Monday, November 21, 2011

One Berry, Two Berry, Read Me a Newbery

Part 2 of 2

Okay, so much for my theories about the Newbery Medal. Here's why I really wrote this column: I want to talk about my experiences reading the Newbery Medal books and what I thought of the titles.

The Books That Have Failed My Test of Time

The Story of Mankind, Hendrik Willem van Loon, 1922. This was the first Newbery Medal book. Even if you can overlook its blatantly white, Euro-centric point of view, it is a tedious read at best. My heart aches for every boy or girl who found this under a Christmas tree that year.

Smoky, the Cowhorse, Will James, 1927. Imagine Black Beauty told not from the viewpoint of the horse, which is the magic of Black Beauty, but from the third person narrative. Now transpose Black Beauty to the American west, throw in some Mexican desperados and some manly rodeos, and for good measure write the entire book in a folksy, "cowboy" dialect. I made it to the end of this novel, but I got awfully tired of hearing about Smoky's "hankerin'" for grass, or oats, or rest, about how every horse in the book was "a-poundin'" when it ran, and how his "mammy's" ears twitched at the least sound.

Gay Neck, The Story of a Pigeon, Dhan Ghopal Mukerji, 1928. Words fail me. The book is indeed the story of a pigeon, named "Gay Neck" because of the bright feather band around his neck. Narrated largely by a young man (the author in fictional voice) and set primarily in India, the book's style is not merely stilted; it is painfully twisted and hard to read. The chapters from the pigeon's viewpoint are equally laborious to wade through. Mukerji lived most of his short life in exile for advocating for a free India. This is clearly a book written by someone who knows he will never see his homeland again. The most moving part of the book is the author's heartfelt and now heartbreaking description of the sanctity and symbolism of Mount Everest, concluding with the firm assertion that Everest would never be trod upon by man. Mukerji killed himself in 1936, mercifully never seeing the successful ascent of Everest in 1953.

Daniel Boone, James Daughtery, 1940. This book lost me when I realized one of its themes was "the only good Injun is a dead Injun." Indians are vastly underrepresented in the Newbery list, but this was the worst depiction of all. I contrasted it with Waterless Mountain (1932, set in Navajo Nation in the late teens or early 1920s), which made a largely successful attempt at portraying a young Navajo boy navigating the modern world while remaining true to his spiritual values. Consider also Caddie Woodlawn (1936), The Matchlock Gun (1942), and Rifles for Watie (1957), all of which have Indians making cameo or supporting appearances. While the Indians portrayed in The Matchlock Gun are clearly the enemy, they are the enemy because they have sided with the French in the French and Indian War and are attacking the family in the story, and not because they are "bad" Indians. I cannot get past the clear bigotry in the work about Boone.

Strawberry Girl, Lois Lenski, 1946. What can I say about this book? Lenski has drawn a curious and harsh picture of life in rural Florida in the early part of the twentieth century, using years of research to frame the story of Birdie Boyer and her family's struggles as they establish a strawberry farm. Contrasted sharply against the Boyers are Shoestring Slater and his family, graphically representing the "poor white trash" of the day. I never found sympathy for Birdie, her family, the Slaters, or anyone else in the community. The edition of the book I read contained a forward explaining Lenski's research techniques and her desire to write an entire series of regional stories representing modern children in America. Lenski won great praise for her many contributions to American children's literature, but this is not a book I would eagerly recommend.

Shiloh, Phyllis Reynolds Naylor, 1992. I know, I know. I am the only person who doesn't like this book. It is a coming of age story, it features a boy and a dog (a surefire winning combination), it is full of pathos (the dog is brutalized) and triumph (the boy rescues the dog honorably), and it fits the "Appalachian Poor" niche. I found the characters unrealistic, with the bad guy drawn so stereotypically narrow that the only way I made it through this book was reassuring myself it was short and I was almost done. I have not read either Honor Book for that year, but this is one where I am thinking "Really? This was  the selection? Really?"

