Books on Family: The Geography of Memory, part two

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“Mother, like all of us, carried her former selves inside her, almost as if they were characters in a play.” (The Geography of Memory: A Pilgrimage through Alzheimer’s, from the preface)

When a poet tells a story, every word matters. Every word is chosen, polished, wielded like a wizard’s wand to work its magic. Memory begets memory, stirring subconscious pools where the moments that add up to a life swim submerged, unobserved, waiting to be called forth.

It’s an understatement to say I was surprised by what this book called forth in me.

Even as Erna Kelley’s former selves emerged throughout the narrative, I came to this book as a variety of selves. A storyteller and word lover. A daughter, a sister, and a person of faith. One who knows firsthand the requisite vulnerability and potential offense of memoir, the exhaustion and bittersweetness of the long good-bye, and the almost unbearable strain Alzheimer’s places on a family.

I met my various selves on the pages of this book, and the reactions couldn’t have been more diverse.

The Geography of Memory paints a stunning portrait of a life marked by heartbreaking loss, gutsy ingenuity, willing sacrifice, cheerful hospitality, creative love, and unwavering faith. It also reveals a daughter who spent most of her life striving to leave her mother both physically and philosophically, and her urgent attempt to insert herself into the tragic final act of that mother’s life.

This book was my first introduction to Walker’s work, and I savored the writing like a foodie savors a gourmet feast. Fresh metaphors delighted every sense. Tasty phrases like “steep blue Texas sky” and “big full-cheeked moon” and “she flings her happy voice like a bright scarf on the air” satisfied literary cravings.

The reader and writer in me adored this book, and for me, the stories we consider this week in our second reading assignment—with themes of homesickness, holidays with extended family, and the death of the author’s older brother Michael—are among the most colorful, entrancing, and poignant.

And yet. In spite of Walker’s skill (or because of it?) there were moments when my other selves shoved the appreciative reader aside. Like biting into an unexpected peppercorn in an otherwise delightful dish, they stung my palate. Words like “bewitched” and “shrewd” and “cagey” describe actions that otherwise would appear generous, creative, and loving, and I wondered why Walker judged her mother’s motives so harshly.

I got the impression that, at least in part, she wrote this book to justify the reasons she had to get away from her mother while simultaneously making an attempt to reclaim her significance as the oldest daughter. And this is where it got hardest for me.

I’m not the oldest child in my family, but for the last year and a half of my mom’s life, I lived across the street from my parents. My three out-of-town siblings each approached mom’s decline into dementia according to their personalities and opportunities, but I saw her almost every day. I sat with Mom to give my heart-broken father breaks, and I helped him strategize the best ways to navigate this uncharted territory. Next to Dad, I bore the heaviest brunt of her frustration and abuse, but I also received many unexpected and exquisite gifts in the process.

Mom died in her own bed last April. All of this is still very fresh.

Walker saw her mother maybe twice a year for twenty-five years, but her younger sister, Julie, lived in the same city and attended the same church. Julie was the one who stayed, physically and philosophically. Our glimpses of Julie are fewer than they probably should be, but the ones we get suggest that she was her mom’s right hand through her illness and, in many ways, had been all along. And Walker admits she felt left out.

I understand her sense of helplessness and in no way want to diminish the agony of her position or her loss. But I have to be honest. As the story unfolded, I ached for Julie and couldn’t help wondering if the author’s actions and demands magnified her sister’s frustration and increased an already crushing load. I thanked God again and again for my siblings’ physical, emotional, and spiritual support, and that none of them tried to tell me and Dad what was going on with Mom or dictate a course of action from afar. I don’t think I could have handled the added strain.

Certainly there are moments when the author sets herself aside to give and receive real gifts. And, knowing the emotional toll one pays to travel this road, I long to extend her every grace. But like Walker (and everyone really), I’m inclined to see through the lenses of my own experience.

So, my various selves are in conflict, and my conclusion is simple. Love this book for what it is: a gorgeously written portrait of a remarkable woman and the memories her journey through Alzheimer’s stirred in her poet daughter. But if you want to know how to come alongside a dying mother and those who labor to provide her daily care?

Ask Julie.


We’re reading The Geography of Memory: A Pilgrimage through Alzheimer’s together in January. This week we read Field Notes 3-5. Do you know someone on this path? We’d love if you would invite them to join us on Monday afternoons. The winners of last week's giveaway are Amy Anderson and Linda Gill. 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 post. Next week, writer Diana Trautwein shares her thoughts on “Field Notes 6-9”. In February, we'll be reading Emily P. Freeman's A Million Little Ways. I hope you’ll join us for both discussions!

Jeanne Damoff is an author, international speaker and photographer, choreographer, and musician. (Maybe she'll figure out what she wants to be when she grows up before senior discounts kick in?) Jeanne lives in Dallas, Texas, with her biologist husband, her beautiful brain-injured son, and a precocious new puppy.

Image by Darlene. Used with permission. Sourced via Flickr.