My mother has lost her words


My mother has lost her words. In the dissolution of personality that Alzheimer's Syndrome brings, everybody loses. This is not news. But there is something awful-in the original sense of the word-in seeing a poet pulled down by the undertow and disappearing not into some hideous deep but the shallows of language.

My mother is a poet. She has always been a poet. She and my father are teachers. Two of their children are teachers, one an editor, the other an inventor. When we were kids the houses where we lived were made of books. There were words everywhere, words and pictures, as well as too many dogs and cats.

Somehow my mother and father were not as closely connected to their families as other people think usual. Perhaps it was because like many others of their generation they were self created; their careers and culture made them strangers more than geography. We grew up believing our parents' past existed in pictures and a few stories. There were some memorable photographs we used for narrative. Our mother's mother, beautiful and elegant, always wearing gloves. Our mother's handsome father with his fine clothes and rascal's moustache. A distant ancestor in a newspaper clipping who had fed and clothed Civil War widows and orphans from the stock in his Indiana store. Our mother's brothers, handsome boys in sailor suits. Great Grandma Ungeleider monumentally draped in black bombazine and jet beads. Great-aunt Louise, pale and reputedly tragic. On the other hand, our father's immigrant parents just a year before they died, very serious and solid-looking with two boys on their knees: my brother and me. This is the only photograph of them we ever saw. Add maybe a dozen or so very short anecdotes, and that was our history.

My mother told us that after divorcing her mother, her father broke his promise to help her go to college and she had to quit. Before long she was back in college anyway, and soon she won a writing contest, the same month she met my father. I was looking at the photograph last week: she is standing on a platform with some writers and professors. She has bouquet of flowers in one arm and the other hand outstretched to receive the award. On her head there is a chic little hat. She is twenty. She is my mother the poet.

There she is sitting much later in a deck chair in the north woods, reading War and Peace again, something she tended to do every two or three years. She laughed about it, even when we weren't teasing her. Then she read it again.

There are my mother and father in China, where they were teaching English the year Chinese students fell in love with the idea of democracy. In one picture they are in a bicycle taxi with an isn't-this-great expression on their faces. In another they are marching in Nanjing with some other foreign teachers in the midst of hundreds of young Chinese students with banners and radiant smiles. A few days later the tanks rolled into Tianamen Square.

In their letters, they said the Chinese students couldn't get enough English figures of speech, especially the one about money burning a hole in one's pocket. The students were curious about the culture and the contradictions of democracy. Out of their pointed questions came one of my mother's best poems, "Martin Luther King in Nanjing," published some years ago in Queen's Quarterly.

My mother's poems did surprising things with moments in ordinary life, they revisited old stories and invented new ones, they returned to a sense of the things that really matter. She was proud of the time she spent studying with Robert Lowell on scholarship in Iowa, though she never wrote anything resembling the typical confessional product of the Lowell school. She kept up a steady stream of publication in some excellent journals, and there were two books of poems. She worked on two projects, still unpublished, documenting the intersection of private and public life and conscience. One series of poems puzzled over the paradoxical gift of Chagall stained-glass windows, tremendously humane and life-affirming works of art, to the city of Chicago, a city marked by its history of corruption and violence and repression. The other documented the interrupted sojourn in China.

She taught people to listen to poetry while they were learning to write it. When I was in fifth grade, she caught me writing verses. I think it was something about magical creatures visiting by night and doing the dishes. So she started giving me private lessons, and by the next summer she was teaching a dozen kids at the community center. Amazingly, she had tricked our neighbor, the genial, bigoted boss of the city recreation department, into letting her teach an integrated class of black and white kids in the Frederick Douglass Center over in the black section of town. She kept starting things. She had a lot to do with bringing me back to poetry, too, and to teaching by tricking students into listening. Her voice among others reading in many languages one night for PEN made me think it might be possible for me to make poetry again after a long time away.

Her conscience and her writing were part of the same centered awareness, though her poetry is never merely a vehicle for an ideological position. She was surprised by contradictions, and struggled to make sense of them, or at least to frame them in poems that might make readers pay attention. Orwell once said of Dickens that he was revolutionary only in his conviction that if people treated each other decently, the world would be a different and better place, and I'd like to think this was true of her writing. She was a turbulent and difficult woman sometimes, a bad driver nearly always, impatient and finicky and dangerous to cross. She was capable of startlingly direct insight, compassion, and grace. She believed in work, in talk, in the essential goodness of the human heart, in the power of words.

