Saturday, June 25, 2011

Farewell to Dementia Blog

Dementia Blog began August 1, 2006 with this:

--Shown a photograph of herself and Sangha (2 or 3 years ago), she doesn't recognize herself. That's my mother, she says.

It has ended with the contents of her drawer at Arden Courts of Fair Oaks in Fairfax, mainly photographs she could not identify by name, place, or time. There were lyrics to songs she did not sing, part of a novel she doubtless did not read.


My mother's dementia preceded the blog, and my memories of her will postdate it. But the blog was a place of paradoxes, an obsessively-kept record that memorialized her forgetting. What it did not call forth was a woman who told wonderful stories about her adventures in North Africa and Europe during WWII, who married late, who became a mother later than that, tried hard not to replicate the patterns of her own growing up (succeeding, failing). It did not offer evidence of her wry wit, her sarcasm ("if this plane goes down, all the fish in the sea will be drunk" she said before one trans-Atlantic flight; "you'd have to be awfully sober to find your house in this neighborhood," she said of a suburban cookie-cutter community). It did not tell the story of her childhood in an alcoholic family (hence the jokes). It did not tell of her work for the rich old woman in Meadville, Pennsylvania, Mrs. Kidder, or of the black man named Lincoln who sang about the caged bird. It did not tell of her M.A. in Speech and Drama from the University of Iowa ("Oh, I do a little Speech," she would tell people, lest they think her one of those students). It did not tell of her work at Grinnell College for a stern older dean, where she hid students' illegal animals--pig, chicken--in a basement until they all got busted. It did not tell of her time at Northern Michigan, where the president of the college had hair dryers installed in the women's bathroom six feet off the ground, where only he could use them. It did not tell of her adventures in north Africa, where she worked for the Red Cross and ducked in a ditch to avoid a bombing raid, where she saw a dead body stuffed in a trash can in Algiers. It did not tell how she invaded Italy with the US Army (in her function as administrator of entertainment to US troops), how she witnessed battles, met men who never came back from their own bombing raids, got a pair of small combat boots from one of the "Neecy boys" of the 442nd. It did not tell of her experience of the Battle of the Bulge, or of how she was at Dachau when it was liberated, of how it took her several days to even know what she had seen--all the bodies on the train cars, bodies everywhere, men in pajamas making shelters for themselves out of anything they found around them. It did not tell of how she chanted "war is hell" the one time (she says) she got drunk, in Bad Neuheim, Germany, where she told them either to fix her dripping toilet or take it away, so they took it away, or of how she danced naked in the moonlight in north Africa after drinking spiked wine, had to be restrained by several grown men. It did not tell of how a soldier greeted her every day with "when will you marry me?" til she got the chaplain to come along; when the soldier asked next, she said, "how about now?" and that was the end of that. It did not tell how she almost told stories about her friends' abortions. It did not tell of how she met my father and pretty much tackled him, of how a psychic had told her years before who he would be, or of the hearts she broke before she met him. It did not tell of the rainbow she saw as she drove over the Scottish border once, which made her happy she did not have a camera because then she could really see it, the green grass and the sheep. It did not tell how fierce a mother she was, protective and sometimes vicious. It did not tell how she would get angry and withdraw, sometimes for days, refusing to speak to her daughter, or of how she would mysteriously reappear, softening over hours. It did not tell how that happened at Lenin's Tomb in 1981. It did not tell of how we would sometimes lie in bed and giggle hysterically. It did not tell of the pianist she'd seen at a concert once with enormous sleeves, who swoooped and swoooped over the keys like a huge bird. It did not tell how she would eavesdrop on conversations and then repeat them better than they'd happened, or how she met a Swiss woman in a cafe in Basel (?) and, without any shared language, learned the story of the woman's son. It did not tell how she had survived amoebic dysentery in north Africa (was it?) only after a doctor suggested she use mineral oil, or how she demanded mineral oil when she got sick on a trip in Norway. It did not tell how she communicated her need for tissues by vividly pretending to blow her nose outside a shop. It did not tell how she settled in to suburban life, filling her houses with bad furniture and art. It did not tell how she told me to listen when Martin Luther King came on the large wooden radio because he used English so well. It did not tell how she would recite part of "Captain, My Captain" or the poem about being master of your fate and captain, as if it were possible. It did not tell about how she promised herself at age five that she would never be hurt again, and tried to live by that idea for decades too long. It did not tell about how she suffered anxiety, worried silly, arriving at meetings early, fretting over every