A book which I am reluctant to consign to this list but must talk about is Rifles for Watie, the 1957 winner by Harold Keith. Set during the Civil War in the states and territories west of the Mississippi, this book is exemplary for several reasons, not the least of which is its fairly searing depiction of the realities of war (death, hunger, privation). It stands apart because an underlying story is a love story between Jeff, a young Union soldier, and Lucy, a young woman whose family supports the Southern cause. Romances come and go in any literary genre, but this one is unique because Lucy is the youngest daughter of a Cherokee family living in Talequah, today's capitol of the Cherokee nation. She gets to deliver the clearest explanation of why her family(and indeed many Cherokees) supports the Confederacy when she gives Jeff a strongly worded history lesson about Andrew Jackson and his violation of Indian treaties that resulted in the destruction of the Cherokee's community in the east. Lucy does not say the word "genocide," but in her description of the numbers who died on the trail, it is the unspoken word that hangs in the air.

So why am I struggling with this choice? Because despite his clear-eyed recounting of Cherokee history, the author cannot resist having his characters draws distinctions between the "preferred" Indians (those who conduct their lives like whites) and the "frontier" Indians who have backslid into "shiftless" ways, abandoning the white culture and businesses for subsistence farming and hunting. The frontier Indians even discard the white man's clothing, and while Harold Keith does not describe their undesirable dress, I strongly suspect the women would be wearing the tear dress that is now the national dress of the Cherokee nation.

There is another reason too that I hold back on Rifles for Watie. Someday, I may have a grandchild whose family heritage is an elaborately stitched quilt of many backgrounds, including the strong dose of Ojibwa (Chippewa) he or she will inherit from my daughter-in-law Alise. I wouldn't want to have to begin to explain to my grandchild the inherent bigotry behind the depictions of the good (white) Indians and the lazy (native) Indians. I couldn't do it.

Sigh.

Now, for the feel good part. These are the books that rose to the top of the list.

April's Cream of the Crop Newbery Medal Winners

The Book That Changed the Face of the Newbery Winners: Thimble Summer, Elizabeth Enright, 1939. Prior to this, the medal books were primarily either about children living in other eras (Caddie Woodlawn, Roller Skates), or other countries (Dobry, Yung Fu of the Upper Yangtze) or were the retelling of folk tales from various parts of the world. Thimble Summer was set in 1930s America, with the Great Depression as a backdrop. Real time, real children. The first of several Newbery Medal Books set in the Great Depression, it is the only one written, published, and honored during that era. 


Biggest Surprise Ending: Miss Hickory, Carolyn Sherwin Bailey, 1947. Early on, the Newbery Medal went to Hitty, Her First Hundred Years (Rachel Field, 1930). Hitty is a wooden doll who pens her memoirs from her now secure home in an antique shop. When I began Miss Hickory, I wondered whether I was in for another Hitty. Ha, was I surprised! Miss Hickory is a narrow minded, selfish, and self-centered sentient twig being who comes to not one but two unusual endings. Her first is when her head (which is a hickory nut) is eaten by Squirrel, who is starving at the end of a long winter. No, she does not redeem herself by sacrificing her head; he pulls it off her body and eats it. Miss Hickory's stream of consciousness reflection on her life and all of her shortcomings as her head is consumed is riveting. The second ending is when her beheaded twig body (which continues to walk and move, thus causing Squirrel to swear off his dissolute ways in a most convincing AA manner) is compelled to climb an apple tree, feeling tugged upward by the rising sap of the spring, and then plant herself neck first into small opening in the tree, where Miss Hickory's body takes hold and becomes a scion (look it up as a grafting term). Miss Hickory is one of the least pleasant title characters in the Newbery Medal books and one that is memorable in large part because of her shortcomings.

Most Beautifully Written: Hands down, I, Juan de Pareja, Elizabeth Borton de Trevino, 1966. There are lots of beautifully written Newbery Medal books, but this one leaps out. First runner up: Shadow of a Bull, Maia Wojciechowska, 1965.

Best Coming of Age: Up a Road Slowly, Irene Hunt, 1967. I've written about this book before. First runner up: Shadow of a Bull, Maia Wojciechowska, 1965.

Best Biography: Carry On, Mr. Bowditch, Jean Lee Latham, 1956. The Newbery Medal has been awarded five times for biography; this one was fascinating, lively, and left me with an appreciation of a significant American I had never heard of before. 

The Book I Started Out Disliking and Ended Up Loving: The Hero and the Crown, Robin McKinley, 1985. I labored through this book until midpoint, at which time I suddenly found myself caught up in the mystical fantasy world that McKinley created.


