The Heart of the Matter

A Swift Current Thankgiving essay and Storycorps The Great Thanksgiving Listen

Vuillard 1895

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…

                                                                                           ~Rosanne Cash

 

…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.

I have?

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

stop listening.

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.

And now

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–

record!

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.

This time

I would listen;

this time

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.

A Swift Current Thanksgiving list found in my mom's last papers

Thanksgiving list-a scrap of paper found among my mom’s last possessions

 

Thanksgiving;

the richness, the beauty,

the connectedness…

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.

                                   ~Paul Simon

 

A Swift Current Thanksgiving essay-and StoryCorps Great Thanksgiving Listen

Pierre Bonnard Grande Salle a Manger Dans Le Jardin 1934-1935

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.

Theme and Variations Part 1

Dad in the sand

“Dad”–writing found in the sand June 12, 2013, Photo by Hallie Swift

My Mother turned toward me:

Aren’t you disappointed that Daddy hasn’t called?

Yes, Mama, I’m disappointed.

She sighed, eyes downcast:

I never thought he would do this to us.

At the time of this conversation, my Father had been dead for thirty years.

I have written about my efforts to accommodate my Mother’s version of events, however fantastical or off beat. With the mantra do not argue, I would agree with her assertions; accentuate the positive; change the topic. With clever phrases or funny asides, I would say anything to avoid conflict; anger; recriminations.

But when it came to discussing my Dad, I faltered. I could not play the dementia game.

My Dad has been dead for 37 years but I feel his presence every day. He approached everything, from his job in classical music to the latest Dodgers game, with a fierce intelligence and unquenchable fervor. Our lives pulsated to the soundtrack of his enthusiasms and his temperament. When he liked something–and it was often– his eyes lit up and his words tumbled at a lightening pace, as if his mind were on fire.

And he wanted us to share his joy. He read George Bernard Shaw and G.K. Chesterton aloud– when we were just little girls. He surprised us with tickets to the Beatles concert or the latest Beach Boys album. He took us to see John Gielgud act; Bob Gibson pitch; the Bolshoi dance—because, he said,

you need to know there is greatness in this world.

When I was 12 years old, a local college invited him to deliver one of its “Great Man Lectures.” I remember being dazzled, primarily by the fact that Alfred Hitchcock had been the previous month’s speaker. In my mind, Alfred Hitchcock was a Great Man.

This man was my Daddy.

My Daddy, who worked hard to give me moments of wonder and excitement and grace. Without a car to traverse LA, he traveled all day on city buses in search of 4th of July fireworks. After a long day at work, he took me to the Griffith Park Observatory to see the magical Saturn. Knowing it could become a life-long memory, he awakened me to hear the final innings of Sandy Koufax’s perfect game (Hallie– are you awake? I think you need to get up…I think Sandy is going to pitch a perfect game!).

My Daddy.

My great man.

One of those indelible moments unfolded while we watched the movie Carousel on late night TV. At the finale, I fought tears as the entire cast began to sing the uplifting, heart wrenching

When you walk through a storm…

My teenage self could not let him see that this unabashedly sentimental story was ripping me apart. As I watched the daughter’s graduation scene, I battled every emotion; my head aching with trapped tears

And don’t be afraid of the dark…

As the voices swelled, I glanced at my father. I was astonished. Tears flowed down his face. It was the only time I ever saw him cry. His tears absolved me, and together we cried as the lyrics reverberated:

Walk on, walk on,

With hope in your heart,

And you’ll never walk alone…

I recently learned of my parents’ tremendous efforts to assure my Dad could attend my college graduation. He was battling cancer. Correction: they were battling his cancer. They strategically scheduled his chemotherapy so he would be his strongest when the day arrived. My Mom’s best friend drove them to the campus, only to discover their car would not be allowed within an easy walking distance.

They did not give up. I am told that my parents steeled themselves for a grueling trek in the hot Los Angeles sun; my dad weak but determined. They sat in the uncomfortable stands of UCLA’s outdoor track and field stadium; the unrelenting sun beating down.

And there I was; a little speck in cap and gown across the playing field among thousands of identically- dressed little specks in caps and gowns. It never occurred to me that they had made a huge sacrifice to be there. And it never occurred to me that the day was anything less than magnificent.

He died within months. Devastated, abandoned, stricken; my sorrow knew no bounds. And thirty-seven years later, while the passage of time has altered my pain,

I have never stopped missing him.

