Long before my grandmother lost all her memories, she told me one of her earliest. “My grandfather liked to watch French movies, and he would take me along when I was a very young child,” she told me. “To babysit me, I suppose. I couldn’t understand the words, but I loved to sit there and watch the pictures.”
She had a soft spot for those early Great Depression-era films because they also reminded her of her father, who worked his way through Boston University playing the drums and other sound effects in silent movie shows before World War I.
These were family stories that no one had heard when she told them a decade ago, and it was a good thing she shared them when she did. She was always the family historian, a duty that she relinquished to me over time. Not long after she passed along her collection of documents from many generations of relatives, she let me make some audio recordings of her own memories.
Within a few years, she would struggle to remember my name. Long after Alzheimer’s consumed her, these recordings — six hours in all — remained a wonderfully intimate record of her life, starting with her earliest recollections.
There is no cure for dementia, and only minimal understanding of how it works. Yet for both sufferers and those whom they leave behind, oral histories can provide a useful palliative — a way of preserving a voice and a personality forever, despite the fragility of the mind.
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