The Only Book That Made Me Laugh Out Loud: A Year Down Yonder, Richard Peck, 2001. I defy you to read the snake scene without rolling on the floor. Just to check my reaction, the other day at the library, I pulled this book off the shelf and reread that chapter. Same reaction.

Best Poetry: A Visit to William Blake's Inn: Poems for Innocent and Experienced Travelers, Kathy Willard, 1982. As with biographies, poetry books occasionally garner a Newbery. These poems are inspired by William Blake; you don't have to be familiar with his works to enjoy this fantastical exploration of an inn maintained by William Blake and full of wonders. The illustrations are the icing on the cake. I want to stay at William Blake's inn!


Book Destined to Become a Percussion Performance: Joyful Noise, Paul Fleischman, 1989. This is another poetry collection, made to be read aloud. Each poem is told by a different insect. I read the first two, then went to find Warren, exclaiming, "This has to be set to percussion and performed sometime!"

Best Book About Accepting Death: Missing May, Cynthia Rylant, 1993. Just read it.

Realize, too, that there are several Newbery Medal books that I have read dozens of time, did not reread this fall, and would immediately put on my All Time Gold Star Favorites list. They include: Caddie Woodlawn, Carol Ryrie Brink, 1936; From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, E. L. Konigsburg, 1968; A Wrinkle in Time, Madeleine L'Engle, 1963; Sarah, Plain and Tall, Patricia McLachlan, 1986; The View From Saturday, E. L. Konigsburg, 1997; Dear Mr. Henshaw, Beverly Cleary, 1984; Out of the Dust, Karen Hesse, 1998. I cannot say enough about these books. But when all is said and done, there is one book that stands alone as the best of the best. Out of the 90 books, and I can get away with this because I have read all 90, one is the very best Newbery Medal book of all. It is well written, the story is clever beyond description (I didn't figure the ending out until almost the very end, at which point I said aloud, "WOW!"), and, perhaps best of all, it is a beautiful tribute to  A Wrinkle in Time, which itself won the Newbery.

Best Newberry Medal Book of Them All: When You Reach Me, Patricia Stead, 2010. Beautiful, stunning, and heartbreaking. Tears came to my eyes when I realized whose face was drawn on the underside of the mailbox. Even several weeks later, I am still analyzing the book and ready to reread it. Well done, Patricia Stead!


KJ Dell'Antonia recently summed up the importance of reading (she was writing about reading real books and not electronic ones): A book - a real book - is one choice, taken from a pile, opened and entered as its own singular, separate world.

I couldn't agree more. Reading the Newbery Medal books was a deliberate choice that I would make over again in a heartbeat. 90 singular, separate worlds, and I got to be in them all.

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Special thanks are due: to Cindy, who knows why I started this quest, to Margo, who never failed to listen as I ranted or raved about the books, and who read When You Reach Me immediately on my recommendation so we could talk about it, to Katrina, whose response to my reading the Newbery Medal books was to cull her own children's bookshelves and start reading the ones readily at hand, and to my longtime reading buddy Scott, who is always up for a book discussion and because of whom I will always think of the 1944 Newbery Medal book as Johnny Deformed.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

One Berry, Two Berry, Read Me a Newbery


Part 1 of 2

Back in September, for a lot of reasons I won't go into right now, I decided to read the Newbery Medal winners, or at least all of the Newbery Medal winners that I had not read recently (as in the last decade).

The Newbery Medal is given annually by the American Library Association to the "most distinctive contribution to American children's literature" for the prior year. One has been given every year since 1922. (The Newbery Committee also names "Newbery Honor Books" for the outstanding runners up for the year. No, I have not read all the honor books.)

Of the 90 Newbery books out there, I had previously read about 18-20 of them. That left all the rest.

I did not read them in any order, including chronologically. Our local library owns all but a scant handful of them, and houses many of them at the main branch here in Delaware. My selection method consisted of taking a printout of the list (found here) to the library, stand in the children's section (where most are typically found) and pluck a random bouquet. When the load grew heavy in my arms, I had enough. "Enough" usually meant that 15 books came home at one shot.

Over the 5 or 6 weeks it took me to read the Newbery Medal books, I heard some interesting comments from adults about my quest. One, a former school librarian, said he thought the list was put out by adults for adults, and that is why children don't read Newbery Medal books.(This theory has a number of vocal adherents, incidentally.) Another, a retired teacher, said he had rarely used Newbery books in his classrooms because the writing styles were too dated and the students wouldn't understand them (he taught primarily 5th and 6th grades). Another said she thought the Newbery had covered enough niches (homelessness, mental illness, drug abuse) and it was time to stop using "does this fill a niche?" as one of the selection criteria. A constant comment I heard was "but the process is so subjective."

