Books on Family: The Geography of Memory by Jeanne Murray Walker
I start with the usual, the question that opens up her world.
“Tell me a little about what brings you here. Tell me your story.”
Her family stands against the wall behind her—two middle-aged daughters and her rail-thin husband. They stare down at the floor, tired bodies sagging. She looks around, as if the answer to my question is written on the walls. The illness that ravaged her brain has left her confused and with aphasia—a language disorder that fights against the flow of words.
She cannot remember her current age, or the names of her grandchildren; and when I ask if she understands why she is in the hospital, tears well in her eyes.
“I don’t know,” she says, haltingly. “Why don’t I know?”
“What is memory?” Jeanne Murray Walker asks in her book The Geography of Memory: A Pilgrimage through Alzheimer’s. In this memoir of the author’s journey with her mother through Alzheimer’s, Walker gently illustrates that memory is much more than the recollection of the past. In our reading this week, we learn of the death of Walker’s mother, Erna Kelly, and we walk ten years backward into memory—accompany Jeanne Murray Walker into the subtle beginnings of Erna’s illness. As she begins to reluctantly note changes in her mother’s abilities, the author’s own memories begin to haunt.
Memories of my childhood begin to appear unbidden ... I have zero understanding of why this or that memory suddenly swims up from the murky depths. I conclude that in spite of all the memorizing I have done—of scripture, of music, of multiplication tables, of bus schedules, of presidents, of facts for my PhD exams—memory isn’t an arm or a leg to be controlled at will.
The details that Walker gives us in her remembering of her mother speak to the complex way memory and emotion and sensation are all woven together—an intricate work of beauty that lurks under our consciousness waiting to be awakened. The smell of a particular perfume or coffee, the scarlet of a lipstick, a certain turn of a phrase, the clink of ice in a glass … so many things can bring a memory rushing forth and take one by surprise with the quick twisting in the heart.
This beginning portion of the book moves slowly, and this accomplishes a feeling of intimacy. We meet Erna in various seasons of life and we are getting to know her as a proud and strong woman. She has lived through the death of two husbands and a child, conquered poverty to raise her children well, and settled into a genteel life of flower shows and oil painting and symphonies. The memories that Murray Walker shares of her childhood tell us one thing in vivid clarity: her mother believed in keeping the family secrets.
Mother’s dignity has always depended on keeping her private life locked up. She believes in something she calls Family Secrets. As we were growing up, she commanded us to stash what we heard at home into the vault of Family Secrets and throw away the key. Life, my mother taught us, is a game in which other people try to gather information about you. You can never tell what they’ll use it for. They’re probably up to no good. And in spite of my mother’s real and passionate love for her children, “other people” might include us.
This knowledge of Erna’s keen sense of privacy gives a peculiar feeling of dread as one reads these beginning chapters. It made me recall that patient’s family leaning against the wall as I interviewed her, eyes downcast. And one begins to feel the monumental loss that dementia wreaks in an individual, in a family, in this world. The family members I work with who are traversing this journey with a loved one tell me it is a slow dying—they lose their loved one again and again with each passing day.
And yet, there is beauty in the way love perseveres. Murray Walker captures this well in her story. The ways the heart strains against what it has always known and opens up to a willingness to go into unchartered territory, this is courage. And it is beautiful.
We’re reading The Geography of Memory: A Pilgrimage through Alzheimer’s together in January. This week we read the introduction up to “Field Note 3”. Do you know someone on this path? We’d love if you would invite them to join us on Monday afternoons. This week we’re giving away two copies of the book. For a chance to win, leave a comment below. We’ll announce the winners in next week’s post. Next week, writer Jeanne Damoff shares her thoughts on “Field Notes 3-5”. In February, we'll be reading Emily P. Freeman's A Million Little Ways. I hope you’ll join us for both discussions!
Laura Boggess is a content editor at The High Calling. She is the author of two novellas for teens: Brody's Story and Derek's Story. Laura lives in a little valley in West Virginia with her husband and two sons. She blogs about life and faith at lauraboggess.com.