.
If this were an essay in Reader’s Digest, it would end with my grandmother saying my name as we hugged goodbye. But it isn’t, and she didn’t.
Still, when I kissed the top of her head and asked if we could come back, she smiled and said yes, that would be fine, that would be nice, yes.
A week after I wrote this essay and originally posted it on Beyond the Margins (http://beyondthemargins NULL.com/2013/01/ssw-memory/), my grandmother passed away. Rest in peace, beautiful lady who accomplished so much.