Interesting theories all, and I now have my own thoughts on these points, as well as my own theory about the Newbery Medal books.

Is the Medal Book a book chosen by adults for adults? Other than a few winners in the earliest years, I would say they are not picked with adult readers in mind. I think we read the books differently as we get older, but I think almost all of them stand the test of time and interest to a young reader. (I'll write tomorrow about the ones that I think "fail" as selections.) In fact, my overwhelming response to many of them was to smack my forehead and say "dang, why didn't I ever put this book in my children's hands?" (Sorry, Ben and Sam, that we missed Lloyd Alexander, among others.) Watching my own children devour many of the Newbery Medal books of their generation (my copy of Holes came from Sam's insistence that we buy it) tells me a lot about the appeal of the books to children. I think we as adults either fail to put the books in children's hands or so sermonize about their value that reading a Newbery Medal book is seen as torture.

Are the styles of the older books dated? There are one or two books that I say time has not been kind to when it comes to style. I found myself reading all of them with a critical ear and eye for the style as well as the content. My test was whether I felt I could read the book out loud to a child. The vast majority passed. In fact, the very book that the retired teacher and I discussed (Rifles for Watie, 1958) is one that I would say still holds up when it comes to style, although I have other concerns about it. I don't think children are put off by style as much as adults are; we adults think something is tedious, and so we expect children to think so too. I think a child who is grabbed by a book will plow through it regardless of the style in which it is written provided the characters populating the story are engaging.

Are there too many niche choices? Hmmn, tougher question. There have certainly been some choices that could be considered niche selections. I look at the changing nature of the list as a reflection of the changes we as a country have gone through as we moved through the 20th century and into the 21st. (Although, surprisingly, the Newbery tackled mental illness as early as 1960.) I think ethnic and racial niches or selections point this change out the best. It took a long time for novels with believable African-American characters to crack the list, with Sounder finally doing so in 1970. True, a biography entitled Amos Fortune, Free Man, made the charts in 1951, and the beautifully written I, Juan de Pareja, about the Moorish slave of the painter Velasquez, made it in 1966, but Sounder was the first in which an African-American family living in America was featured. After that barrier was broken, others books featuring African-American characters followed.

What is glaringly absent from the list are books about modern day Latino, Asian-American, or Native American youth. I can make a convincing argument that a good book will captivate a reader of any age or ethnic background, because I believe that to be true. But I also firmly believe that, especially when you are young, it helps to be able to read a book in which the main character reflects your life experiences as someone of a different color or family origin. Louisa May Alcott established this beyond refute when she published Little Women and it became a runaway best seller on the strength of it being the first children's novel written about believable girls growing up in Civil War America.

I have my own little theory about the Newbery Medal books and why the older ones are not read more widely. I believe it is because we read, teach, and share those books with which we are most familiar. A 5th grade teacher in his or her thirties may be most familiar with the Newbery Medal books of the 1990s, when he or she was in 4th through 6th grades. They may have never been exposed to the works from the 1960s and earlier, unless they were either avid readers or had the good fortune to have had a teacher who knew the older winners and did not hesitate to make recommendations or read them aloud to the class. Otherwise, there is book after book on the list from every decade that I think stands up to the honor of being selected.

And finally, are the Newbery Medal Book selections subjective? Absolutely. They often reflect the times and the makeup of the selection committee. And the selection committee is only human. Look at the fact that neither Stuart Little nor Charlotte's Web, both of which are established classics, ever won a Newbery Medal. This is largely due to the fact that for a long time Anne Carroll Moore held sway over the committee, even when she wasn't a member of it. Moore, who all but created the concept of children's librarians and children's sections of public libraries, is remembered by many not for her significant contributions but by her intense and profound dislike of White's children's literature. In the end, although she won the battle and kept E. B. White from collecting a Newbery for either, there is little question as to who won that war. The 1946 winner (the year that White would have won for Stuart Little)? Strawberry Girl, by Lois Lenski, a period piece that has not held up well. The 1953 winner (the year White would have won for Charlotte's Web) was Secret of the Andes by Ann Nolan Clark. The 1953 winner is an oddly mystical, haunting fantasy that blends the ancient Incan past with the modern world, but it's no Charlotte's Web. I would have awarded the medal to White each time.