For a long time, as her mind was unravelling, she would say that she really had to get back to her poetry. Sometimes she would sit on the couch and review her notebooks, rearranging poems for a new book she'd been assembling. Then she would look up and something outside the window would catch her attention -- a pigeon on the roof or the shadow of a cloud in the trees -- and words could not hold her. Sometimes the urge to work returned momentarily, particularly during family conversations when people reported on their own recent undertakings. But it was an urge unsupported by any inkling of what to do. Her writing was slipping away like everything else. One afternoon I found her in the basement at the washing machine, which was full of soapy water and running through the first wash cycle. The lid was open, and she had her arms elbow-deep in the suds. Singing, she lifted her favorite green dress out of the water, wrung it out, and plunged it back in. There was a time warp surrounding her. She knew she was supposed to wash, she had a general sense of the place, but standing there in her fleece pajamas and slippers it was if she could only operate in the past. She was washing clothes in some kind of vanished washtub she perceived more clearly than the white-enamelled machine right in front of her.

Now she looks perfectly normal. Her voice sounds just as it always did, but what she says is mostly a vocal response to the urge for normal conversation. Because she can't come up with much to say she draws from the same stock of anecdotes about her childhood, where she lives more each day. When she went to the lodge, at first she wanted to leave. Everybody does. Still, she adjusted smoothly and quickly enough. In her last year at home, she often had no idea where she was, responding to visual clues all around her and improvising her life from day to day. When these clues were left behind, she improvised differently. It's not that uprooting her from her house changed her, really - what we'd hopefully seen as a stubborn persistence of identity had been an elaborate masque, and she was getting tired of dancing.

It's lucky, I suppose, she's one of the happy residents. She walks around holding hands with the ambulatory. She reaches down and pats the wheeled people on the head as she passes by, explaining, "She's such a nice girl." She loves looking at trees, and speaks warmly about them as we sit drinking tea in the empty cafeteria. She points at a tall weeping-willow across the street. "That's beautiful," she says and frowns because she has lost the word "willow" ( though if somebody hums a snatch of the tune "Willow Weep for Me" she can still sing the whole song from memory). She tries to scoop the word out of the air with a cupped hand. "The way it. The way it. It goes..." Her hands describe sharp vertical lines. "The way it goes up and down." She smiles, relieved and satisfied that she has made the connection. More and more of her language vanishes every month, her hands keep scooping at the air, and yet most of the time she smiles.

That's the way the poetry went, too. She could not reach the words that held the world together, nor the words that opened it and made it something new.

My mother is continually drawn back into the shallow waters of her childhood. This operation of time is counterintuitive: isn't time supposed to move forward? Fitzgerald wrote, "So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past." He was talking about something else, but it make sense in another way now.

What is to be done with all the words she left in the house when she moved across town last year? The room that was supposed to be her study is filled with drifts of index cards, handwritten drafts, typed fair copy, rejection slips, letters, reviews, book proposals, and a wild assortment of photographs, magazines, junk-mail, theatre programs, and dog-chewed slippers.

Her children and grandchildren live in houses made of books and pictures. People go on opening books and stepping inside. There should be another book of her poems, not to memorialize her, but to let her words remain alive in the world where there are trees and people sitting under them reading.

---Kevin Berland, Winter, 2003


Several months after I wrote these paragraphs, my mother's book became a reality, thanks to the efforts of Susan Shaw and Alwyn Berland, the Hamilton Poetry Centre, and Gasperau Press. Alwyn Berland, Jody Berland, and Lisa Berland edited the text, Wesley Bates contributed wood engravings from an earlier chapbook published by West Meadow Press, and this piece became the book's forward. The Sweet Fitting Together was published by the Hamilton Poetry Centre in July, 2003, with all proceeds going to the Alzheimers Society. The book is available for purchase online from Bryan Prince Bookseller: ($15.00 CDN, ISBN 0-9732886-0-4)