The things you push away the hardest when you’re young
You end up embracing when you get older…
I just thought it was too claustrophobic
I had to get away
Now seeing the richness of it, the beauty, the connectedness…
It moves me to tears…
…And listen to this, Hallie. The professor said my paper was the best. It was so good–he put a copy in the library– he told the class everyone should read it!
Yes, mama, I know.
You know? How do you know?
You’ve told me that story before.
Yes, mama, you have…
He said my paper was…
…the best…yes, mama…I know.
We’ve all heard people repeat stories. Sometimes we smile and nod. Other times we change the subject. Often we sigh, stare, and simply
And when a person has dementia, the frequent repetition of unsolicited stories only seems to escalate.
My mother recounted her tales over– and over—and over again. Sometimes she would adopt a theme—the famous term paper but one example—and relive her triumph with every telling.
She could repeat a story for months; each time infusing it with unabashed excitement and exacting detail– as though it had just happened—
as though I had never heard it before.
And then one day, the story would simply disappear. To my great relief, I would never hear it again.
I find myself digging into my memory–
desperate for details.
But I only find vague outlines –general topics, maybe—and the occasional catch-phrase. To my complete surprise, I need to fill in the colors–
what professor–which class—what topic?
But no matter how hard I try,
her stories are lost;
I will never hear them again.
I started writing A Swift Current with the hope that readers would glean insight from our experience. I have tried not to preach nor counsel nor advise. I want you to draw your own conclusions.
But now I am going to break my rule. I offer you one direct suggestion; in fact, it’s a command:
Grab your cell phone–find the “voice memos” app– hit the red button–
And what better time to start than Thanksgiving?
Family stories were the heart of our childhood Thanksgiving dinners. My grandfather sat at one end of our table; my grandmother’s sister at the other. After the last morsel was consumed, my parents would bring out an old dog-eared cardboard box filled with fading family photos. And for the next few hours, we would hear stories of our ancestors– people whose appearance inspired both awe and amusement-what with their serious expressions, funny moustaches and large feathered hats.
…a ship captain on the Great Lakes…
…crossed the plains in a covered wagon…
…elected Sheriff of Tucson…in 1860…
1860? Somebody write this down!
But we never would. We were lucky if someone scrawled a name on the back of a photo.
But I remember the catch in my grandfather’s voice; the faraway expression in my father’s eyes; the affection in Tia’s husky laugh;
And for a moment, the funny-looking people in the photos would come alive. I learned their names; studied their poses; heard about bravery and sacrifice and determination.
And then I would forget all about them, until the next Thanksgiving.
Every holiday is a double edged sword;
the older I get, the sharper the edge.
Today I cannot think about Thanksgiving without remembering the table of my childhood
and people who are no more;
what I would give to hear their voices again.
I would listen;
I would remember.
And it would not matter one bit that, in her last decade, my mother’s words could be sensible and articulate; fantastical and demented; or confused and redundant–
I would record her voice;
I would capture her stories.
During the last three decades of my mother’s life, she no longer hosted the big holiday dinner. A guest at other tables, she professed to be relieved to no longer bear the responsibility.
But after her death, among her few remaining possessions, I found scrap of paper in her small bureau drawer.
In her handwriting, a shopping list;
from her nursing home bed,
my mother was making plans.
the richness, the beauty,
There are some things I will never forget.
This is the story of how we begin to remember
This is the powerful pulsing of love in the vein
After the dream of falling and calling you’re name out
These are the roots of rhythm and the roots of rhythm remain.
THE GREAT THANKSGIVING LISTEN: As I was writing this post, I discovered that the day after Thanksgiving, November 27, 2015, has been designated the StoryCorps National Day of Listening. Or in their words, “Make history with us: interview an elder for the Great Thanksgiving Listen.” StoryCorps provides a special app; recordings made with the app will be housed in the oral history project of the Library of Congress. The StoryCorps website explains this project in detail, including sample questions. Here is the link: https://storycorps.me/ and https://storycorps.me/about/resources/ I am grateful to my friend Lora, who originally introduced me to StoryCorps a few years ago with the gift of a book called Listening Is An Act of Love.
Family History: I was not surprised to learn that family stories have real value for future generations. Children who know their family’s history, including hardships and failures, are more likely to be able to weather difficult times in their own lives. For more information, see The Stories That Bind Us by Bruce Feller, the New York Times, March 15, 2013 http://nyti.ms/17TFZmv
The opening quotation is from the singer/composer Rosanne Cash, interviewed by NPR’s Steve Inskeep– broadcast on January 13, 2014 with the release of her recording, The River and the Thread . I recommend entire interview: http://www.npr.org/2014/01/13/261398768/rosanne-cashs-mythic-southern-road-trip
The closing lyric is from “Under African Skies” by Paul Simon, copyright 1986 Paul Simon Music all rights reserved.