Sometimes I have to remind myself (while I am carping about subjectivity) that the Newbery is not the Nobel, in that the Newbery Medal is given to the most distinctive contribution published the previous year and not to an author for his or her body or literature. (More head smacking moments: what do you mean Beverly Cleary never won a Newbery for any of her Beeezus and Ramona books?)

In the end, the Newbery Medal selection is subjective. And so am I, as you will see in my free ranging critique of the Newbery Medal Books in part 2 of this post.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

We Are the 99%

I recently held a mediation between two young parents. Although the mediation topic was parenting time, the two kept veering into arguments about money: jobs, housing, child support. I let it go on for a little while, then held up my hand to stop the rants. When they were both quiet, I made some observations.

"You [indicating one] are struggling to find work. You [looking at the other] just had to move home because you couldn't afford the rent when your roommate moved out. I'm not saying the financial issues aren't important, but we are here today to talk about your child. There's a recession going on. You could be the faces of it."

They are the 99%.

Earlier this week was our legal clinic. We sailed past our all time record of 214 clients (set last year) and finished November at 239, knowing we will top 250 this year. That statistic is both incredible (as a visible benchmark to the skills, passion, and dedication of our volunteers) and absolutely heartbreaking (as a visible benchmark of what the Great Recession has done to our community).

Our legal clinic clients are the 99%.

Earlier tonight I sat down and figured out where the next paycheck (which I get tomorrow) goes. I net $575 every two weeks. After the bills still owing this month, after my share of the groceries ($100 per month or $50 per check), I have $42 left. $42! I told Amy I am buying her an early Christmas present tomorrow. She desperately needs a humidifier for her bedroom because of her severe asthma. So unless I find a decent one at Goodwill, it will be a $30 basic one at Wal-Mart, so that leaves me…hmmn…$12 for two weeks. Now, I have $30 in my pocket (a rare occurrence made possible only because of a recent repayment of a gasoline loan), so I am, in fact, feeling plush with $42 at hand.

I am the 99%. And I am one of the blessedly lucky ones, given that I have food, shelter, medical insurance, and a safe community to live in, not to mention an amazingly wonderful husband who lives in similarly straitened conditions and makes the absolute best of it. We are both lucky, and we are both part of the 99%.

The phrase "we are the 99%" refers to the reality that 1% of our population controls almost a quarter of all of the income generated in this country. In short, they control this country. There's a whole lot of talk going on right now about the Occupy Wall Street movement, which is closely aligned with the "we are the 99%" discussion. For me, the issue is whether we continue to pretend everything is "all right" where so much wealth and power is amassed in the hands of so few people.

It's not all right. Hunger, homelessness, foreclosures, lack of medical care, poor public education systems, a crumbling infrastructure, falling behind technologically, and all the other rampant accoutrements of this imbalance are not acceptable. Not to me and not to lots of others. Even some of those who make up that 1% are starting to speak out about the dangers the wealth inequities pose to our nation.

And while I am still standing on my soapbox, let me add that I firmly believe the First Amendment is in danger of being bludgeoned as mayors move to stop the Occupy movement. The last time I checked, We the People, regardless of our socio-economic credentials, have the right to free speech and the right to assemble peacefully. Our press has the right to freedom as well, which means allowing them to cover the whole story on both sides, as opposed to cordoning them off during the police sweep of Zuccotti Park. I have no problem with arresting occupiers when they become violent. I have a huge problem with directing law enforcement to silence them and the press simultaneously because the protests are inconvenient or embarrassing.

At wearethe99percent.tumblr.com, people of all ages and all backgrounds tell their stories. I haven't put mine up, but every day I am more and more tempted. I admire these people. It takes courage to say in a very public forum "I am broke." Or "I am sick." Or "No matter how hard I work I am still behind." It takes courage to say "this is wrong."

There is huge power in storytelling and I suspect those who post their story or join a protest realize that truth more and more each day. As Barry Lopez said, "sometimes a person needs a story more than food to stay alive." We need these stories to know we are not alone. We need these stories to stay alive.

