A family recipe, a childhood memory, a Depression-era handout
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The crouching, muscled man studied the line of my arm in silence under bright fluorescent lights. After some final discussion of the font and the size, we were ready. He cleaned the area with orange antiseptic and told me to look away if I felt faint.
Getting a tattoo was nothing like how I’d pictured it. Apparently it didn’t involve intense pain so much as seemingly endless discomfort. When I felt confident I wasn’t going to black out, I turned to look. I’d thought he would be on the i by now, but he was still looping the capital F.
I had been staring at my wrist for days — on the subway, in bed at night — desiring a mark there for all to see. When he was finished, it looked just like I’d imagined it.
The artist didn’t ask me whether there was a story behind the tattoo. Maybe he never asks. But I put it there because I wanted to explain it, and I have, over and over. People often ask, “What’s your tattoo?” By now I should have a casual and rehearsed answer that doesn’t make the person feel awkward. Instead I blurt out, “My father killed himself, so I got this.”
I wish I could tell them that grief comes out in strange ways. I wish I could explain that I wanted to make sure I didn’t forget — not the tragedy, but my decision to let it go.
Every day the word inked on my wrist catches my eye. “Forgiven,” it says. I’m still working on making it true.
Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts
I’m staring at the top of my little TV set, where I always place my outbound letters so I’ll remember to put them on the cell door when the guard collects the mail. The letter I’m certain I wrote is not there. Could I have put it somewhere else? I look in my writing folder, where I keep unfinished letters. Nope.
My cellie must have taken it. There are only two of us in this damned eight-by-eleven box. I know of prisoners who have stolen mail from other inmates and written extortion letters to their families and friends. I don’t want to think Mack would do that sort of thing, but why else would he take it? Thoughts of bloody mayhem creep into my mind. Messing with another man’s family will get you killed in here.
I thought of Mack as a friend, someone I could trust — well, as much as anyone in here can be trusted. I pull everything out of my locker, go through it, and put it all back. No letter.
“Mack, did you see the letter I put up here?” I ask, pointing to the TV.
“I think so, or maybe that was yesterday.”
No, I tell him. It was today. I wrote about the fight we saw out on the yard this morning.
I continue looking everywhere. Mack is a pretty good cellie, but if he’s been taking my mail, I will beat him to a pulp. He sets aside his Bible and asks nervously if I’ve looked behind the TV and the locker.
I cannot hide my rage. In my mind I begin searching the cell for a weapon. I once saw a man get his eyes gouged out with a toothbrush.
Sensing I’m on the verge of violence, Mack reminds me of a letter that I couldn’t find a month ago.
“I don’t remember any damned letter disappearing,” I say.
“Think for a minute, Doc. You wrote a fat letter, and to flatten it, you stuck it under your mattress. Then you forgot where you put it.”
Suddenly I do remember. I lift the edge of my thin prison mattress, and, sure enough, there it is.
“Maybe you should talk to the yard doctor,” Mack says. “Let him know that you’re having a little trouble with your memory.”
I sit on my bunk, the letter in my trembling hand, my rage slowly dissipating. It wasn’t his fault. Not his fault at all.
“Sorry, Mack,” I say. “You know how important letters are.”
He points out that this isn’t the first time this has happened. “Please,” he says, “talk to somebody before you do something bad.”
People say that after you give birth, after you are holding in your arms the warm bundle of life you have created, you forget what it was like pushing the baby out of you. But I remember every twinge, every pulse, every clench, every moment when I thought I’d rather die than keep doing what I was doing. Please, Jesus, Buddha, Allah, make it stop.
Sometimes between contractions you get only one or two breaths before your muscles and bones seize and creak and yawn open a bit more, like tectonic plates grinding at a fault line. After forty hours, you start to feel like the thin soil of civilization has been scraped away, and you are now only bedrock and bone, an animal ready to chew her own leg off to be free of this pain.
