This week when I visited my mother in Kansas, I learned three things. First, when she leans back in her recliner and closes her eyes, she is often still listening, so I can’t assume she’s taking a nap. Second, she’s still a very pretty lady at 96, even with half of one eyebrow accidentally shaved off. (From now on, when I use an electric razor to trim away whiskers and curling eyebrow hairs, I will not assume Mom will sit still…I will hold the razor with a steady hand, prepared to stop if she turns her head quickly. Lesson learned.)
The third thing I learned is this: with dementia, the dominant remaining sensory details are not just taste and smell. Touch is still a significant sense. Mom did recognize the little metal wagon she left between tree branches as a child. When I put the little wagon-in-the-wood in Mom’s lap, she didn’t open her eyes, but her fingers touched the metal wheels and traced the lines of the wood. When I asked if she knew what this was, she nodded, yes. Still with her eyes closed, when I asked if she remembered the toy…and did she remember putting it in the tree, both times she smiled faintly and again nodded, yes. She held it for a while, nodding, and then she folded her hands and fell asleep.
The quaint little keepsake has become a tangible reminder of my connection to other generations. My grandchildren have traced the wagon with their fingers, just as my daughter did, and as I did. When my mother was younger than her great-grandchildren are now, she put the wagon in the tree branch, where it was later rescued by my grandfather when he cut down the tree.
As Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “The ancestor of every action is a thought.” As a six-year-old, my mother had her reasons for hiding the wagon in the tree; my grandfather had his reasons for preserving it when he cut down the tree; and as the heir of these thoughts and actions, I will pass the keepsake on to the next generations…along with the stories.
Wilbur Wright (of the Wright Brothers) wrote, “The desire to fly is an idea handed down to us by our ancestors who…looked enviously on the birds soaring freely through space…” Possibly my desire to create came from the same ancestors who passed on to my aunts and uncles and cousins the desire to sing, to teach, to play musical instruments, to heal, to cherish and care for children, and numerous other talents and desires.
Native American writer Linda Hogan wrote this: “Walking, I am listening to a deeper way. Suddenly all my ancestors are behind me. Be still, they say. Watch and listen. You are the result of the love of thousands.”
During this month’s visit with my mother, I’m not sure that for even a moment she actually recognized me as her daughter. But still, she reminded me of who I am, and how we’re both connected to those who made it possible for us to be here.