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Connections | Magazine

As my mother’s memory worsened, the contents of her purse became as unrecognizable as the highlights of her life

But I remember what a trailblazer she was.

Elegant brown leather woman's handbag isolated on white background
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Born in 1925, five years after women got the vote, my mother, Joanne Dann, proudly if shakily filled out an absentee ballot at home on her kitchen table several weeks before Election Day 2016. It would be her last vote — we moved her to a memory care floor soon after.

I trace her time on the memory care floor of mostly women through four stages of purses. It was at the fourth stage that I was surprised to form a new friendship there myself.

My mother had arrived with a purse full of family photos, her favorite lipstick, and an address book. There was also a page torn from a notebook she had labeled Best Moments of My Life. The list included 1. Seeing zebras running in the wild; 2. Visiting Wordsworth’s home in England’s Lake District in the pouring rain while researching master’s thesis; and 3. Kissing David in the back of a taxicab on a snowy night.

The second stage came when she frequently misplaced her purse, or as she called it, pocketbook. During the third stage, a year ago, the rare times she did have her purse, she’d rummage through it and find a solitary slipper (not hers), a toothbrush (perhaps hers), and photos of people never known to her or to us.

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Six months before the pandemic descended, Mom entered the fourth stage. Her purse had been missing for months, but she had not noticed and we stopped looking for it.

Life on the memory care floor is unpredictable, but it seems some of the visiting families take a path similar to long marriages where a couple first gaze only at each other, then hold hands and turn out to the world. During the first-stage visits, my husband and I had only given polite greetings and nods to other visitors. We huddled with my mother, FaceTimed loved ones across the country, and played songs from her youth on our iPhones. By the fourth stage of purses, we stroked Mom’s back, sang to her, but also began to look around for other human connections as she drifted away.

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Two years ago, my mother would exclaim, “David!” when we showed her a black and white picture in her 1943 high school yearbook, of a teenage boy in jacket and tie, the boy she had kissed in the back of the taxicab.

Last October, my mother silently touched that same photo and shook her head. But when I said the name of her school, which she’d attended from kindergarten through her senior year, she smiled. A moment later a pretty redheaded woman in her 50s sitting at the next table with her now quiet mother, who was not carrying a purse, introduced herself. “I’m Jacqueline,” she said. “I went to that school, too.”

In the following weeks, as Mom recognized fewer faces in the yearbook from the school Jacqueline graduated from 40 years later, Jacqueline became our friend.

Then, last December, Jacqueline’s mother died. One day we were with our mothers singing and looking at the yearbook. The next day the mattress was taken out of Jacqueline’s mother’s room.

In May, my mother died peacefully. For the previous three months, the cruelty of COVID-19 had kept us apart — we had to make do with waving up to her on her third-floor porch. If it was raining or too cold, we couldn’t even do that.

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Recently, Jacqueline and I began taking walks together. I tell her of my childhood outings with my mother as she reported stories for our local newspaper. Jacqueline, an architect, tells me stories of her mother, one of the first female stockbrokers.

Who knows where we’ll be when we are old women? For now, Jacqueline and I walk in honor of our mothers, in honor of the women who helped move many of the obstacles in our paths.

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Patty Dann’s most recent book is The Wright Sister,” a historical novel. Send comments to magazine@globe.com. E-mail your 650-word essay on a relationship to connections@globe.com. Please note: We do not respond to submissions we won’t pursue.