Ever notice how memories slip into the activities of our everyday lives? Things we don’t think of until something or someone triggers that long ago memory and it rushes to the forefront of our minds.
Several years ago while caring for my mother, near the end of her life, I wanted to help get her to eat. She’d suffered another of several congestive heart failure episodes, and the nurses encouraged some fruit. I brought bananas, something I knew she enjoyed.
Recently staff had begun mashing her food, so I mashed the bananas. Their aroma overwhelmed my senses. You know…that smell only a fresh banana has.
As I continued mashing, I remembered doing the same for my son when he was an infant. No doubt Mama had mashed bananas for him, and other grandchildren, and for her children.
My next thoughts moved to contemplate how the cycle of life catches up with us in the mundane. As my mind wandered back through generations, I imagined my grandmother engaged in the same activity, and her mother, and on and on.
Among my thoughts was the process of aging. As we age our bodies and our abilities revert to how we were as children. Unable to care for ourselves. Unable to read or write. Even in our eating things change.
The prospect of reaching my eighth decade (in the minds of some aging, in other words) in February never bothered me. I looked on the process as part of my life cycle and enjoy catching up each year for a couple of months when my husband is only eight years older. Like most others, I celebrated this birthday with Bob and our son and his wife over dinner at a favorite restaurant with much chatter and laughter. Then we went our separate ways.
It dawned on me in the next few days my husband would turn 79 in April, a year away from 80. That rocked my foundation much more than did my own changing decade. Was it because the 80s tend to be a downturn for some, or that he is in poor health? Neither of these things apply to Bob. But somehow a shift change took place within me.
Perhaps it related to the fall I took in January. Yet those injuries were healing well, and I felt like normal was on the horizon. A writing workshop the last weekend in February was coming up. Bob was going along to meet some of my writing friends and enjoy a couple of days at the coast. Life couldn’t be better, or so it seemed.
Fast forward to that weekend in Yachats, Oregon, and suddenly 70 looked worse than I first thought. I left the conference early to come home and nurse unexpected and unexplained severe back pain. As always, it took several days and doctors’ visits to decide the cause of the pain, and then it was another few days before treatments would begin. Today is two weeks after the injection to ease the pain, but the medication has not been as efficacious as hoped. It may take another or maybe two more injections. Boy, was I suddenly feeling old!
BUT WAIT THERE’S MORE…
A trip to Tennessee scheduled in May takes us to our grandson, Michael’s high school graduation with honors and a bright future ahead. Our plans are to take Amtrak to Chicago and then drive the rest of the way to our destination. Departure is scheduled for May 16th. I want to feel better by then. When I began thinking about this post, it was the sense of joy I felt about Michael’s accomplishments and the solid young man he is. His parents are due much credit for raising him so well. That is what brought me to this writing place I call my blog to share my thoughts with you.
In recent weeks, I’ve been present online some, and I’ve pulled together book reviews over at Puddletown Reviews. But I’ve not attended to any writing on my memoir, not much on this blog, and my newsletter needs my attention.
Joy is found in doing the things we love. Whether it is writing, painting, photography, music, crafting, or something else, that which we love brings us an ever-present joy, if we allow it. Creativity isn’t work in my mind; it is a place I love to enter not knowing what I’ll have produced when I come out.
It occurred to me while writing this post that joy moves us along to gratitude. Think about it:
Initially, my writing process followed my thought process. As this post begins, I sound somewhat in the doldrums over aging and what comes with it. Note especially that as we age it becomes harder to recover from injuries, surgeries, and illnesses. And it takes more time. Time grows long and boring, until we think of someone or something special.
Almost instantly thinking of Michael and his graduation turned my thoughts and feelings to ones of joy. My thoughts had been centered on my pain and how much I want to either be better than now or have the pain resolved before our trip in May. Now, thinking of the joy of our trip and writing about Michael pushed me forward to a place of gratitude.
And arriving there, I pause to give voice to my gratitude.
