My Mother’s Hands

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My daughter’s hands are slim and smooth. They move with confidence as she quickly finds a recipe online and begins prepping the food. Twice lately they have reminded me so much of my own hands, moving in familiar gestures.

First, while chatting, she reached over to adjust my sink faucet to its “sweet spot” to stop the drip. She did this deftly and automatically, as I do several times a day, though she has not lived in this home for over ten years. A bit later I saw her gently touch the back of a friend’s shoulder with the little waving motion I also use to say a silent hello. Her hands, so like mine looked twenty years ago, moving like mine. But there are differences in our hands beyond those of age. Hers have talents mine have never possessed. Beautiful handwriting, a gift for calligraphy, speed in typing: in these ways her hands are more like my mother’s talented hands.

I tell them both this talent must skip a generation, offering my cramped handwriting and more hesitant typing skills as evidence. No one argues the point.

Mom used to try to teach me the push/pulls and ovals that she had loved to do in learning penmanship as a child. Mine never matched her samples. Writing by hand gave her joy, and giving others beautifully written notes was one of her few areas of pride. She still received compliments on her beautiful handwriting as she entered her eighties. Now she tells me “It won’t matter, you sign it for me” as we prepare cards for her to send friends or family. Another little pleasure diminished by Alzheimer’s.

Mom was an extraordinary caregiver when we were children, and as she cared for my step-dad through his fifteen years as a quadriplegic. Her hands were strong and confident, gentle and comforting, capable of any task. Her hands are hesitant now, fumbling as she buttons her shirt, brushes her hair, places flowers in a vase.

A secretary much of her adult life, mom typed with a speed and accuracy that I never mastered. In her day, mistakes on a typewriter were not easily corrected. Her skill was valued. We type so easily now,  deleting with a simple stroke of a key, the aid of spell check catching typos for us.

For Christmas, I found a typewriter picture frame, the picture appearing as paper coming out the top of the typewriter. I filled it with a black & white photo of mom at her desk on her first secretarial job after college. She is younger in that picture than my children are now. She keeps it facing her beside her bed. Good memories make the best gifts.

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Mom’s Memories

Mom with grandson at Eagle Scout ceremony

Mom with grandson at Eagle Scout ceremony

Alzheimer’s is an ugly word, full of loss and fear.  Mom prefers dementia. This suggests insanity to me, but she sticks with dementia no matter how many times her neurologist uses the “A” word and tells her that “Alzheimer’s is the most common form of dementia”.  I believed him the first time, and I doubt she will ever believe him, no matter how many more times this oft-repeated conversation between the two of them occurs.  (Since many define insanity as”repeating the same action and expecting different results” maybe I should find her a new neurologist…)
Mom called a family meeting almost five years ago to announce the diagnosis of Alzheimer’s and was slightly offended that none of us were as shocked as she was by this. Within a week, she had diagnosed herself with the more palatable (to her) Dementia, and most days lives in the even happier world of Denial.  She confides to me in each conversation, as if it were news, that her memory is getting bad.  So bad. I know from past experiences that she will forget my visit and our conversation by the next morning, if not by bedtime.

But we are fortunate in what she does still remember.  She recognizes all the family and usually gets our names right.  (In our family, mislabeling names is a common occurrence at any age.  We take no offense.)  She cannot name many of her new friends in Assisted Living, but knows their faces and a little about them.  She remembers friends from church and community when their names are mentioned to her, though she may or may not be able to call them by name when they meet.

She’s very good at playing along and faking memory.  If I pop in unexpectedly and suggest going somewhere, she might respond with “Oh, I forgot we were doing that today.”  Other times she works through a memory loss, such as when when she arrived at an unfamiliar church to see her youngest grandson receive his Eagle Scout Award, and found herself  baffled by why there were Boy Scouts in the front of the sanctuary.  She then laughed at herself as she suddenly remembered why we were there.  Now that’s my mom.  We enjoy rare glimpses of her still.

Her memories are strong when it comes to her own childhood and teenage years.  I have heard many formerly untold stories about her school life, her sister and brother, her mom (desperately missed by her still) and dad, and even an annoying neighbor.  They seem clearly remembered.  No one exists to confirm or deny.  It is a particular kind of loneliness, being one of the last survivors of your own history.

She remembers clearly where she was when Pearl Harbor was attacked, as I remember her being with me the day President Kennedy was assassinated.  She never talks about those days, of being our mother.  If I mention my old friends by name, she lights up with recognition, then quickly turns to new conversation.  But Alzheimer’s is not blocking these memories.  They are under Black Out.

Somewhere between my 12th and 14th year of life, my parent’s marriage cracked irreparably.  Though they lived under the same roof for ten more years, we ceased to  function as a family at that time.  No more stories were told of our family history or our lives as children. No new family memories were created.  Only silence and occasional angry outbursts.  We were good secret keepers.  What a shock their divorce was years later to most who knew us.

The stories never came back.  My sister and I have pieced together our own memories over the years.  Good and bad and what might have been. I have added some pieces to this memory quilt recently in going through my mother’s home, preparing for a sale.  Though Mom denied the memories, she kept every picture, letter, and memento from those years.  It has been bittersweet to see many of these things, buried in silence over forty years now.

The good, the bad, and what might have been.  Alzheimer’s is not my first experience with memory loss.