Walk on through the wind

Walk on through the rain

Though your dreams be tossed and blown…

End of Part 1

A Swift Current || Theme and Variations Part 1 || When Your Walk Through A Storm

With Hope in Your Heart Photo by Hallie Swift

You’ll Never Walk Alone, composed by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, published by R&H Music Publishing Company, an Imagem Company, All Rights Reserved

The Illogical Song

A Swift Current The day my mother saw Natalie Cole at the nursing home and other unsettling revelations

Every time I crossed her threshold, I knew was entering an alternate reality –Painting by Vuillard, 1891

Hallie, guess what? Natalie Cole visited the nursing home this week!

Oh, Mama, I don’t think so. I don’t think Natalie Cole was at your nursing home…

But she was! She is so beautiful. I almost told her I knew her father, but I didn’t want to bother her.

Oh, Mama…

In the early days, I tried to counter every offbeat comment with a careful, measured explanation. On issues large and small, I tried to steer my mother’s thinking.

And when that failed, I tried to prompt her words. I thought if I spoke calmly–slowly–rationally, I could put her mind on the right track.

I thought I could talk her back to reality.

Do you remember?

Do you understand?

Listen to me!

But I was the one who needed to listen.

I was the one who needed to understand.

During my first visit to the nursing home, she excitedly told me that she had been to lunch that week at UCLA, her alma mater. As she described her adventure, I interrupted:

No, Mama, you didn’t go to UCLA this week. It’s too far. You were here all week; you live here.

I did so go to UCLA!

No, you didn’t.

Hallie! How can you say I wasn’t there? I was with Kaye and Florence and Mary. We talked about where we would live next…

No, Mama, you were here.

I went to UCLA! I have a letter. My friends’ names are on the letterhead. I will show you the letter!

She was angry; agitated; combative.

And I was responsible.

I had transformed a happy conversation into a confused, volatile encounter. Even worse, I had ignored her most significant words;

her most revealing thought:

We talked about where we would live next.

If I had been truly listening, I would have realized that Kaye, Florence and Mary were friends from her college honors society. She had invoked a stellar academic achievement of her youth, as well as the blessing of her lifelong friends, at this critical juncture in her life.

As with many of her fantastical revelations, there was a core truth in my mother’s statements. I didn’t realize it then– but it was my job to parse her words; ponder her meaning; find her reality.

It was my job to listen.

The core truth: my mother needed to decide where to live next.

She needed to own this decision.

If she insisted she had discussed her dilemma at lunch–with her friends–on their beloved college campus–

what difference does it make?

If that imaginary lunch led to her very real decision, who cares?

She cared.

Years later, she enthusiastically grabbed her nurse’s hand and proclaimed:

You know, before I came here, I did careful research, and this is the very best place in Los Angeles.

Not one word of that sentence was true.

All of it was true.

I began to understand that every time I crossed the threshold of the nursing home, I entered an alternate reality

Hallie, Hallie, guess what? I am going to be honored by UCLA!

Really? UCLA is honoring you? What’s the occasion?

I am being honored for my contributions to the field of basketball! They must have read about me!

Oh, Mama, that’s wonderful! What will you wear?

During our decade of dementia, I could never becompletely sure about my mother’s fantasy world. I learned that unsettling truth just a few weeks after Natalie Cole’s purported visit.

I was reading the nursing home’s newsletter. The Resident of the Month turned out to be a songwriter.

(Wait…a songwriter?)

Not only was she a songwriter, but she was in the Songwriters Hall of Fame.

(oh no…)

My eyes glazed over as I read the next words. The Resident of the Month had written hit songs for several artists

(Oh Mama…)

among the artists

(I never should have doubted you)

the great

Natalie Cole.

My mother and her UCLA friends were deciding 'where to live next'--the women of the UCLA honors economics sorority, 1937..."

My mother and her friends were deciding ‘where to live next’–The women of the UCLA honors economics sorority, 1937: –Only those women who are Economics majors and who have a very high scholastic average are eligible for membership…”

I am deeply saddened to learn of the death of Natalie Cole. I have made minor edits to this post, originally written three years ago. My mother had indeed met her father, Nat Cole, as she and my dad attended the Capitol Records annual Christmas gathering at the home of the company’s president in the early days of Capitol. My mom reported that Nat Cole used to play the piano and sing at these gatherings– a favorite Christmas memory, long before dementia imbued every memory with doubt.