detail. It did not tell about how much she wanted control. It did not tell about how she drove to New Haven when I said I thought there was something wrong in my head, then took to her hotel bed. It did not tell about her oddly charged relationships with my friends, or with neighbors, how she took people in and disowned them with the same passion. It did not tell about how she cancelled her subscription to Time when they published photographs from Last Tango in Paris, of how she resented the condescension of their reply. It did not tell about how we drove the Pennsylvania Turnpike in a snowstorm in search of colleges, how the rental car agency wouldn't rent her the car because she didn't have a job. It did not tell how she and my father withdrew behind a closed door to eat peanuts because I am so allergic to them. It did not tell how she tried to learn to play the piano, Christmas carols in August, but got no better than first or second year. It did not tell how she did a needlepoint on her grandmother's pillow. It did not tell how her grandmother, Mama, died in her arms in her late 80s, as she and Martha and her brother Joe laughed over dinner. It did not tell how Mama wanted to be a conductor, made large motions with her arms to the radio. It did not tell how she said she would never care for a grandchild of her own, and then how she offered to watch Sangha when we knew she could not. It did not tell how her life was woven in with historical time, how one woman wandered through wars and kitchen appliances and rights movements and elections. It did not tell how they named their cars Marfred and Heidi and TJ. It did not tell how she and her classmates were allowed to get up and look out the window when an airplane flew past. It did not tell how she loved to do crossword puzzles with her neighbor, Ernie, until he died and her mind escaped. It did not tell about how angry she was that everyone had wanted her to act, be artistic, when she should have been an accountant. It did not tell how lovingly she kept her books, down to the penny. It did not tell how she made monkey faces (yes, it did!), or how the acting teacher at her college said he had just the part for her--a monkey on Noah's Ark. It did not tell of how, as the smallest student in the class, she had her feet radiated over and again on the x-ray machine. It did not tell of how she used to smoke, until she married. It did not tell of her encounters with Al Jolson or with Marlene Dietrich. It did not tell how she showed the latter a tent in a field where she could stay and how Dietrich swept her hand forward and said, "I vill go on to Berlin!" It did not tell how she could not grieve when her husband died. It did not tell how she grieved for a Navy officer who killed himself, because he too was short, "like Fred." It did not tell how she resented her own family, her husband's family, but wanted one for her daughter. It did not tell how she was bitten by a raccoon in her own house, how she said "it just does you in" of the rabies shot she had to have, of how it got in the local newspaper. It did not tell how she asked questions like, "why do you like Modern Art?" or "do you write only for other poets?" It did not tell how she'd adored George Bernard Shaw, how she went to see the Bronte's house and Shelley's "grave." It did not tell of the set of Shakespeare Mrs. Kidder gave her that she got rid of when my father died, along with his clothes, his gold watch, his shoes, her decorative Nazi sword. It did not tell about the big pieces of pie she cut, or how she refused to borrow money or take on mortgages in Monopoly. It did not tell about the wavy brown hair she grew down to her waist, wrapped up in a bun with bobby pins. It did not tell about how, when my father died, and the young doctor entered the room she said, "I trust you're not going to ask me how I am." It did not tell how much she loved hotdogs and ice cream sandwiches, or how she ate a hamburger in Frankfurt and a frankfurter in Hamburg. It did not tell how she sat down one day to write her friends to say she was not Smokey any more, she was Marty.


Search "dementia blog" and "Alzheimer's" to find the rest of Dementia Blog on-line, or rather the sections of it that came after the book was published in 2008.


Caroline Maun said...

"Do you write only for other poets?" reminds me of the conversations I had with my mother. She was always very interested and very happy to have the poetry explicated in our conversations--that was a joy, but the poetry on the page was a fence. As a person without a specifically literary background, and herself working in a second language,she did her best to engage with the poetry I wrote, and those are tender memories.

What a wonderful, cathartic, treasure of an entry to close the blog.

Anonymous said...

Thanks so much for this, Susan. Amazing how sometimes there is this chemistry with either moms or dad can give us memories that stick to the psyche like velcro or tatoos that come tumbling down through the fingertips on to the key board once the gig is up. You two had a wonderfully volatile gig! Again, thanks. Isn't it true - even after decades of endless kinds of wars - that WWII remains the dominant stage for stories and one large story in which everyone, no matter in the military or out, is utterly and familiarly linked.
Stephen Vincent

Philip Metres said...

amen, Susan. You've done her an honor by such fierce remembering.