They say the reason women are willing to give birth again is because they forget, but it’s not. Even though you remember the agony and the blood, you also remember that, where in one instant your arms were empty, in the next there was life — the newest, purest form of life. And it came from you. Eyes that are thirty seconds old can pierce through every awful memory. At that moment you don’t need to forget. You would do it all again.
Palo Alto, California
My ex-husband’s charmed life is coming apart. Steve’s longtime wife has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, and he is suffering from diabetes-related neuropathy. On a good day he needs a cane to walk; on a bad one, a wheeled walker.
After our divorce, while Steve earned a hefty salary, I struggled to raise our three daughters on a medical social worker’s paycheck with minimal child support. I think he meant for me to suffer. It was the price I had to pay for having walked away from his infidelities and lame excuses. I was supposed to have stayed and endured, as was my wifely duty.
Now I’m healthy and active, and he is floundering. Part of me remains professionally detached as I assess the progression of his disease and his wife’s. (I have considerable experience with Alzheimer’s patients.) Another part of me remembers how he and his wife once made my life so hard, gloating over my failures and ignoring my successes, even in the rearing of the children.
I’m reminded of that old adage: “Sit by the river long enough and you will see the bodies of your enemies float by.” I never realized that the sight of those enemies could evoke such pity.
Though Steve hasn’t asked for my advice, I have been offering it through our daughters. I instructed them months ago, “Tell your father to move to Santa Rosa,” where we all live. “He needs family nearby for support.”
Steve accepted this advice gratefully, selling his home a hundred miles away and buying another close to ours. He is now having to make some hard decisions on his own. He has always had women caretakers to keep his life running smoothly. I can only imagine his panic when his wife began to forget. At first Steve tried to keep the situation secret, but all it took was a twenty-minute conversation with his wife last spring, and I knew. I see the terrible physical toll her illness has taken on Steve’s already precarious health, and I’ve recommended caregivers’ support groups. He’ll need them.
Steve still does not directly ask for my help — maybe because he remembers how little help he once gave me — but I am giving it when he allows.
I’m sure the irony escapes neither of us.
When I traveled to a small community called Kranshoek in Plettenberg Bay, South Africa, a neighbor of the family I was staying with asked me where I was from. When I answered “New Jersey,” he shook his head and clarified: he wanted to know where in Africa my ancestors were from. When I told him I didn’t know, his facial expression conveyed disbelief. He kept prodding, assuming I must have some clue, but I had none. I felt ashamed that I couldn’t trace my lineage past the Carolinas.
Everywhere I went in South Africa, people asked the same question, even vendors in the markets: “Where are you from, my sister?” I was saying, “I don’t know,” so much that I considered having it tattooed on my forehead. Some people would guess, saying that my features resembled those of someone from Kenya or Senegal. It seemed everyone could tell me where his or her own great-great-grandfather had been born.
I hadn’t expected to develop such a connection to Africa on that trip. I have been inspired to discover where I am originally from. I hope that one day I will be able to go back to South Africa with an answer to this question.
Roselle, New Jersey
At my mother’s funeral a family friend took me aside, gave me a hug, and said, “You’ll soon forget all the illness and be left with just happy memories.”
She’s a good friend, but she was wrong.
When I was a teenager, my mother worked seventy-and eighty-hour weeks, and I went days without seeing her. At the age of seventeen I moved out, feeling I barely knew her at all. A year later I went home for my first visit. While I was there, my mother woke one morning to find she had no feeling in her left leg.
Within eight years she was dead from a particularly vicious form of multiple sclerosis: Eight years of burning pain, progressive numbness, and creeping paralysis. Five years of wheelchairs. Two years of quadriplegia. More than a year of hearing loss and vision impairment. And, at the end, nothing but a tiny voice squeezed out of lungs so weakened by paralysis that they finally stopped expanding.
