By Elizabeth Shean
"How about this one?" I asked, holding up a snapshot. "Do you recognize her?"
Mom extended her hand to take the photograph from me. Her eyes narrowed as she inspected it for a good minute. The color photo clearly dated from the 1960s depicted a young woman with a beehive hairdo dressed in a gold jumper who was seated on mid-century modern style sofa upholstered in a pinkish damask fabric. With her legs elegantly crossed and her arm outstretched along the top of the sofa, the woman smiled obligingly at the photographer. Who was she? What was the occasion? Whose house is this? No notation on the back gave us any clue.
Sunshine streamed through the sliding glass doors, warming the tile of the sitting room, where Mom and I had spent the past three days sorting through a lifetime of photographs. Mom’s lifetime, in fact.
"I don’t know who this is," Mom said at last, grimacing and shaking her head. "I guess you can toss it."
I dropped the snapshot into a wastebasket with one hand and reached into the box to my right with the other. "Next up, a photo of you and Gary on the farm, I believe," I said, holding up another photograph. Mom brightened. "Yes," she smiled, "that’s the old home farm – and my puppy, Zip. Put that one in Jan’s box."
In front of me, three medium-sized boxes sat partially filled with the history of Mom’s life: snapshots, framed photos, and memorabilia like newspaper clippings mentioning her senior class play, her mother’s autograph book from 1912 and a collection of World War II ration books. One box was destined for my sister Jan, one for my brother, and one for me. My siblings had no idea Mom and I had undertaken this task and would be surprised when their boxes arrived by mail in a few weeks.
"I was thinking we should, uh, we should...." Mom’s halting speech patterns have become familiar by now, as dementia robs her of the ability to pull together coherent sentences. "We should...Oh, I don’t know. I’ve lost it," she said with exasperation. "I’m losing everything now, my memories, the ability to find words. It’s like...I can’t hold on to anything anymore. It’s here and then it’s gone."
"I can’t imagine how frustrating that is," I replied. "Can I get you a cup of coffee, Mom?" Sometimes changing the subject seems to be the only thing to do.
Mom nodded yes, so I stood up, stretched and surveyed the chaos around me. The wastebasket was filled to the brim again with photos of people and places that could no longer be identified. People and places lost to memory and dementia.
When I returned with the hot coffee mug, Mom was picking through a few items in the wastebasket, looking at them one last time and then dropping them back in.
"I feel terrible throwing away all those old photos," I said, "but I can’t see any reason to hold on to them when no one can identify who they are."
"No, you shouldn’t feel guilty," Mom said. "There’s no reason to keep some of this stuff, I guess."
She picked up an aged piece of folded tan construction paper that threatened to come apart at the seam any moment. On it was drawn a large red heart in crayon. Inside someone had written in ink, "To my best Valentine of 1947. Your Lochinvar."
"Now who do you suppose my Lochinvar was?" Mom mused. She raised her chin and gazed into space. After a moment she murmured, "So faithful in love, and so dauntless in war. There never was a knight like the young Lochinvar." She turned to me and gave me a lopsided smile. "Isn’t it terrible that I can remember the words to an ancient Walter Scott poem about a chivalrous knight, but I can’t remember the story behind this card?"
Mom dropped her eyes to study the makeshift Valentine card again. "Well, I suppose this can go in the trash, too," she said with more than a hint of wistfulness. "My memory’s gone, and...now all my stuff is going, too."
As she moved to drop the card into the wastebasket, she stopped and brightened. "Oh, wait," she said with excitement. "I remember now! A boy named Henry made this for me in seventh or eighth grade. We had been reading poetry aloud in Mrs. Halvorson’s English class, and she had assigned him to read Lochinvar. He stood in front of the class and read it very dramatically and directly to me, which we all laughed about. I guess he was more sweet on me than I’d realized at the time."
I sat back in my chair, astonished not just at this story but at Mom’s ability to tell it without losing the thread of her thoughts. "Mom, that’s amazing," I said. "How on earth did you remember that?"
Mom sipped her coffee and again studied the makeshift Valentine. "I guess it’s not really gone, after all," she finally said. "I guess the memories are in there somewhere. I just...um. Now I forget what I was saying."
It was my turn to give her a lopsided smile. "What would you like to do with that card?" I asked.
"You know, I think I will keep this after all," she replied. "It is something I can hold on to."