Postcards to the Edge

At the Art Institute of Chicago

My Mother at the Art Institute of Chicago, 1985 Photo by Hallie Swift

Vuillard never ceases to amaze. I recall a poignant moment with our Mother in front of one of his paintings… she was simply swept into the picture. It was almost as though she had been there. I realized at that moment perhaps more than any other…she understood the language of painting in a way one did not have to articulate.

                                                                     ~From a letter by my Sister, an artist

A few weeks after my mother moved into the nursing home, I sent her a postcard; the image was a painting by Monet.

Later that same week I sent a Matisse.

And a few days later, Vuillard.

If living in a nursing home meant my Mother could no longer explore museums and galleries,

then I would take the museums to her.

And so began our decade of discovery—painting by painting, postcard by postcard.

But art was only part of our discovery.

There was another revelation, completely unexpected;

the postcards became our lifeline.

In the world of dementia, every sentence is precarious; every exchange hard won. As my Mother’s dementia tightened its grip, her ability to converse became increasingly tenuous. Her memories were tangled; thoughts confused; words frequently out of reach.

During visits or phone calls, her responses were often nebulous; we could explore a new topic for maybe a sentence or two, if at all.

But I discovered if a subject had been mentioned on a postcard, we could actually have an extended conversation; it was as though she had needed time to absorb my words and find her response.

Every time I walked into her room, I found her clutching several postcards. She carried them wherever she went; the edges bent; words smudged. Like childhood flashcards, she repeatedly studied each one, examining the images; reading each sentence over and over and over again.

I wrote simple, clear messages; looking back, I think I invented the tweet:

You remember Mary from Minnesota…

I met a famous chef…

I saw a great play…

Perhaps through sheer repetition, these simple, brief messages laid the groundwork for more involved, interesting and even fun interactions. And during our conversations, she could introduce topics without any prompting from me…

Did you have fun with your Minnesota friend?

Tell me about the French chef!

I know you liked that play, but I didn’t think it was so hot!

(I loved that she formed an opinion about a play she hadn’t even seen; a true critic!)

Despite the treacherous struggles of her mind, the postcards revealed my Mother still had more than a glimmer of cognitive ability. After a series of cards about the New York Yankees, she turned to me and sardonically inquired:

Well Hallie, what do you do for fun these days, other than baseball?!

She even grasped information I hadn’t intended to reveal. I never told her I had changed jobs, leaving the “security” of a big company to work with my best friend.

But because I was spending more time with my friend, unintentionally Elie’s name appeared more frequently in the cards. And one day my Mother turned to me:

I notice you mention Elie more often these days. Are you girls spending more time together?

Her cognition was severely diminished,

but she was still able to read between the lines.

My perceptive Mama;

She was still there.

For more than ten years, I sent postcards several times a week. She saved every one until the Fire Department said she had too much paper in her room! My postcard repertoire expanded beyond the art world to include scenic views, tourist sites and even the free ones from restaurants; some weeks almost any 3 by 5 paper would do!

Postcards to the Edge

Postcards sent to my Mother included artists Berthe Morisot, Corita Kent and Wayne Thiebald among many others…

But while I raced to write the cards, I always knew someday it would end.

I always knew that one card would be the last card.

Columbus Day, 2010.

We were watching the final game of National League Championship Series:
the Giants vs. the Braves.

(What do you do for fun, other than baseball…?)

Between innings, I walked over to my desk; I chose a postcard:

Apartment View by Wayne Thiebald.

And I wrote the last message.

As my Mother lay dying,

I told her we had a nice weekend; we went to Long Island;
we walked on the beach.

Shortly after I wrote a few simple words,

3000 miles away,

my Mother died.

It was a little after 6 PM in Los Angeles;

right after her dinner hour.

A few minutes before 9 PM in New York;

between innings;

I selected the last image.

And I wrote the last card;

the postcard to the edge…

The Last Postcard: Wayne Thiebaud's Apartment View 1993 Oil on canvas licensed by VAGA, New York, NY, published by Pomegranate AA280993

The Last Postcard: Wayne Thiebaud’s Apartment View 1993 Oil on canvas licensed by VAGA, New York, NY, published by Pomegranate AA280993

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22 thoughts on “Postcards to the Edge

  1. I know better than to read this at work but get excited when it pops into my inbox. While I knew how engaged you were with your mom throughout her last years, you never mentioned this intimate connection with her. How special it must have been for you when she was alive, and how important it was for her to better engage with you. As always, your words move me.

    • The postcards did forge an intimacy and were one of the things that made those last years so powerful. While I write here of tremendous sadness, frustration and difficulty, it was oddly a time I will always savor. Perhaps it is because despite the horror of the illness we found things like the postcards that brought us closer together. The simple rituals of selecting the images, writing the words, and tossing them in the mailbox were part of the lifeline. My hope is by sharing it here, other people will be encouraged to try communicating thru this simple method. I would be fascinated if it were to open doors for others the way it did for us. I am well aware that there are many forms of dementia, and perhaps we were an isolated case. But I do (clearly) think the written word is powerful, even if only a few lines on a postcard. I always appreciate your comments, Hallie

    • I hope your tears are not only tears of sorrow. The postcards were a happy medium, a wonderful tool; art and words and the opening of a door to my Mother’s mind. We could talk to each other, even if briefly. In our era of instant communications, isn’t it still fun to find something thoughtful in the mail? For our parents generation, I think the arrival of the mail is still a special time. So I encourage everyone to write those postcards!

  2. One of your most beautiful essays — the images conjured up by your words are as colorful and intense as all those lovely postcards…

    • I am so moved by your words…you tell me I am hitting the mark and I deeply appreciate it. Now I picture you sending postcards to all your elderly relatives in the next few weeks…! Bon voyage and thank you, Hallie

  3. Lovely, Hallie! What a great idea it was to mail postcards to your mother. Gave me an idea to do this with Ruth Wallace now. Some wonderful insights into your mother’s mind… and I love your including the photos.