I’m now thirty-six, and I can barely remember my mother when she was well. When I try to think of her walking, it’s a blur; my images of her standing are remembered from photographs. Instead I remember crooked hands, swollen feet in orthopedic shoes resting on the foot plates of a wheelchair. Her skin was dry and sloughing off (a side effect of her medication). The bright-eyed, inquisitive mother of my childhood had become lethargic, heavy, and dulled by pain. I can’t even remember her original voice. The illness was all-encompassing.
In frustration and grief I have largely given up trying to remember; instead I look for her in me.
When I wash dishes, there are her hands, setting the dishrag out to dry. When I hang laundry, there are her fingers, clipping pins to the corners of my sheets. I sit at my desk and feel the resolute set of her jaw. I look in the mirror and see her eyes looking back at me, kinder now than they often were.
It’s not quite remembering, these little glimpses of my mother in me, but it’s enough. I think of it as a friendly haunting — painful at times but infinitely better than no memories of her at all.
My mother was the first in my Chinese family to come to the United States. An aspiring scientist studying diabetes drugs, she was chosen to do research at an American university as a visiting scholar.
During her first year away my mother wrote letters to tell us about life in the U.S.: Cars were so ubiquitous and cheap that many of her poor fellow students owned them, and she was considering buying one herself. Supermarkets were as big as Beijing’s Great Hall of the People, where the Chinese government held meetings. After years of scrambling to feed us in China, she marveled at the huge watermelons, the gigantic piles of fish, the enormous containers of milk, and the beautifully decorated cakes. “I can’t finish all the food even if I keep eating twenty-four hours a day,” she wrote. “I need all of you to come here and help me!”
We did, and we made a new life in the U.S. Now, twenty years later, my family struggles with obesity. My father boasts a “general’s belly,” which he thinks makes him look like an ancient hero of China. My brother has high blood pressure in his midthirties. Ironically, despite being an expert on diabetes, my mother has endured various complications of the disease, including skin ulcers, hearing loss, and a mouth full of wiggling teeth.
Yet my parents complain that I’m the one who is “too Americanized,” who has been “converted by the white people’s cult,” because I have lived in hippie housing co-ops, denounced corporations, and been a vegetarian since college. My parents call my insistence on riding a bike rather than driving a car “backward,” because they biked when they lived in China.
On a recent Saturday morning I got up early and biked to the local farmers’ market. I remembered how I used to follow my mother to the market in China: we had to bargain with the fruit and vegetable vendors to get the best deal, or else there wouldn’t be enough food for the family. My parents have gladly traded subsistence in China for the abundance in the U.S. and all its accompanying health problems. I can’t believe how quickly we are forgetting.
San Francisco, California
When I was nineteen, after several years of unsuccessful attempts to treat my depression and anxiety disorders with prescription drugs, my psychiatrist told me I might benefit from electroconvulsive therapy, or ECT. He arranged for me to meet with a doctor at a nearby hospital who performed ECT.
This doctor assured me that ECT was safe and sometimes resulted in a remission of symptoms. The procedure — which would involve my being put under anesthesia and having electrical currents applied to my brain to induce seizures — would need to be done three times a week for about a month. During this time I could expect some disruption of my short-term memory. I would probably not be able to remember the time period surrounding the treatments, but my memories prior to ECT and my ability to form new memories after the treatments should not be affected.
I took time off from school, and my mother took a month off from work to drive me to and from each session and look after me. That entire month is a blur, as I’d been forewarned it might be. The treatments were slow to make any difference in my mood. I ended up receiving sixteen in all.
It soon became clear that I had lost great swaths of memories, particularly from my teens. And my short-term memory did not come back even months after I’d finished the treatments. When I returned to college, I was unable to remember anything without looking at my notes, which unfortunately I could not employ during tests. I failed all of my exams and did not enroll for the next quarter.
What little relief the treatments had given me from my depression had since waned, perhaps because the benefits of ECT are only temporary, or perhaps due to how helpless I felt.
