Alzheimer's Daughter

The Story

Alzheimer’s Daughter introduces the reader to my healthy parents, Ed and Ibby, years before their diagnosis, then recounts painful details as our roles reversed and I became my parents’ parent.

Their disease started as translucent, confused thoughts and ended in a locked memory care unit after a near decade of descent into the opaque world of Alzheimer's.

I began writing Alzheimer’s Daughter one week after my mother's death––when I was stunned, realizing Dad had no memory of her or their 66-year marriage.

I write to pay tribute to the undying spirit at Ed and Ibby's core, and with the hope that the story of their parallel decline might be helpful to others.

Thursday, November 22, 2012


On Thanksgiving Day, I remember, with gratitude, the way I was raised by Ed and Ibby.

Excerpt from Chapter Two of ALZHEIMER'S DAUGHTER:

Each night at bedtime Mom would tuck me in, hold my hand and kneel beside my bed to pray for family, friends, and the state of our nation. We’d say things like, “God, please cure Aunt Jenny’s pneumonia, heal Mr. Smith from his heart attack, and guide Khrushchev.” I didn’t know who Khrushchev was, nor comprehend much about the Cold War, but I knew the U.S. was at odds with the Soviet Union.
 Without fail, hours after Mom prayed with me, I’d hear my parents kneeling––Mom on her side of the bed, and Dad on his––murmuring prayers to thank God for their blessings.

Growing up in the old house, I’d hear groaning and clanging from the furnace, imagining a monster lurking in the shallow, mousey basement. That contraption heated the whole house through a three-by-five foot register in the dining room floor, next to the staircase Mom grumbled about dusting while she put Dad’s old socks on both hands, running them up and down the spindles. On cold mornings I’d scoot down the stairs on my rump, and sit on the warm register, letting heat ooze into my goose-pimply skin, calming my chattering teeth until the metal became so hot I had to move or burn my backside.
Mom’s voice roused me from my warm trances as she hollered, “Jean, get moving, we’ve got to go through your flash cards before you leave for school.”
As Dad knotted his necktie, and Mom straightened it, she’d ask him, “What do you want for dinner tonight?”
He’d kiss her goodbye then chuckle, “Whatever you can spare.”
Then he opened the oak front door with the oval glass, a cold draft sneaking in, before it creaked closed behind him. Eating my breakfast of Alpha Bits, my knees curled underneath me at the kitchen table, I’d hear Mom murmur, “Your dad wouldn’t complain if I served him mud.” I’d watch out the window as my father with his long, quick strides began the quarter-mile walk to work.
I never remember Dad driving to work, even in the dead of winter, because we lived so close. Our used brown 1950s Ford Fairlane rarely left the detached garage, because we rarely left town. In those days, Dad never would have bought a new car. He said, “A car takes us from point A to point B. We need nothing fancy.”
After Dad, Ann, and I vacated the house, Ibby’s focus became a meat and potatoes evening meal. Most nights we even had homemade dessert contributing to her plumpness. Her teeth suffered from her stash of Milky Ways, Snickers, and Three Musketeers. When she was in her early forties she decided she wanted straight teeth and a pretty smile. So the dentist pulled her upper and lower molars, gave the sore gums a couple of days to begin to heal, then pulled the remaining front teeth, socking the dentures into her raw mouth. To work through the throbbing, she’d walk to the mirror and smile brightly. The image of her straight white teeth beaming back––her only anesthetic.
Between meal prep, Ibby washed clothes in the wringer washer. Wearing housedresses belted with a fitted bodice––June Cleaver-like, without the pearls––she carried laundry to a sagging clothesline. Dad’s pants and shirts, our skirts, blouses, sheets, and underwear along with Mom’s bras fluttered in June, and flapped so hard some came loose––landing in the neighbor’s yard––in the angry gray freeze of February.
Rivertown from 1950 to1960 likened to “Mayberry.” Opie––in his striped tee shirts, jeans, and shorn hair could have been one of my classmates. My most vivid school memory is of Friday, the 22nd of November in 1963. My third grade classmates and I covered our heads with our lunch boxes and ran for our lives, risking glances at the sky––hearts pounding, bobby socks and Mary Janes flying––searching for imagined Soviet planes, which we feared could bomb us. That night Mom, Dad, Ann and I huddled around the black and white Philco, as Walter Cronkite told the nation John F. Kennedy had not only been shot, but was dead. Tears seeped down our cheeks as Jackie Kennedy, in her blood stained dress, having removed her pillbox hat, stood beside Lyndon Johnson as he was sworn in.
Most days after school, kids chased each other, running through connecting backyards––playing good guys against bad guys––never knowing in whose yard we’d end up. Ibby, even though she was fiercely overprotective, never worried. She knew I’d be back to eat supper. We listened for our moms to holler “Dinnertime!” almost yodel-like. Understanding when first and middle names––‘Jean Louise’––were yelled we’d better run home fast because dinner was getting cold.
The only exception to our heavy meals occurred at end-of-summer harvest. Dad, because he was so practical, planted the vegetable garden in the spring. Mom, wearing her seersucker pedal-pusher pants, picked and prepared the vegetables, but allowed herself the beauty of her flower garden. It was not as practical as Ed’s garden. It didn’t produce food, but did give her joy––often a single rose in a bud vase decorated our diner table.
My mouth waters, and I can almost feel the sticky sweat on my neck remembering the steamy heat of the old house, with the ever so slight movement of air through the white, Priscilla curtains as we’d begin supper by spreading a thick coating of butter on a piece of Wonder bread, then rub the buttered bread on to an ear of sweet corn. After gnawing the rows off the cob, and licking the butter off my hands, the piece of warm bread was a bonus. The year I had a gaping hole in my mouth from having lost all four of my front teeth––top and bottom––mom took pity on me and cut the kernels off the cob. Harvest meals were rounded out with peppered green beans seasoned with bacon drippings saved from Dad’s breakfasts of bacon and eggs, and tomatoes––still warm from the garden––topping cottage cheese sprinkled with sugar.
A slatted swing suspended by two chains from the ceiling of the wrap-around front porch was the only place to catch a breeze on still summer days. I’d swing my baby dolls, while my sister and her teenage girlfriends, holding their transistor radios to their ears, practiced dancing to Wah-Watusi and Twist and Shout from the previous week’s American Bandstand.
 Memories jerk through my mind, like the clicking sound of reel-to-reel movies, of sitting Indian-style on the warm sidewalk, cranking my skate key to clamp my roller-skates to my saddle shoes. The bottoms of my feet vibrated, and the skate key lobbed from a leather string around my neck as I raced to the store––navigating uneven slabs of sidewalk pushed out of place from ancient maple and oak tree roots––to spend my allowance of a nickel on creamy Fudgesicles or maple-filled Bun candies.

