mind over memory

Groundbreaking research is currently being conducted in the medical field on treatment programs including new medicines for dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. In 2011 when I wrote this piece and published it for the first time, Pretty and I had become caregivers for my mother for the previous three years with the goals of keeping her safe and comfortable. We were told her dementia would get progressively worse with no hope for improvement. We saw that prognosis slowly come true. Last week Pretty’s ongoing work on bringing order to the very old boxes in her warehouse revealed a small black box containing my mother’s notebook prepared by the funeral home that took care of her final remains and resting place in 2012. Inside the notebook was her copy of my first book Deep in the Heart: A Memoir of Love and Longing that I gave her in 2007.


August 08, 2011

Last week I visited my mother who is in a Memory Care Unit in a facility in Houston, Texas.  She is eighty-three years old and has lived there for two years.  She is a short, thin woman with severe scoliosis.  Her curved spine makes walking difficult, but she shuffles along with the customary purpose and determination that characterized her entire life.  Her silver hair looks much the same as it has for the last thirty years, missing only the rigidity it once had as a result of weekly trips to the beauty parlor and massive amounts of hairspray.

Her skin is extraordinarily free of wrinkles and typically covered with makeup.  She wears the identical mismatched colors she wore on my last visit.  Black blouse and blue pants.  This is atypical for the prim, little woman for whom image was so important throughout her life and is indicative of the effect of her dementia.

My mother is a stubborn woman who wanted to control everyone and everything in her life because she grew up in a home ruled by poverty and loss and had no control over anything.  Her father died when she was eleven years old.  He left a family of four children and assorted business debts to a wife with no education past the third grade.  Life wasn’t easy for the little girl and her three older brothers who were raised by a single mom in a rural east Texas town during the Great Depression.

My mom survived, married her childhood sweetheart, and had a daughter.  The great passions of her life, which she shared with my father, were religion and education and me, possibly in that order.  She played the piano in Southern Baptist churches for over sixty years.  She taught elementary grades in three different Texas public schools for twenty-five years.  The heart of the tragedies in her adult life made a complete circle and returned to losses similar to the ones she experienced in her childhood: her mother who fought and lost a battle with depression, two husbands who waged unsuccessful wars against cancer, an invalid brother who progressively demanded more care until his death, and a daughter whose sexual orientation defied the laws of her church.  Alas, no grandchildren.

My sense is that my mother prefers the order of her life now to the chaos that confronted her when dementia began to overpower her.  She knew she was losing control of everything, and she did not go gently into that good night.  Today, she seems more content.  At least, that’s my observation during my infrequent visits.

“My daughter lives a thousand miles from me,” she always announces to anyone who will listen.  “She can’t stay long.  She’s got to get back to work.”

We struggle to find things to talk about when I visit, and that isn’t merely a consequence of her condition.  We’ve had a difficult relationship.  Our happiest moments now are often the times we spend taking naps.  She has a bed with a faded navy blue and white striped bedspread, a dark blue corduroy recliner at the foot of her bed, and one small wooden chair next to her desk.  I sleep in the recliner, and she closes her eyes while she stretches out on the bed.

The room is quiet with occasional noises from other residents and staff in the hallway outside her door.  They don’t disturb us.  She has no interest in the television I thought was so important for her to take when I moved her into this place.  I notice it is unplugged.  Again.

“Lightning may strike,” she says when I ask her why she refuses to watch the TV in her room.  “Besides, I like to watch the shows with the others on the big TV.  Sometimes we watch Wheel of Fortune, and sometimes we watch a movie.”

I give up and close my eyes.

“I love this book,” my mother says, startling me awake with her words.  I open my eyes to see her sitting across from me.  She’s in the small wooden chair with the straight back.  I can’t believe she’s holding the copy of my book, Deep in the Heart, which I gave her two years ago.  I never saw the book since then in any of my visits, and I assumed she either threw it away or lost it.  I was also stunned to see how worn it was.  The only other book she had that I’d seen in that condition was The Holy Bible.

“I know all the people in this book,” she continues.  “And many of the stories, too.”

“Yes, you do,” I agree.  “The book is about our family.”

And, then, for the second time in as many weeks, I hear another reader say my words.  My mother reads to me as she rarely did when I was a child.  She was always too busy with the tasks of studying when she went to college, preparing for classes when she taught school, cooking, cleaning, ironing, practicing her music for Sunday and choir practice—she couldn’t sit still unless my dad insisted that she stop to catch her breath.

But, today, she reads to me.  She laughs at the right moments and makes sure to read “with expression,” as the teacher in her remembers.  Occasionally, she turns a page and already knows what the next words are.  I’m amazed and moved.  I have to fight the tears that could spoil the moment for us.  I think of the costs of dishonesty on my part, and denial on hers for sixty-five years. The sense of loss is overwhelming.

The words connect us as she reads.  For the first time in a very long while, we’re at ease with each other.  Just the two of us in the little room with words that renew a connection severed by a distance not measured in miles.  She chooses stories that are not about her or her daughter’s differences.  That’s her prerogative, because she’s the reader.

She reads from a place deep within her that has refused to surrender these memories.  When she tires, she closes the book and sits back in the chair.

“We’ll read some more later,” she says.

I lean closer to her.