⇒Physicians and processes for healing and helping those with health needs ⇒A patient and helping soul mate and best friend who has helped me through pain and recovery more than once, my husband ⇒The gift of friends and family who support me in my writing, both in real-time and online ⇒Special times shared with family far away, like graduations, weddings, new babies. ⇒The joy of seeing a grandchild grow into a solid young man with a strong background given to him by his parents ⇒The gift of writing itself which called me to sit today and write this post from which evolved the beautiful process of movement from my realities to joy and on to gratitude
WHERE HAS YOUR WRITING BROUGHT YOU TODAY? WHERE MIGHT IT TAKE YOU NEXT? WHAT HAVE YOU LET IT EXPOSE FROM WITHIN YOU? PERHAPS YOU HAVE SOMETHING TO SHARE. IT’S YOUR TURN–GO RIGHT AHEAD!
Today I am sharing with you a recent experience which started my husband and me thinking. Thinking about family, memories, storytelling, and how to share that history with the next generation. On the Meyer side of our family, the work is somewhat up-to-date. But who will carry the torch after our generation is gone? Our generation is slipping away slowly one by one. What about your family history?
“She isn’t the sister I knew,” my husband says when he returns from driving his sister, Mary Ellen, home after lunch.
I don’t know what to say. I understand what his words mean. I still don’t know what to say.
This is the second sibling I have heard him make this comment about, the other a brother who died almost two years ago.
“As long as you can remember the good times, the days in Outlook, Mary Ellen seems to have good recall.” Words I use to encourage him.
In fact, it happened over lunch.
When Bob arrived to pick Mary Ellen up and bring her to our home, she asked her now routine question, “Have you been here before?”
And the answer is always yes as one of us visits weekly, if not more. Since her assisted living community is only eight blocks away, we often make it our daily walk to visit.
But her short-term memory has lost its bearings.
We visit for a time, and then lunch calls us. It is our first time to sit with only the three of us around the table. Mary Ellen’s husband died a couple of months ago, and her move near us and a nephew is relatively recent.
We join hands for grace. Her skin has the feel of thin paper, and her hands are cold. It’s in the upper 80s outside.
We chat amiably while eating. Mary Ellen jokes about her unreliable memory, and we commiserate that our collective memories aren’t much better some days.
Bob recalls receiving an invitation recently from their grade school in Outlook, WA, a tiny space in the road in the Yakima Valley. He mentions the name of the woman who sent it and with whom he has talked. He asks Mary Ellen if she remembers Dorothy Cullen from their grade school days.
She looks up and furrows her brow. Finally, she says she doesn’t, her now nearly gone eyesight trying to focus on him.
And then she says, “Oh, there was a Dorothy Ross in Outlook.”
Yes, this was the woman Bob was talking about but he had used her married name since he couldn’t think of her maiden name.
That recalled memory is from decades ago, but our visits with Mary Ellen recently have only been in the last two months. She doesn’t remember us visiting or others calling or coming by. She doesn’t remember her husband is dead.
We sit later that day talking about family and memories. Bob and I know with certainty that we too are growing older daily, and our memories aren’t always as sharp as they used to be.
Mary Ellen is the oldest of the six Meyer siblings and the genealogist in the family. She has researched, traveled, and visited with family members all over New England and the Midwest. Her travels include trips to cemeteries, old schools and churches, and the family history we have is amazing.
Not only that, Mary Ellen, a retired school teacher, is among the best storytellers in the family. Up until now, her mind was never faulty on a single detail about farm life, grade school teachers, preachers in the country church, music lessons, and life in tiny Outlook, WA.
But this record keeper and researcher is nearly blind, her mind is failing, and she turns 90 in a few weeks. Who will take up the torch and tread the course in keeping the family history and the stories moving generation to generation?
We haven’t been the best stewards of the Meyer history. At least the record of the Meyer clan is in many hands now, thanks to the Internet. But will it continue to spread as our family continues to grow?
We encourage our children to slow down, make treasured memories, memories that will last, and to write them down for future generations to read and share on and on. And we ask them to make sure they label photos on their Smartphones and computers with names, dates, places so someone will know a bit of the story held in the images decades from now.
Otherwise, a family’s legacy can be lost in time and age.
A few tips readily came to mind in keeping the family history alive as Bob and I talked:
Take advantage of every family gathering by encouraging time for storytelling and sharing experiences and have someone take notes.
Make sure you keep up a family record of births, deaths, and weddings. This information will be helpful to whoever is in charge of maintaining the family genealogy.
Mark photos with names, dates, places, occasions, and any other information benefit recall. Stories can be written from photos as the images are great triggers for recall and memory.