Ten years later I still carry around a pen and paper to make notes, though I don’t rely on them as heavily as I once did. I did not regain any of my lost memories. I still occasionally hear a story from my past and find it so foreign that I wonder if it really happened.
I have read a lot over the years about other people’s experiences with ECT, and my prolonged, debilitating memory loss is not unique. The medical establishment is well aware that ECT causes severe and even crippling damage to memory functions. That very fact is one reason ECT is thought to make patients feel better: because it makes them forget.
I helped care for my mother and father toward the end of their lives. Her mental capacity was diminished by dementia; he was mentally alert, but his ability to move, sleep, and even swallow was declining.
Mother’s forgetting seemed to disturb her sisters when they came to visit. It was as if, because she was the oldest, her memories were the official record of their own history. (Also they no doubt saw their future in her.) They would question her about the past or casually mention a name she should have known in order to see how much Mother had really forgotten. I felt sad hearing these conversations.
Sometimes we who remember need to forget. We need to set aside the past and engage the ailing person as she is, rather than compare her to the one we once knew. Mother seemed to feel people’s disappointment when she could not respond to their questions. She would frown or wrinkle her brow when they avoided talking to her directly, instead talking to me about her. She smiled, however, with her grandchildren. Their laughter and touches brightened her mood, because they could just be with her. They did not need for her to remember the past.
“I forgot,” I told my mother.
I was twelve, and the counselor at school had suggested to my parents that I befriend Michael, a lonely, ostracized boy my age, the target of many cruel jokes and pranks by my friends. Michael and his family lived just four houses away, and though it had been arranged that I would go over there after school, I never did. I claimed to have forgotten, but the truth is I was terrified that my friends would find out and turn their sadistic attentions on me.
I never did visit Michael, and my parents didn’t make an issue of it. Michael’s parents, I imagine, were too disheartened to pursue the matter.
I realize now that friends you fear are not friends at all, and the quiet, gentle boy whom no one liked might have been a better friend than any of them. But I’ll never know. Michael committed suicide at the age of fifteen.
When I was eight and my sister, Jeannie, was five, financial problems and illness left our parents unable to cope. I turned to books as a refuge. Lost in Oz or some other fairy-tale land, I could forget the real world and my own helplessness.
I had always been a protective (and bossy) big sister, and I wanted Jeannie to be able to forget too, if only for a while. So I invented a guardian fairy for her.
“Belinda” began leaving notes in Jeannie’s shoe or under her pillow, telling her that the fairies had noticed her and wanted to be friends. I would read the notes to her, explaining that Belinda was her personal fairy and would watch over her.
After a few months Jeannie began dictating responses to me, begging Belinda to let her visit Fairyland. At first Belinda said that mortals could not be admitted to the secret world of fairies, but eventually she compromised: she said that, while Jeannie was asleep, the fairies would come and take her to a night of games and dancing, but before Jeannie returned to the real world, she would have to drink a forgetting potion so she could not tell anyone what she had seen in Fairyland. Jeannie readily agreed.
Over the next few years Jeannie took many “trips” to Fairyland, sometimes returning with a flower or some costume jewelry as a souvenir, and afterward Belinda would describe what they had done there. But then something unexpected happened: Jeannie would wake up and “remember” the new dance the fairies had taught her or the dewdrop ice cream they’d served.
Looking back, I think that becoming a cocreator of the fantasy gave Jeannie some power of her own. When she finally unmasked me as Belinda after three years, she was keenly disappointed but not undone by it. She understood that somebody did love her, even if it wasn’t fairies; and I understood that I could do something more than hide and try to forget.
Westfield, New Jersey
My mother-in-law, Mildred, sat beside her walker, a red cap covering the few remaining strands of hair on her head. Her son, my husband Jim, accompanied me on an out-of-tune upright piano as I serenaded her and a group of other seniors with some songs from the thirties and forties. They were a tough audience, but every now and then a hint of remembrance flickered in someone’s eyes.
