Books on Family: The Geography of Memory, part four

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My grandfather was a tall-tale of a man, one whose great appetites were matched only by his passion and wit. He was a successful businessman, a gentleman to all the ladies, a conservationist of conservationists, and a man of faith who rooted his family into a pragmatic Episcopalian practice. He was an accomplished man, a man whom success, it seemed, had deemed fit to call “friend.”

He was larger than life, my grandfather. I remember still the magnitude of his personality, the thundering voice that matched it. As a boy, I’d make the six hour trip to Monroe, Louisiana, and he’d greet me in the front drive, would thunder his standard salutation—“Hey goat head!” Even in my twenties, I remember how the greeting seemed to rattle my bones. Once, I swore I saw the Cyprus knees on the banks of Bayou Desiard rattle, too.

In my youth, my grandfather was a looming, heroic character.


In The Geography of Memory: A Pilgrimage through Alzheimer’s, Jeanne Murray Walker devotes the majority of the book to crafting a sturdy, self-reliant image of her mother. She develops her mother’s character with precision and intentionality, the way only a studied author could. Then, with a poetic twist of metaphor, Walker begins the process of unraveling her mother’s character. She foreshadows in Field Note 10:

I… used an acrostic to remember the order of the planets. My Very Educated Mother Just Served Us Nine Pizza Pies. When Jack recites that, I am the mother. When I say it, my mother is the mother. For nearly my mother’s whole life, Pluto was a planet. Now, suddenly, the facts have changed. Pluto has been demoted. A little over a year later, Mother died.

I found the first three-quarters of The Geography of Memory a solid read, but with this transitional Field Note, Walker’s work takes a hard turn, moving from solid to shining.

Walker traces her mother’s path into a quiet, almost gentle dementia. There are moments, of course, where her mother’s dogged demeanor rears its head (for instance, when, refusing to wear Depends undergarments she declared “Babies wear diapers!”), but in the closing chapters of the book, we see a woman on her way to a quiet end, she becoming almost an infant-shadow of herself. Walker writes,

Although most of the accounts I’ve read about Alzheimer’s are characterized by horror, the truth is, even my mother’s final months were not relentlessly grim. … Watching her was like watching a rowboat come loose and drift away from a dock. I was the one standing on the dock watching the boat glide away.

This peaceful, almost serene way of describing the slow loss of her mother is the prelude to the payoff of the book. Walker writes, “There’s plenty of evidence that in spite of suffering, our universe is ordered by a force that is not chance, not brutality, not evil, but goodness.”

Here, I found myself breathing easy. Yes, I think Walker is right.


In my grandfather’s last days, he was a bedridden shell of a man. He, the former life of bayou society, lay withered in hospice bed, he being eaten by cancer and dementia. He’d begun hallucinating, seeing grizzly bears and robbers through his back window. At first, it was a fitful, frightening kind of suffering, he once said. But as I visited him in these last days, I noticed how he regressed into a peaceful, almost child-like resolve.

It was not until my last visit with my grandfather that I noted his complete transformation. I entered his bedroom. In a thin, crackling voice he said, “Hey, goat head,” and proceeded to confuse me with his youngest son. He asked me about my children, Louis and Sophie, they being in all actuality my cousins. I smiled, told him that I was his grandson, Seth, not his son, Lee. He said, “I always liked that kid Seth,” and shrugged his shoulders. He closed his eyes and drifted to sleep with a smile.

This was the last thing I remember of my lucid, good grandfather. His transition to the other shore was a peaceful one, and for this I am grateful. Perhaps, as Walker notes, my grandfather’s regression is just another evidence that the universe is ordered by an ultimate Goodness. I’m choosing to see it this way.

We’ve been reading The Geography of Memory: A Pilgrimage through Alzheimer’s together in January. The winners of last week's giveaway are Dena Dyer and Karin Fendick. Congratulations! I'll be in touch. This week we’re giving away two more copies of the book. For a chance to win, leave a comment below. We’ll announce the winners in next week’s book club post. In February, we'll be reading Emily P. Freeman's A Million Little Ways. I hope you’ll join us!

Seth Haines is a working stiff stranded somewhere between Arkansas and home. He is blessed to be the husband of Amber Haines and the father of four boys. Seth enjoys good sentences, good music, good food, and good fly fishing. He blogs regularly at on faith, creativity, marriage, culture, and whatever else strikes him as word-worthy.

Image by Susan Etole. Used with permission. Sourced via Flickr.