Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Odd Doc Wednesday

As a rule, my mother does not attend community events at her Alzheimer's home any more, but for two or three years she spent most of her time in the activities room. She didn't sing when the others sang; she didn't respond when they spoke; she didn't do much except sit. She was the still point in a universe askew. (I've written about that room elsewhere, here and then here.) But I still get calendars of events each month to let me know what she might be doing were she not now sitting in a smaller common room all day every day, where the television disgorges old movies and her peers snooze and/or sundown together.

While Alzheimer's residents like my mother are hidden away in their homes, the histories they lived were public. Each of these monthly programs presents a section of their histories; patch a few months together, and you might have a social, political, and cultural history of the USA in the mid-20th century, along with points of reference learned in schools early in the last century-- Florence Nightingale is an example of this. One of the categories of days belongs to famous people. May's calendar features musicians like Bing Crosby and Irving Berlin; politicians like Harry S Truman (they got the S with no period correct!) and JFK (along with Jackie Kennedy Onassis); entertainers like John Wayne, Sugar Ray Leonard, Gary Cooper, and Mickey Mouse. (My mother always referred to him as "Mickey le souris," because she'd spent time in France where Mickey is much loved.) There is some evidence that the United States contains diverse cultures--after all, today's events center on Cinco de Mayo and feature Mexican food--but for the most part this is an older America, one that lives in the memories of those who can remember it. Or an America that is being used to prod, cajole, nudge the missing memories of the residents of this Alzheimer's home. "The lost America of love," one might call it.

But then there is Hawaiian Luau day on the 20th of the month, which features a 1:15 event I would love to experience, namely, "History and culture of Hawaii," sandwiched (sorry) between "Trivia Question" and 3 p.m.'s "Hula Dance." That the day after "Hawaiian Luau" is "The Discovery of America" is an irony probably lost on the planners of events, but suffice it to say that the neighborhood of the 20th and the 21st of May looks a bit fractious from my Kane`ohe perch. At the same time (1:15) as the residents learn about Hawaiian culture on the 20th, they learn about Christopher Columbus on the 21st. I'll wager no one tells them that the state of Hawai`i no longer celebrates Discoverers' Day, let alone the Columbus Day of my childhood.

Hawai`i fits into this patchword (that's a typo, but I'll keep it) history not simply because many of the residents likely vacationed here, but also because these residents are part of the "greatest generation." They would not only have remembered Pearl Harbor, but some of them would have lived it in Pearl Harbor. (My mother remembers hearing about Pearl Harbor and wondering where it was . . .) When they reminisced--when my mother reminisced--it was often about The War. I always understood this to mean World War II, even when we were living through the Vietnam War, which came after the Korean War. Even now, The War means that to me, and so many wars have come since. I grew up on her stories about The War, the battles she witnessed in Italy; the bombing raid she got caught up in (in north Africa), which landed her in a ditch; the soldiers and pilot she knew who were killed; the pilot whose life was changed when he witnessed a little girl running in terror from bombs; the nearly Catch-22ian events she recounted vividly over dinner or to friends. Whether it was the pilot who told his girlfriend that if she did not marry him, he would go out on a mission and not come back and who did not come back; or the soldier who asked mom to marry him until she pulled a minister in on the joke and demanded to be married at once, thus silencing the guy, who ran the other way; or the truck she drove, in which she once feared she'd hit a child; or the time she (unschooled in French Revolutionary history) asked where the Bastille was . . . these stories have stuck in my memory, as hers has downloaded to a blank drive. (That's a metaphor she would have never used.)

The calendar, like the alphabet, organizes memory, but does so in a way that also scrambles it. If B must follow A on a book shelf, then the events of the 21st of May necessarily follow those of the 20th of May. The calendar may be lived as history, but it is performed (as in the Alzheimer's home) as scattered chapters ("livid hieroglyph," oh Hart!) in a public history that comes apart. "At Melville's Tomb" is its tune. What has washed up are fragments of memory's bones, and the Alzheimer's residents are left to wander in and around them. In a sense, they seem put there to be re-collected into new histories that combine the lives of residents with those of their era. While "trivia" plays a large role in their activities, the calendar is far from trivial as a document. I must remember to pay each month's schedule more heed.

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