“See those two men standing over there by the door?” Mildred said, her veined hand touching my sleeve and pulling me closer to her. “I’m going to leave with them. Don’t tell Jimmy. We’re going out to have some fun.”
“OK, Mildred. Do you think you can wait until he finishes playing?”
She stared at the vacant wall where the men of her imagination waited patiently. Then I watched as the thought seemed to slip from her mind.
I’d met Mildred when she was eighty-eight, a petite, vivacious woman who loved crafts, knitting, and music. But after a few years she developed dementia.
On one of our visits Jim led his failing mother to the piano and placed her swollen fingers on the keys. “Watch this,” he said. “She’s just a shadow of her old self, but you’ll get the idea.” As if on their own, her hands started cranking out a deeply felt rendition of “Saint Louis Blues.”
Jim’s love of music came from her. When he was a boy, she would captivate him with her delicate piano playing. It was one of her few outlets. Mildred’s husband wouldn’t allow her to work outside the home, and over the course of their long marriage he wore her down with his rigid authority.
A year before she died at age ninety-eight, Mildred looked at Jim and me and with great sadness asked, “I wonder where Daddy is?” (“Daddy” was her name for her deceased husband.)
Her words lingered in the air, and I thought of how she’d spent sixty-two years under his rule. Suddenly her face glowed, and an impish twinkle replaced her serious demeanor.
“Where is he?” she repeated, and she chuckled. “Oh, I really don’t care.”
Charlotte, North Carolina
My older sister died in a car accident when she was sixteen and I was thirteen. She was dramatic and chatty, active in student government, and prone to unexplained spells of laryngitis. I was loud and arrogant and determined to make the world a fairer place. We fought often over small matters.
The last time I saw her not plugged into a life-support machine, she was in the hallway of our school, where she was a smug sophomore and I was an obnoxious seventh-grader. She was scolding me for something, and I was acting as if I didn’t care. A teacher who loved her and didn’t really like me said, “Aw, sisterly love.” In response, we hugged — for show, but at least it was a gesture of affection. She died later that day.
Twenty years after the fact, it bothers me that I can’t remember what my sister was really like. If she were alive now, would she worry about climate change or estate taxes? Would she believe in God or gun control? I have no idea.
At first it seemed sad and scary that I could lose my memory of someone who was once a part of my day-to-day life. Now I realize that I haven’t forgotten her; I just never really knew her in the first place. I didn’t know how to get through her facade and find the truth of her. Or maybe I didn’t care to.
I suppose if I live long enough, I will forget everyone I’ve ever known. I won’t be able to help that, but in the meantime I can do this: I can skip the polite, scripted conversation with friends and family and get right to the important questions, the thoughts that keep them up at night and get them out of bed in the morning. I can really know them.
Holderness, New Hampshire
It’s been eight months since my forty-six-year-old husband had three strokes — on top of the three he had eight years ago, following a snowboarding accident. That time he eventually regained most of the brain functions he’d lost, and the story of the experience became dinner-party fodder. But I am starting to understand that this time is different. This time the damage is not going to heal so readily.
One effect is his loss of short-term memory. He keeps lists in order to cope with it. If something isn’t written down, it doesn’t exist in his world. Our home is littered with notes, schedules, and reminders of all kinds. We have multiple alarms set for the really important tasks like taking medications. Conversations are repeated, pieces of information fall through the cracks, and extra time has to be taken with everything.
My husband has also lost most of his ability to process complex abstract thought — this includes emotional complexity, empathy, and analytical thinking. He may forget how to reboot the wireless router, or the first anniversary of my mother’s death, or the triggers that set off our daughter’s anxiety attacks. Although the short-term-memory loss is frustrating, the loss of more-complex thinking has turned my world inside out.
If you met my husband today, you might think his endless lists a bit odd, but, not having known him before, you would not notice the absences. I do. I see all the subtle changes in personality and cognition. And I can’t forget the man he used to be.
