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Mom, memory care, and me

I don’t envy my mother’s loss of her memories, but I do envy her loss of worry about the future.

illustration BY Toni Demuro FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE

I don’t envy my mother’s loss of her memories, but I do envy her loss of worry about the future. Up until this year of her long life, my mother was very involved with fretting about days to come. For whatever reason neurologists might diagnose, the worry is gone and she now cheerily says “This is the happiest day of my life” when she greets people.

Before my 91-year-old mother moved into the Memory Care floor of a remarkably caring senior residence, I sat on the bed in her new room, writing her name with a Sharpie pen in her socks, underwear, and even on the foot of a Raggedy Ann doll she had recently purchased. I struggled to find a spot inside one of my mother’s sneakers while wondering whether my boys would label my clothes with a Sharpie if I live until 91. Wearily, I tried to attach a piece of tape with my mother’s name written in tiny letters to her eyeglasses, but failed. I decided to take a break and put her labeled clothes in the bureau.

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I took a short breath when I opened the top drawer to find a coffee-table book of Alaska, left by the last occupant, with photographs of great ice floes and magnificent polar bears. My mother went to Alaska long ago and even sent her three kids pieces of salmon she had caught.

My mother never wrote my name with a Sharpie in my socks. Sharpies had not been invented, but she did painstakingly sew small name tags, printed with red lettering, in all my shorts, shirts, and bathing suits each year when I went to summer camp. My mother was no Betsy Ross, nor am I, but this labeling of kin’s clothes is apparently what one does as part of human evolution.

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I have three friends whose mothers purchased Raggedy Ann dolls online as their more recent memories crumbled away. Do old men with dementia yearn for model airplanes in their rooms? Or baseball cards? I didn’t see them as I toured where my mother now lives, although in truth there are not so many men. Should I hold onto my adult sons’ Legos to adorn their shelves if they reach 91 or 101, and what will they call the Lost Your Marbles Floor then?

My mother never let me have Barbies, nor did I have any interest in them, but will some of my contemporaries have Barbie dolls in their rooms if we make it to the twilight years?

When my husband and I cleared out my mother’s home, I found a beautiful pair of vanilla-colored kid gloves with the tag still on; a box of research she had done for the Democratic Party on redistricting; a Western Union telegram congratulating her parents on 30 years of marriage (they would have 70 years together); and a card she had sent — or perhaps not sent — to an old boyfriend that said, “If what I overheard is indeed a proposal, even with the contingency, I accept.” I also found her list of state capitals on her night table, which she would valiantly recite over and over as she felt her memories slide away.

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My mother has been on the Memory Care floor for one month, and each time I visit I show her the book of Alaska with the pictures of the great ice floes. We sit side by side, mother and daughter, daughter and mother, as she traces the magnificent polar bears with her finger. And on the last day I visit, I shall leave that Alaska book in the top drawer of the bureau for the adult children of the next occupant to read to their parent, passing along the baton of memories of all our parents, of all of our world.

Patty Dann’s most recent book is “The Butterfly Hours: Transforming Memories Into Memoir.” Send comments to connections@globe.com.

TELL YOUR STORY. E-mail your 650-word essay on a relationship to connections@globe.com. Follow us on Twitter at @BostonGlobeMag. Please note: We do not respond to submissions we won’t pursue.
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