    Kathy

    • Thank you! The idea came to me as I was struggling with the thought that my Mom would no longer be able to explore museums; postcards– it literally was like a cartoon light bulb over my head! Your reaction is exactly what I was hoping for; I hope people will start sending postcards as a way to open the door to communicating with elderly friends. Thank you for your comments and your support of A Swift Current, Hallie

  4. Oh, Hallie. Your words are like a balm to my spirit. You express the hope we all have, and then gently take us where we must go. Thank you for giving a voice to the words and feelings we find so hard to express. Please keep writing.

    • Joanie, thank you for sharing your response. I was concerned that the change in tone at the end might be too abrupt; your words the writing “gently takes us where we must go” helps me think I was on the right track. I still think about image on the last postcard . I will keep writing; a slow process so I am thankful for your patience! Hallie

    • Thank you! I am always unsure when I hit “publish.” I don’t think that doubt will ever change, and so comments (and compliments!) are much appreciated!
      I should also add that I think the postcards as physical objects were an important component of the communication. I always reviewed her mail and occasionally found unopened notecards. I of course read them to her, but I wondered if the arthritis made opening cards more difficult, or whether she would just forget them. The postcards were right there– easy to access. Just a thought…and thank you again, Hallie

  5. beautiful and evocative of your many feelings about your mother. it does remind me of how lucky we are to have smart, artistic parents, it opens us up to so much of the world. In turn that world gives us tools to figure out how to manage life’s curve balls. My baseball metaphor for you and your mom:) You write so beautifully…
    I realized just now I have such high expectations of you. Mostly because you set that bar with such a lack of ego. I read your the comments of your other fans…you need to figure out how to do this as book.

    I was lucky. I had no idea how devastating it must have been to lose that personal primal contact at that point in both your lives. You have given me a view inside your devastation. I admire this journey to make sense of it all while sharing what you learned. Your mom is proud and I have no doubt she has shown/ is showing you she is…look for it…in your daily life she is leaving clues until one day a thing, a song, a painting, a postcard or a museum visit..ping right in the center of your knowing, you will smile and say thanks mom! Or maybe its already happened! Much love …v

    Sent from my iPad

    • Thank you! I think it already happened in writing this post. The first drafts included descriptions of how she loved art, how integral it was to her, blah blah blah…and then I was looking through old photos and bam, there was the photo of my Mom looking at Vuillards during our visit to Chicago and it said so much more than I ever could…AND later I remembered my sister had written something quite lovely about my mother’s response to art, and I spent an entire evening looking for her comment…and when I found it, whoa…it was about Vuillard! Two separate experiences; one with me and one with my sister, and so smoothly integrated. So yes, I have to believe that there is a hidden hand helping me; maybe Vuillard’s!
      Your response is just lovely and I need time to savor it. I will respond more completely later…but thank you, H

  6. Beautiful. I remember talking to you about these postcards. Love the images you’ve included. And the title. I love the image of your mother clutching the postcards like kid’s flashcards. How they rooted her somehow.

    • Thank you. Of course, the title comes from Carrie Fisher’s autobiography “Postcards from the Edge” which was also made into a film…during the years I was writing the cards, I thought of this “play” on that title and always knew I was writing to the edge of her mind…the edge of her life…and then the Wayne Thiebald image on the Last Postcard illustrated the edge (as I see it)…Your comments on my writing always help me believe that I am on the right track and I am grateful…H

  7. When I get your post I always want to quickly open it and read. It is so beautifully written. Then I go back and reread and savor your thoughts. I liked one of the comments made to you that you should really consider putting all this into a book and I agree. I am sharing these with a friend who is going through all of this right now with her Mother. Love you for having the fortitude to take a chance and do this and a new career may be launched!!

    • I appreciate the rallying cries to write a book! I don’t know one iota about the publishing industry…and I have so many ideas tumbling around my brain that I want to develop now. Perhaps at some point they will coalesce into a book; I am buoyed by the thought you would like to have a copy of my writing in your hands (I like books too!). In the meantime, I so appreciate that you are sharing this with your friend, and Invite readers to share the link through email, Facebook, Pinterest or other networks that are being created as I write this! Who knows, maybe an editor will see it, and we will be off and running!Thank you again for your encouragement, H

  8. I love this post and the idea of sending the post cards.. I’m going to do this with my stepmother in between visits.. It’s such an obviously great way to keep a connection to the things she once enjoyed so much… Thank you for this.

    • I am thrilled that you like the idea and will start sending postcards…I cannot help but think that it will brighten her day, even if only in that moment; but I hope like with my Mom, the effect lasts longer. I think I said this before, but isn’t it fun even now receive something special in the mail, and know that someone wanted to share their discovery?! A cousin just called me and said he remembers seeing all the postcards in my Mom’s room; his memory touches me and as Kathleen observed in an earlier comment, the postcards somehow rooted my Mom; now I think they rooted me too.

  9. This is so beautiful, both your writing and that you sent her postcards for 10 years! What devotion to connection. I see and feel so much love. Thank you for sharing this beauty…

    • Thank you so much! I am thrilled that you have signed on to receive postings…and I look forward to reading yours. To date, I have not been very adept at participating in other blog sites, in part because I wanted to tell our story before reading other people’s perspective on this or related topics. However, as I approach the first year anniversary of A Swift Current, I feel more comfortable that I have established my point of view and my “voice.” I welcome your comments as we explore these tough topics…whereas initially I was almost scared to read people’s comments, I now relish the chance to develop a dialogue. Thank you again. All my best, Hallie

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