I am relearning how to interact with him. When I get tired and forget to adjust my behavior, when I forget to speak simply and concretely, when I present him with more than one emotion at a time, when I am irritated or exasperated, he inevitably gets confused, and we fight. He needs me to tell him why I am irritated and still doesn’t really understand.
I am living with a different person, one who can’t relate to me the way he once did. Our relationship will never be what it was. While he works on not forgetting doctor’s appointments, I work on letting go of the habits of twenty-five years. One of us scrambles to remember; the other must figure out how to forget.
San Anselmo, California
I was a young man during the Great Depression, when amateur boxing was one of the nation’s favorite sports. Boxing clubs sprang up like spring daisies in old barns, church basements, and abandoned warehouses. With a good turnout a fight’s purse might reach a healthy twenty-five dollars — a small fortune in the thirties, when potatoes were a few cents a pound. I watched with envy as boxers from my neighborhood, who’d once begged their parents for pennies, now flashed wads of cash and wore new duds. I also saw black eyes, a broken nose, and ugly rope burns, but the lure of sudden wealth was too great. I joined the Bronson House Boxing Stable.
I began my amateur career as a 126-pound featherweight. I was not a heavy hitter and depended on speed, footwork, and the cumulative effects of short jabs and hooks to win. I averaged two fights a month, and the money was good. It was a proud moment when I handed Mama a five-dollar bill to help out with the groceries.
I competed for the next two years in some fifty or so fights. There’s one I shall never forget. I had traveled to Moundsville, West Virginia, to box on the grounds of the West Virginia State Prison. Prison inmates watched from bleachers on one side, while the paying public viewed the action from the other.
Scheduled to fight in the sixth match, I walked around the dressing room in my robe, my guts churning with the usual prefight jitters. Then I got word that the lineup had changed due to no-shows. I was now on third. “C’mon, champ,” said my trainer, Tucker. “We gotta hurry. Crowd’s getting nasty because of the delay.”
He pushed on my gloves and tied the laces, and I followed him into the packed arena, where a foot-stomping crowd was yelling, “Let’s go! Let’s go!” I bounded up the steps and ducked through the ropes into the ring. The referee hurriedly ran through his instructions to my opponent and me, then said, “Go back to your corners, and come out fighting at the bell.”
I was in my corner when the bell went off, and Tucker quickly reached over the ropes and slipped off my robe. I danced to the center of the ring, and my opponent suddenly dropped his guard and stared downward. I wasn’t wearing any trunks! An athletic supporter prevented complete nudity, but my bare derrière was exposed to the world.
Laughter rocked the bleachers. I looked to my corner for help and saw that Tucker, a man not known for his levity, was red faced he was laughing so hard. Someone finally tossed me my robe, and I made a dash for the dressing room, pursued by yells, whistles, and catcalls.
I had loaned my trunks to a boxer fighting in the opener, thinking I’d have plenty of time to retrieve them after his match. In all the confusion with the schedule change, I’d forgotten.
When I returned to the ring, I got a standing ovation, and I won an easy three-round decision. I think the judges were on my side.
When my dad started to forget things, he appeared to be calm about it. He would graciously explain to the listener that, in his old age, his memory failed him at times. As it became worse, he would appear a little dazed when informed that he had lost a memory. No upset. No anger. For example, at one point I told him I was taking his violin to my house, now that he wasn’t playing it anymore. “I used to play the violin?” he asked, his face showing delight at the thought.
I saw Dad unhappy about forgetting on only one occasion. He was eighty-nine years old, in his last year of life. I wasn’t sure he remembered who I was, so I tried to jog his memory with stories of when I’d been little: Did he remember when he would sit me on the kitchen counter in my pajamas and make fresh orange juice for our breakfast while I watched? Did he remember how he would hide something under the orange peel, and I would giggle with glee when he lifted it up and showed me?