If I misbehaved, Mom never threatened, “Wait till your father gets home.” She took care of discipline, on the spot, so Ed didn’t have to, spanking with a paddle––a broken paddleball toy from my Christmas stocking––or the yardstick, whichever the infraction warranted. The paddle hurt a little more. Her footfalls deliberately paced on the black and white linoleum squares to the broom closet, which housed the punishing tools. I’d take a deep breath, and my face would become feverishly hot, as I bent over­––hands gripping ankles––feeling my pulse in my temples, while she counted aloud as she whapped. She rarely told Dad about these incidents because he was not the disciplinarian. Once, however, he slapped me across the mouth after he overheard me sassing Mom. His hand hurt my pride more than my face, but also taught me that he’d never tolerate me speaking to the woman he loved in a smart-mouthed way. I never sassed either of them again.
End of summer crickets cricked while the pressure cooker hissed on most late-August days as Mom cleaned string beans and blanched tomatoes, with the warm aroma of home-made tomato juice heavy in the air. Quart sized Mason jars, contents full or consumed, lined shelves in the basement feeding us all winter.
In the back of those shelves, near the furnace, hid a few dusty bottles of never-opened liquor given to Dad as gifts. Dad drank a beer about once a year when an Army buddy came to visit––the remaining brown bottles stashed in the refrigerator door beside the ketchup and home-made strawberry jam. 
Mom was such a lightweight that when she participated in a toast with wine or champagne, her cheeks became hot blush-red after just a couple sips. Dad would tease her about her flushed face, and she’d giggle, pushing the remainder of her glass to him.
Mom’s jet-black hair in their wedding picture grayed early. She wound it in a French twist, resembling Opie’s Aunt Bee. By the time I was five, only the nape remained dark, turning completely white by the time I reached middle school.
Once when we were shopping, someone asked, “Are you having a nice time with your Grandma?” Mom scowled as a reply, then brooded, thinking she looked old enough to be my grandmother and feared that people who saw them together might think she was Ed’s mother. Mom viewed her hair as a liability, but I imagined white hair to be a halo of wisdom, because––like it or not––I believed she was the authority on everything. I think Dad never saw what bothered Mom about aging, he only pictured Ibby as the girl he first kissed in the tunnel of love.
In contrast, Dad maintained his lean build and brown hair. Despite having a desk job, he was active, keeping the old house in good repair, and working outside. I never heard him complain about household tasks. His favorite phrase was, “Oh, that’s just a twenty minute job,” even if it was chasing a skunk family out from under the back porch. In reality his projects might take days to accomplish.

