Part 2 of a Two Part Blog

Rethinking Memory

We have a habit of thinking of the past as if it’s over. Memory is supposed to be static. The past can be pinned down with dates and names and completed actions, after all. But as my mother veered into Alzheimer’s, her past selves began to come and go like characters in a movie over which the director has lost control.

Or to put it another way, her past selves were no longer like snapshots. They became active. They said and did things in the present. And the things they did and said often made no literal sense. No wonder. Say it was 2004. When my mother’s 30-year-old self emerged in 2004, it was a self from the 1950’s: different place, different time, different issues.

One summer we took Mother with us to Kinhaven, Vermont, where our 17-year-old son, Jack, was attending music camp for six weeks. We pulled into camp just in time for the after-dinner concert. As we got out of the cars, Jack and a passel of his teenaged friends ran across the meadow toward us. They were tanned and barefoot, wearing white, as they did for concerts.

My mother gazed at Jack and then threw her arms around him. “How are you, Mike?”

He was puzzled. “I’m fine. Thank you, Grammy. But my name is Jack.”

During that whole weekend, my mother persisted in calling our son “Michael.” I don’t think that was a random mistake. Michael was my older brother, my mother’s first child, who had died years ago.

After the concert, I held my mother’s arm as we climbed down the risers. “Where’s Mike?” She was scanning for him.

“It’s Jack,” I corrected her.

“I want to see Mike,” she bleated plaintively

A Stranger in My Mother’s Body?

I could have written this off as a fantasy. I could have told myself that my mother was hallucinating. That would have been frightening. Maybe I’d have contradicted her then, which probably would have led to a fight, or worse, to thinking of her as a stranger in my mother’s body.

Instead, it occurred to me that she might have been imaginatively re-enacting a conflict from her past. My mother tried to protect her beloved children. Michael was asthmatic almost from birth. My mother’s gifted nursing kept him alive until he was eighteen. Then he went away to college, where he survived for only one week. Is it surprising that my mother never got over that?

That weekend at Kinhaven, seeing Jack, who was almost the same age as Michael when he died, must have catapulted Mother into her younger self. She saw him as the son she had so long tried to protect.

As Mother’s Past Selves Emerge, I Recall the Past

Perhaps it is not surprising that as I watched my mother’s past selves appear, I remembered my own past. Our histories, after all, had been lived in tandem. I was sixteen when Michael died. But busy as I was with a house, a job, and children, I hadn’t really thought about him for decades. Hearing my mother call my son “Michael,” I suddenly remembered many details from the weekend he died.

Later, when my mother gave me vivid reports that a man had been calling on her, even though he turned out to be imaginary, I recalled stories my mother had told me about her first experiences with romance. And I vividly recalled my own teenage years as I began dating under her supervision.

The way my mother kept bringing up the past allowed connection between us. I “went” there with her. And that connection kept us both from feeling isolated. We would look at one another and feel understood. That was priceless for mother. She often said how grateful she was.

The more time I spent with mother, as she needed more care, the more I accepted the coming and going of her various past selves. And the more I heard from her past selves, the more details I recalled from my own past. This was stunning and significant to me because I had never reflected much on my past. I didn’t have time. I had zoomed through graduate school, raised a couple of kids, kept house, and published books. Then suddenly, slowing down to care for mother, I had time to reflect on my own history. I began to comprehend how powerfully she had affected me.

Thinking of Memory As A Reward

I never expected any reward for taking care of my mother during that decade with Alzheimer’s. I loved her and I simply knew that I had to. But one of the most surprising gifts of those years I spent caring for mother as she verged into Alzheimer’s was a new sense of my own identity. That and those last connections with my mother were two of the gifts of that decade-- gifts that have remained.

Jeanne Murray Walker is the author of THE GEOGRAPHY OF MEMORY: A Pilgrimage Through Alzheimer’s, which tells the story of caring for her mother during her last decade.


Jeanne's web site:

About the Author

Jeanne Murray Walker, Ph.D.

Jeanne Murray Walker, Ph.D., is a professor of English at the University of Delaware.

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