Books on Family: The Geography of Memory, part three

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She is old now, and increasingly frail. Her hair is a beautiful shade of white and though her blue eyes are clouded a bit by near-blindness, they sparkle as much as they ever have. And her smile? It lights up a room.

On a good day, I see that smile a lot. I see it when she stops to greet everyone she passes—people whose names she does not know or cannot remember, people who are suffering from the same kinds of confusion and cognitive loss that she is, people who live and work in her assisted living unit: guests, cleaning ladies, visiting musicians … Everybody gets a glimpse of that magical smile. And everyone who is on the receiving end moves away from that encounter flashing a great, big smile of their own. My mother is the most naturally extroverted, hospitable person I have ever known; even into her 90s, doing daily battle with dementia, those parts of her still shine into my life and the lives of everyone she meets.

I am so grateful for these pieces that remain as she and I walk this hard road together, this journey through the unraveling of her mind. And I am grateful for Jeanne Murray Walker’s stories about her own travels through this strange terrain in her compelling book, The Geography of Memory: A Pilgrimage through Alzheimer’s.

Murray Walker’s telling is fraught with stories of her struggles to shake free from the influence of her mother’s very strong personality. I was particularly intrigued by her description of moving out from under the shadow of her mother’s fundamentalist faith in our reading assignment this week:

“In my mother’s household a person was supposed to know. The answers were more significant than the questions, and, in fact, often produced before the questions were asked...No wonder Mother regarded me with alarm.” (pg. 192)

For much of my adult life, I have wrestled through my share of ‘breaking away’ from some of the ways my mom mothered me. Our particular family system taught me—in both word and deed—that daughters are responsible for mothers, especially for the emotional and psychological well-being of mothers. This message was given to me explicitly around the age of eight and in myriad other more subtle ways over the course of our long, loving relationship. It has taken me a lifetime to work my way through all the trailing streamers of that belief system and its expectations so that I can move intentionally in a very different direction with my own parenting. In the process of doing that, I have had to re-examine and—in many ways—re-define myself as a mom and as a woman.

But one thing I never had to break away from was my mother’s faith—her deep belief in the grace of God made tangible in the person and work of Jesus Christ. Although my parents were part of a fundamentalist church during my earliest years, they never defined themselves in that way. My home was a safe place for questions about God, about the Bible, about the church. I never felt as though my own faith-wrestling was frightening or unwelcome to either of my parents. In truth, my mother was my primary spiritual role model for many years, and though we have lived our lives in different ways, we share a deep, heart-to-heart connection because of Jesus.

For Murray Walker, a poet, writer and intensely self-reflective person, her mother’s black-and-white world—where there was “no patience with anything but practical questions”—was stifling and narrow. I understood much of what turned her away from the specific ways in which her mother’s faith was lived out. But my response to this section was what I can only describe as a primal sense of gratitude for the depth and width of my mom’s intellectual and spiritual life. Perhaps that is why I sometimes feel so lonely when I am with her these days. The sweet smiles and warm hospitality remain, but the keen mind, the questioning heart, the careful and honest thinking—these are gone. And I miss them so!

Except . . . for this: my mother remembers whole verses of gospel hymns. The lyrics rise up in the middle of conversations; they move through her mind and out her mouth every day, sometimes as poetry, sometimes as music. And, spoken or sung, they are offered with that sweet smile.

The one that lights up a room.

We’re reading The Geography of Memory: A Pilgrimage through Alzheimer’s together in January. This week we read Field Notes 6-9. 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 Patricia Hunter and Nancy Franson . 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 Seth Haines shares his thoughts on “Field Notes 10-14”. In February, we'll be reading Emily P. Freeman's A Million Little Ways. I hope you’ll join us for both discussions!

Retired pastor, spiritual director, writer, Diana Trautwein lives in central California with her husband of nearly 50 years. Together they enjoy "working" while in retirement, traveling, and encouraging their 8 grandchildren, ages 3-22.

Image by Vicente Villamon. Used with permission. Sourced via Flickr.