I was sure he would get that sweet, distant smile on his face, his eyes focused on the past, but instead there were tears on his cheek and in his voice.
“Why are you asking me all these questions?” he said. “Please stop.”
I am going this morning to buy flowers. I will take them to my mother at her house, and she will say, as she has said every year that I have brought her flowers on this date, “You’re so sweet. You’re the only one who remembers.”
My little sister, who was stillborn, would be thirty today.
I was five at the time of her death, and I remember only snippets of it: my mother looking sad; my father scolding me when I told her she still looked like she was going to have a baby. When I was a teenager, my mother spoke briefly to me about the depression she’d suffered afterward, but for the most part we haven’t talked about it.
What must it be like to see one’s own child dead as she emerges into the world? To glimpse her for only moments before she is gone forever? Does my mother remember her face? I have always been afraid to ask.
Today, when my mother says I’m the only one who remembers, I will tell her that’s not possible; though we don’t speak of her, I feel certain that no one in our family has forgotten Susanna.
I have been a widow for a year and a half, having lost my husband of twenty-six years to cancer. He fought for three long years while the disease took away his ability to taste, to smell, to cry, and to have any movement below his shoulders. On a sunny September day it finally took his life.
I often find myself reliving the time we spent sitting in hospital rooms or traveling to Chicago for chemotherapy or Bloomington, Indiana, for radiation. A cloudy day will put me back in a hotel room near the hospital, struggling to buoy his spirits and mine. In each place we traveled, we would locate a health-food store in order to prepare meals for his vegan anticancer diet. Now just walking into one of those stores nearly causes me to have a panic attack. A trip to a doctor’s office leaves me paralyzed.
On the flip side, I fear forgetting the memories I want to keep. I fear I will forget his voice, his laugh, his habits: the way he tied his shoes or placed his hands on his hips. I fear forgetting the way he leaned over the kitchen counter to kiss me when he came home from work. I fear forgetting the feel of his weight on his side of the bed or the way he pulled the sheet around his feet. I fear forgetting the touch of his hand or how he would wink at me for no particular reason.
In my young widows’ grief group many of us have lost spouses to long illnesses. We talk about how hard it is to adjust to lives in which we don’t exist on the edge of disaster. The trauma of those days is what fuels the flashbacks and dims the happy memories. I wish only to arrive at a place where I don’t fear remembering — or forgetting.
I expect many children of parents with Alzheimer’s must feel lost themselves: if Mom doesn’t know me, then who am I?
Not me. Mom’s memory loss has freed me. Now that I have stopped going to her expecting recognition, understanding, and affection, I am free to love her again. I can now recall with gratitude the good things about her that I’d let slip into the background.
Since Mom has lost her mind, I can forget how she could never recognize me, her own daughter, in public places. (“Your face is so plain!”) I remember instead the dolls she bought me every Christmas, even when she couldn’t afford them.
I can forget that she resented my intellectual bent. (“How did I get a daughter like you?”) I remember instead the day she walked to the library, after having worked eight hours, to sign the form allowing me, a nine-year-old, to check out any book in the whole building.
I can forget all the times she said, “I can’t afford it,” and remember instead that long-ago hot Saturday afternoon when we passed a shoe store advertising a two-for-one sale on the brand I coveted with every fiber of my teenage being, and she said, “Let’s go inside.” When we came back out, I was clutching two pairs.
I can forget that she didn’t care for my childhood interests. (“You think too much!”) I remember instead that she taught me to listen to the quiet of the desert and to find beautiful patterns in the broken branch of a tree, the veins of a rock, the feather of a mourning dove.
I can forget that she missed every one of my school programs and events. (“I’m too tired.”) I remember instead that she never missed the bus that took her downtown to work at the job that kept us fed and sheltered even when Dad’s schemes threatened our finances.
I can forget that she didn’t protect me from my father. (“What do you expect me to do?”) I remember instead that I learned to fight for myself.