Mom, Dad, Ann, and I attended church every Sunday. Mom taught Sunday School––she liked being with the kids––our friends. Dad always met us for church. I’d hearing Mom’s harmony in songs like, Just a Closer Walk with Thee, then I’d scoot over so she could resume her place in the pew beside Ed, his arm draped around her shoulders––me on Mom’s side, Ann on Dad’s––Ed and Ibby together.
Mom saved church bulletins because she loved the pretty pictures of spring flowers, fall leaves, or snowy mountains on the fronts. Most were covered with her petite, rounded handwriting. She’d take notes on the sermon and write reminders to send get-well cards and take homemade chocolate chip cookies and vegetable soup to someone who might be going through a rough patch. She defended every minister who ever served our church. When she heard cattiness hiding in the dark corners of church committees, she’d grumble, “The only reason we have a cross in the front of the church is so the congregation can crucify the minister.”
Because of her convictions, Mom taught Ann and me to think for ourselves. She’d say, “Popularity is fickle. Do what you know is right.” Ed and Ibby parented by encouraging––cheering, as though they held imaginary pompoms.
You might think I’m implying Ibby and Ed were perfect. I’m not. They weren’t. No one is. Mom complained that Dad worked too much. He’d often arrive home to cold meatloaf or overcooked chicken and dumplings. He worked long hours, and took little time for himself. I remember a time when Dad came home from a round of golf, tromped up the spindle staircase, stomping into the bedroom with the pull-down attic stairs, charged up those rickety steps, and threw his golf bag––clubs and all––into the sweltering, dusty rafters, shouting, “That’s the end of my golf.” Maybe Mom was upset that he’d taken personal time, rather than family time––or maybe he’d just had a bad round. Who knew? They kept conflicts private, recovered quickly, and I never remember them sleeping apart, most mornings finding them cuddled together as I snuck past their bedroom on my way to the bathroom. They agreed to disagree. Mom often contended, “If two people agree all the time, one of them isn’t thinking for themselves.”
Dad was social, but Mom––more private. He greeted people in business with a handshake and pleasant conversation, remembering their children’s names and paying close attention to the details of their lives. She, on the other hand, hated, ‘Have you heard…’gossip. She shunned women’s organizations and coffee clutches. Once she observed rumor or tittle-tattle she walked away. She never wanted to put herself in a position where someone could say, “Ibby said….” believing any form of gossip from her lips could be a detriment to Ed’s career. Ibby could hold a grudge, once she demoted an offender to her ‘bad list,’ they rarely were granted access to the ‘good list’ again. She did not need girlfriends––she needed only Ed.

The seven-year age difference between Ann and me felt like a generation. In pictures, she wore a ballet tutu while I toddled. She was the skinny teenager, interested in boys, while I was porky, with skinned knees, wearing glittery horn-rimmed glasses framed by a pixie haircut. She was learning to drive while I strolled my baby dolls, and rode my two wheeler. We lived the lives of only children in the same house. We were never at odds with one another––we just had nothing in common. 

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Happy Thanksgiving