“Yes, we will. It makes me so happy to know you like the book.  It took me two years to write these stories, but I’m glad you enjoy them so much.”

“Two years,” she repeats.  “You have a wonderful vocabulary.”


what Pretty found

About Sheila Morris

Sheila Morris is a personal historian, essayist with humorist tendencies, lesbian activist, truth seeker and speaker in the tradition of other female Texas storytellers including her paternal grandmother. In December, 2017, the University of South Carolina Press published her collection of first-person accounts of a few of the people primarily responsible for the development of LGBTQ organizations in South Carolina. Southern Perspectives on the Queer Movement: Committed to Home will resonate with everyone interested in LGBTQ history in the South during the tumultuous times from the AIDS pandemic to marriage equality. She has published five nonfiction books including two memoirs, an essay compilation and two collections of her favorite blogs from I'll Call It Like I See It. Her first book, Deep in the Heart: A Memoir of Love and Longing received a Golden Crown Literary Society Award in 2008. Her writings have been included in various anthologies - most recently the 2017 Saints and Sinners Literary Magazine. Her latest book, Four Ticket Ride, was released in January, 2019. She is a displaced Texan living in South Carolina with her wife Teresa Williams and their dogs Spike, Charly and Carl. She is also Naynay to her two granddaughters Ella and Molly James who light up her life for real. Born in rural Grimes County, Texas in 1946 her Texas roots still run wide and deep.
This entry was posted in family life, Lesbian Literary, Life, Personal, Reflections, Slice of Life, The Way Life Is, The Way Life Should Be and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

23 Responses to mind over memory

  1. Love this story. We’re going through it now with Den’s mum — a real problem as she’s in London and we’re in France. Rapidly greying…

    Liked by 1 person

    • I am so sorry for your sad times now. It’s a difficult journey, and I totally understand the distance problems. If you remember, that’s why Pretty and I had to get the Worsham Street house for those years of 2010 – 2014. Luckily, I had sold mom a long term care policy years before when I was in the insurance business, and that saved our financial lives.
      You two will survive, and we are sending our warmest wishes to you both and to your families, too.
      My third book, interestingly I’ll Call It Like I See It, was written mainly about my mother and me during our Texas odyssey. It might help. Available on Amazon.
      Truly deeply sorry.


      • Thanks for the heads up on the book. Look forward to reading it. We’re having to give up our idyl in France to go back to help out. Heartbreaking but the alternative of travelling back every 6 weeks isn’t working. Are you still coming over for some tennis? Maybe we’ll catch you before we go…

        Liked by 1 person

      • Very sorry to hear that – maybe you can come back…here’s hoping for better days on your horizons. I can tell you it won’t last forever.
        Yes! We are still planning on coming to Monte Carlo 1000! This is a bucket list trip for me that would be even better to meet you and your family! We will be in Nice April 09 – 16. We have tennis tickets for Wednesday, Thursday, Friday. I have no idea where you are geographically. Please excuse my American ignorance.


  2. cindy knoke says:

    So very movng Sheila. So impressed with your book!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. M.B. Henry says:

    ❤ ❤ ❤ Love this.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Luanne says:

    You insisted on making me cry today! This is so beautiful. Filled with the frustration of a daughter whose mother is too controlling and who will never find her daughter the way she “pictured” her (as an adult) and with the amazement over the love her mother shows when she is least able to disguise that love.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Luanne, sometimes as daughters we feel the “pictures” our mothers have of us are fuzzy, unclear; but if our mothers are unable to disguise their love for us, then that complicated relationship begins to have unobstructed focus…
      Whatever happened during the 65 years of pictures not what we hoped they would be on both sides, I was able to say at the end of my mother’s life that we never gave up on each other.
      It’s complicated, but I know you will not give up. You are one of life’s warriors.


  5. Charles Doughtie says:

    FYI My mother passed away shortly before Thanksgiving, 2012. ‘Nuther coincidence?
    Thanks for not including me in your book btw!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I had forgotten about your mother’s passing in the same year, too. Just another coincidence for us!
      Yes, you are included in my research materials! I think you were on one of mom’s recitals, right? And your sister, too?
      Not everyone was happy about being in this first book!


      • Charles Doughtie says:

        Yep, at least one recital. I was not as interested in the piano as Margret.
        When I first heard about your book, my reaction was “OH xxxx I hope I’m not in it!”.
        Had to get it asap to find out. Glad you don’t know about some things that happened after I left Richards – – – –

        Liked by 1 person

  6. Wayside Artist says:

    We break our mother’s hearts and they break ours. Love falls in between the cracks. You loved her dearly Sheila, and in the end she found a way to meet you with love too. You really do have a wonderful vocabulary. You know all the words of the heart.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, the relationship between mothers and daughters is the stuff of bittersweet feelings for sure.
      We break out mother’s hearts and they break ours. Love falls in between the cracks.
      Those are powerful words in your vocabulary, my friend, and no truer words were ever spoken. Thank you for your kind comments. They mean the world to me. You do so totally “get me,” and I’m grateful.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Very moving piece. Thank you for sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. You’ve left me speechless…

    Liked by 1 person

  9. JosieHolford says:

    That is a wonderful piece of writing. You capture a complex situation and relationship. Very moving.

    Liked by 1 person

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