I can forget that I swore five years ago I would never go home again. I remember instead that, when I broke that promise last year and walked into her room at the nursing-care facility where she now lives, she cried out my name and threw herself into my arms; that she recognized me that one time, when it mattered most.
New York, New York
When I was twenty, my father took his own life with a handgun in the middle of the night in the spare bedroom. I kept some of my clothes in that bedroom closet, and the next morning, when I went to get something to wear to work, I found him.
The image of something like that must be banished from memory. A person must forget in order to survive. But anything might trigger it: a scene in a movie, a story, someone asking about my mom and dad.
I am reaching the age at which one starts to worry about senility. I have a terrible memory, but I’m not sure how much of this is due to age and how much to the fact that I have trained myself not to look back. I have to be careful if I reminisce about when my daughter was small, or my own childhood friends, or romances in my past, because if I let my mind wander, the forbidden memory will come. I haven’t forgotten.
Greenville, South Carolina
On Sunday afternoons my mother taught me how to take naps. After she’d made sure that my father had worn a clean shirt at the pulpit and my three sisters and I had looked respectable sitting in the pew; after she’d played the organ, conducted the choir, and presided over Sunday school; after she’d talked to every parishioner in that dwindling congregation; after she’d cooked the best meal of the week, complete with a creamy dessert — after all that, she felt entitled to a schläfchen, a little nap.
As she retreated into her bedroom, she’d grab me, her youngest, and we’d disappear under her huge feather comforter, leaving my older sisters to wash a mountain of dirty dishes in the sink.
She slept on her right side with her knees at an angle. I fit perfectly into the contours of her body, my curly blond head tucked under her chin.
“Whoever falls asleep first says, ‘Kikeriki,’ ” she’d suggest. (Kikeriki is the German word for cock-a-doodle-doo.)
I liked the idea of this competition.
“Kikeriki,” I’d say as I started to doze off.
“You’re not asleep yet,” she’d whisper.
True enough. I’d try harder.
When we awoke, I’d ask, “Did I say, ‘Kikeriki’?”
“No, you forgot,” she’d say.
This game went on for years, until it finally dawned on me: “You can’t sleep and say, ‘Kikeriki,’ at the same time.”
“You’re right,” my mother acknowledged with a smile.
After that I was done with naps and joined my sisters in the kitchen to squabble over who would scrub and wash and dry.
When, in her old age, my mother began hiding her money where she could not find it, getting lost on her way home from church, and forgetting the words to carry on a conversation, we often just sat together quietly.
Once, feeling playful, I tapped her belly and asked, “Are you sure you once had me in there?”
Yes, she nodded seriously.
It was one of the last things she seemed to know for sure.
My cousin David was my best friend until I was thirteen years old. December 26, 2002, marked the end of our friendship. It was the last holiday we celebrated together. I have no idea how he brought in the New Year because David was a foster child, and before the start of 2003 my aunt and uncle, who had fostered him for six years, sent him back as if he were a toy that didn’t work properly.
My family acted as if I’d never had a cousin David: the winter sledding, the Sunday dinners, the drives to the coast, the birthday gifts from Grandma. The foster program’s policy forbade us from contacting him. Family policy forbade us from talking about him. I never even got to say goodbye because no one had told me he was leaving. Occasionally a picture with him in it would surface, and someone would point out a very interesting tree in the background to distract us from the forgotten boy with a lopsided smile.
But I never forgot David. I would lie in bed at night and think of him, working to keep my memory of him alive. At first it was easy: I’d remember our G.I. Joe villages made of twigs; our endless games of cowboys and Indians. But as I got older, I had only a blurry recollection of our childhood adventures. I came to think it was time to forget and move on. Surely David had by now. How else could he overcome being abandoned by people he thought were his family?
And then, nearly ten years after I’d last seen David, I walked into a tiny cafe and saw a man behind the counter with a familiar lopsided smile. The universe had granted us a reunion. He jumped over the bar to greet me with a tremendous hug.