Take advantage of state and county records in researching family records.
When a family member passes on, and if you are able to do so, hang on to every slip of paper you might find among the individual’s effects. Recently, a search of the unemployment records in Nashville, TN for the years 1944-45 helped me confirm some information about my parents. I had found discharge slips issued to my parents from the same employer on the same date among my mother’s effects. But something just didn’t seem right. I checked and found I could get access to certain information about their unemployment. And I was right — my father’s service terminated a month after my mother’s.
And lastly, I know that Mary Ellen was not shy about writing letters to people who had a similar last name and lived in an area where other family members had once lived, or who might have arrived at Ellis Island with ancestors, and these contacts provided the information she might not have uncovered otherwise.
It is never too late to begin tracking your family’s history. Whether you think you are a writer or not, you can write stories in a journal, on your computer, in a notebook, or by any method you choose.
Then pass what you have on to the next generation by sharing it with them from time to time so questions can be asked and answered. Leave it somewhere so when you are no longer around, it will be easily found and handed off to a family member.
This post isn’t intended to be about doom and gloom, but last Thursday’s lunch brought out the importance of what would happen to the Meyer family history now that Mary Ellen is no longer able to be the keeper of the work she so lovingly provided for us.
The tips here are some used in my research and gathered in talking with Mary Ellen over the years. I wanted to share this personal time in our life to provide, I hope, a clear picture of the importance of storytelling in the present.
Award-winning poet Jeanne Murray Walker tells an extraordinarily wise, witty, and quietly wrenching tale of her mother’s long passage into dementia. This powerful story explores parental love, profound grief, and the unexpected consolation of memory. While Walker does not flinch from the horrors of “the ugly twins, aging and death,” her eye for the apt image provides a window into unexpected joy and humor even during the darkest days.
This is a multi-layered narrative of generations, faith, and friendship. As Walker leans in to the task of caring for her mother, their relationship unexpectedly deepens and becomes life-giving. Her mother’s memory, which more and more dwells in the distant past, illuminates Walker’s own childhood. She rediscovers and begins to understand her own past, as well as to enter more fully into her mother’s final years.
THE GEOGRAPHY OF MEMORY is not only a personal journey made public in the most engaging, funny, and revealing way possible, here is a story of redemption for anyone who is caring for or expecting to care for ill and aging parents-and for all the rest of us as well.
Despite the heaviness of the subject — dementia and Alzheimer’s — Walker has woven family experiences, stories and the deterioration of her mother’s memory with a thread of humor and wit that is not disparaging to anyone in her memoir and which lightens many moments for her readers. These diseases are difficult ones to read about, but here the author has used the differing opinions of two generations on current issues to recreate memories that have long since slipped away.
To say I loved this book is easy despite having just lost a family member to a vicious and rarely heard of form of dementia. Jeanne Murray Walker has taken the gradual slipping away of her mother and created a dance between the two women and Walker’s sister that transforms the role of caregiver into something almost magical. She reminds us that we’re all going to travel this road, if not specifically, tangentially. Each of us will lose something with the passing years and waging a battle against whatever that loss is, we will become defiant, at times irrational, and most of all, angry.
Walker has mastered her story so well that her reader is swept up into the action, characters, and momentum immediately. I had a constant battle with putting this book down to get something else done.
Kudos to Jeanne Murray Walker on a stellar depiction of life in the changing roles of generations in order for the usually cared for child to become the one caring for a parent and vice versa.
I highly recommend this book for anyone caring for someone else, whether it is a parent, other family member, or a friend. Walker’s snapshots of the difficult times will make you see that despite these, there will also be moments of sunshine and laughter, and most importantly, the regeneration of memories shared with this person years and years ago.
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Meet Jeanne Murray Walker:
Jeanne Murray Walker’s poems and essays have appeared in seven books as well as many periodicals, including Poetry, The Georgia Review, American Poetry Review, Image, The Atlantic Monthly, and Best American Poetry. Among her awards are an NEA Fellowship, eight Pennsylvania Council on the Arts Fellowships, and a Pew Fellowship in The Arts. She is Professor of English at The University of Delaware as well as a mentor in the Seattle Pacific University Low Residency MFA Program. In her spare time Jeanne gardens, cooks, and travels.