As time and the economy wear on, I am increasingly radicalized, which is not my usual political mode. My usual political mode is sort of a middle of the road, let me concentrate on the local issues stance. I can no longer pretend the national issues have not warped our local issues out of kilter. There is no positive way to spin the Great Recession. Whether it is the school levy that failed in my stepdaughter's district or the recent attempt in Ohio to destroy police, firefighters, and teachers unions (beaten back at the polls overwhelmingly), or the clients waiting patiently at the legal clinic every month, my local community has been turned upside down.

2100 years ago, Hillel the Elder wrote "If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am for myself only, then what am I? And if not now, when?"

The time is now.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

A Remarkable Teacher

Note: Early last week, Jean Blakeslee died at the age of 85. Jean was an important person in our community and an important person in my life. I missed her memorial service because we were out of town, but this is what I imagine others besides me had to say about her.
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Jean Blakeslee was my fifth grade teacher at Conger Elementary from 1966-1967 and was one of those benchmark teachers you look back at later and say "I am so lucky I had her." I believe it was her first year teaching at Conger and those of us in her class were amazed that our teacher was also the principal's wife. Somehow that seemed too fantastical to believe. 

Fifth grade with Mrs. Blakeslee was a year of spelling bees (which she loved), of being read The Hobbit, which she also loved, and of science experiments sometimes gone fabulously awry (the praying mantis case that hatched in the dead of February, filling our classroom with hundreds of miniature mantises when we walked in that next morning, comes to mind). For our Halloween parade that year, Mrs. Blakeslee showed up as a witch with a tall pointy hat that added to her already impressive height. (Mr. Blakeslee showed up dressed as Mrs. Blakeslee, complete with hose, heels, and falsetto voice, stunning us all again.)

Our fifth grade classroom was full of singing. Mrs. Blakeslee had us sing a lot. Looking back, I suspect she used singing as a way to divert our energies and focus our attention. We sang lots of different songs, but the one we sang most enthusiastically was "Goober Peas," a Civil War song. How could a bunch of eleven year olds resist a chorus of "Peas! Peas! Peas! Peas! Eating goober peas! Goodness how delicious, eating goober peas!"?

Mrs. Blakeslee figured out very early on that I was a voracious reader, and often steered me to books that she thought would challenge me. I remember her putting Irene Hunt's Up A Road Slowly in my hands, saying "I think this would be a good book for you to read, April." She was right. She fed my desire to write as well as my love of reading, and many years later turned over to me a story I had penned as a sixth grader and mailed to her to show her I was still writing. 

Mrs. Blakeslee let me know she believed in me, and her belief in me carried me into junior high school next year and beyond. You don't forget those kind of things about a teacher.

When I moved back to Delaware in 1990, our paths crossed at various places, including the soft-serve ice cream stand near her house. She was active with a passion in Delaware after retiring from teaching and sometimes we crossed paths at various community events. We always talked when we met and I always, always called her "Mrs. Blakeslee" until the day she looked at me and said, "I think we are both old enough now that you can call me Jean."

Jean Blakeslee was a remarkable woman and a great teacher. She left her imprint all over our community; I am blessed that she left it on me as well.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

A Fork in the Road


“When you come to a fork in the road, take it.” Yogi Berra

The summer was a long road through concerts, through visits from Sam and trips with David, through Amy moving in. It wound through medical procedures sprinkled liberally on the older tier of the family. It rolled on through private times and public times.

The road rolled on into fall.  The medical matters are winding down. Symphony seasons have opened, first in Mansfield and then here in Delaware. Indianapolis and the percussion convention are just ahead, as is New York again for the orchestra conference. Halloween is just past, more holidays are in the offing.

The road indeed goes ever on, but we have come to a fork.

Over the last several months, my mother has been changing, slowly but surely. Her once frequent phone calls have now all but stopped. After a lifetime of dominating any conversation, she more often than not is quiet. When she pulls up short too many times in a conversation, stymied as to what comes next, she covers with “I’m brain dead” and makes a joke. She asks the same question within a few minutes of first asking it. And when those rare phone calls do come and she repeats the same story for the second time within minutes of the first telling, I afterwards hang up the phone quietly and just stand for a minute, gazing out into the backyard.

Some of us – “us” being me, my sister-in-law, and two of my three brothers – started comparing notes many months ago. Because Mom had major surgery earlier this summer, none of us said much more or raised the issue with Dad while they were preoccupied.

