Some of you may have noticed that I have not posted here for many weeks. A few knew I had headed to Bangor, Maine, to spend time with my mother and help celebrate her 100th birthday. For three months we visited, making small talk in her antique-filled room or cruising the assisted living residence she calls home.
If you have never experienced someone with memory loss, let me say that it forces one to practice patience like never before. I had to stop my own annoyance from mounting when every minute or two my mother asked for the date and time. My job, and that of her aides, was to distract her from what she doesn’t know and to focus on enjoying the here and now. That was easy with my mother who propels herself through life with a relentless cheerfulness, determined to deny the complicated emotions that rivet the rest of us.
My mother loves to do crossword puzzles and would try to engage anyone who enters her room. She remembers the old stars and literary names and solved all of the Latin clues. She and I did the New York Times crossword and together we dissected the tricky clues in search of double entendres. One of her aides makes crossword a social activity, gathering a group of elderly women to solve the puzzles from a paperback book.
Some days, I pulled out boxes of old photographs and described the people and scenes that her failed eyes could no longer see. We laughed as I read old diaries written when she was a young girl in Augusta and Portland, then looked up her old friends to see if any of them survived (none had).
My mother’s 100th birthday celebration stretched over several days starting with a shared birthday cake in the assisted living dining room, then a small party put on by the local chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution, and one arranged by a former students and teachers at Waterville High School.
The major get-together for family and friends was held at Lucerne Inn, a place first settled by her ancestors in 1810.
My mother talked endlessly about her birthday for the weeks leading up to it and thoroughly enjoyed each of the parties that honored her but when they were over, she forgot it all. I printed a large photo of the attendees and would name each of the people standing behind her on that day and she agreed that it was a ‘wonderful event,’ speaking from habit rather than actual memory.
Throughout my visit, my mother always knew who I was, drawing on her still vivid old memories. She recognized my dear friend Lizzie and recalled our experiences together as teenagers 48 years ago.
When not with my mother, I lived in Orrington, across the Penobscot river from Bangor. For the first time in 25 years, I was living alone. To stay busy, I volunteered with a solidarity project to purchase food from farmers and donate them to laid off workers and others who have fallen on hard times. I served as the liaison with the small farmers and helped to publicize a benefit concert by Noel Paul Stookey, of Peter, Paul and Mary.
The long, unseasonably warm autumn allowed me to take long walks around Fields Pond or in City Forest.
A couple of times I made it down to Acadia, to feel the flung spray and the blown spume and hear the seagulls cry (thank you, John Masefield).
I also had a chance to research the local history of my ancestors, including Thomas and Martha Cowing, two children of Revolutionary War soldiers who settled nearby.
My most precious time, however, was spent each day with my mother, days that washed over me, erasing any lingering grievance or guilt about my long absences roaming the world. I was thankful that I was able to take care of my mother, knowing that it healed a damaged part of me.
When the snow started falling and in the chill set in, I hid my tears to say good bye. I knew my mother was in good hands, tended to by caring aides, but I could have easily stayed by her side.
As I drove south, I decided to give my mother a call. I knew immediately that she had forgotten that I had been there. She sounded surprised to hear my voice and acted like it had been a long time since she had heard from me. I told her I had just left Bangor after three months there and she said ‘oh,’ embarrassed by her loss of memory. Within seconds she had forgotten again and moved on to her favorite subject: when she would see me again.
Listen as Johnny Cash & Lynn Anderson tear it up.
Where we are today.