But we were watching all the same.

Recently, my youngest brother Mark and I, after weeks of comparing notes and concerns and fears, agreed it was time to say something to dad. With the backing of our spouses, we came up with a plan to meet at mom and dad’s when Mark and I could both be there.

Mark arrived first to work on his car; he phoned me to let me know he was en route. I arrived a little later to look for canning jars stored overhead in the garage. Dad, already out in the garage talking to Mark as we hoped he would be, climbed up with me to help get the jars down the stairs. After we both were back down the stairs, I asked, as casually as my suddenly uncertain voice would allow, about mom’s upcoming visit with her family physician. 

Mark shot me an appreciative look as dad answered. I then asked the hitherto unasked question.

“Dad, is mom all right?”

Mark stopped working. Dad looked at me. He hesitated in replying, and I took the pause to jump.

“I’m asking because we are noticing things.”

Dad cut right to the chase, which is his style. “You mean her memory? Yes, there are problems.”

The tension sagged out of the air. We all talked then, throwing our worries and notes one by one onto a growing stack. Dad listed the changes that he lives with now, both small and big changes of which we weren’t aware.  She has stopped reading books, which saddened me. She still works crossword puzzles, but more and more she asks my dad for help on the clues. Dad, a notoriously poor speller, barked a short, rueful laugh at this turn of events. 

The pile of worries and observations grew larger. It was painfully clear that mom is showing increasing signs of what the medical world calls “cognitive impairment.” It was painfully obvious that dad was relieved that he didn’t have to break the news to us.

Finally someone, Dad perhaps, said the word out loud.

Alzheimer’s.

Mom hates that word. Mom is terrified of that word. She much prefers “dementia,” which she thinks of as a different, less severe illness than Alzheimer’s.

Dementia, Alzheimer’s, senility.

The words all mean more or less the same thing: our family is at a fork in the road. And when you come to that particular fork, you take it. You have no choice. Mom has turned down a twisty fork that goes way over that way while the rest of us are still on the other path over here. We can still see each other and talk and laugh together, but looking up ahead, we know that at some point her path will diverge more steeply from ours and while we will always be able to see her on her path, she will no longer see us on ours.

In 1994, former President Ronald Reagan released a written statement that he had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. He did so in the hope that others might be encouraged to seek early intervention and diagnosis, writing “I now begin the journey that will lead me into the sunset of my life.”

We are all journeying into the sunset of our lives. My dad does not pretend at 78 that his sunset is not most likely right around the corner. I know that my sunset will very likely come far earlier for me than if I had not been diagnosed with an incurable cancer.

And my mother? I fervently hope she is walking along, marveling at the brilliant golds and reds in the west, happily unaware of the gathering shadows of the oncoming night.


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Postscript





I have had this piece written for several weeks, and delayed posting it until now. It has tugged at my conscience, it has pulled hard at my heart. My mother's cognitive impairment is a very difficult topic because it is so personal and so immediate. What finally made me decide to post it was my saying out loud, as I thought through the post for the nth time, "what is my motive?" 







My motive? To know that I am not alone. To know that we are not alone. 

I wrote this in mid-September and am posting it now in November. Some things are unchanged, especially mom’s continuing decline. What has changed is that we are now speaking aloud to each other about what is happening, at least to one another.  

No one mentions it to mom. (For those of you who know my mother, I would ask that you not feel you need to break the news to her.) I don’t know which of us will undertake that task. Dad recently tried to and she became so distraught that he quickly backtracked and calmed her down. 









It does not surprise me that he cannot bring himself to break her heart. My father has spent 59 years being protective of my mother. It seems that he is growing even more so as she slips away. He has spent his whole adult life calming her fears, giving her reassurance, being there for her. 




It does not surprise me that he will go along with her on the road for as long as possible. He will make the path as smooth as possible; he will stoop to clear away any debris.


Dad will hold mom's hand for as long as he is able.

My dear friend Katrina wrote me a long letter about what we are facing, having gone through it herself in her family. It was thoughtful and heartfelt, so much so that I copied the lines and sent them on to Mark so he and his wife could read them. She closed her comments with this: Finally, enjoy your Mom as much as you can for as long as you can. There will be glimmers of gains and lots of puddles. Only God knows the timing and we all have to live with that.

Enjoy your Mom as much as you can for as long as you can.   


We plan on it.