Letter to My Children
the last fifteen years of my mother's life she suffered with Alzheimer's disease.
Until then she had been a bright, cheerful woman deeply interested and involved
in the world around her. I would go home to visit her in Virginia and she would
look at me in a puzzled way and ask, "Who are you?" I would answer,
"I'm your son." "Where do you live?" She would ask. "In
California," I would tell her. "Isn't that interesting," she would
say, "I have a son in California."
At the onset of the disease
she seemed simply forgetful and confused, but later on she would endure periods
of intense agitation. If she were unattended for a short time she would leave
home and wander away. She would pace through the house she had lived in most of
her life crying fretfully that she wanted to go home.
Hoping to please
her and put her mind at rest I would take her for a drive, visiting sites where
she had lived as a child. In the yard of the hillside house in Shipman I sat in
the car and admired the vista of the old oaks and long green lawn. I envisioned
my mother there as a little girl playing with the pet lamb she had been so fond
of. I looked to her for some response. She shook her head and said, "I want
to go home."
The house in Alberene where she had been born brought
no better reaction. The house had changed little since she used to take us children
there to visit our great grandparents. They were an ancient bedridden couple,
propped up side-by-side on pillows. She had a powdery medicinal smell. He had
a handlebar mustache that tickled when you kissed him. They hid peppermint balls
in a Mason jar under their pillows and rewarded them to us if we would kiss them.
I asked my mother if she would like to visit the house, walk in the yard, sit
on the porch. "No," she said, "Take me home!"
the years I have decided that what my mother was calling home was not a place,
but a time. I suspect it was a time when she was much younger, when her children
were still underfoot, when her husband was still vigorous and attentive (My father
was an adoring father and loving husband who would pick up our mother and waltz
her around the kitchen all the while singing "Let Me Call You Sweetheart,
I'm in looooooove with you
Watching my mother's anguish set
me to wondering where I would have in mind if someday I couldn't find home and
wanted to go there. In this family we tend to be long lived and we grow fuzzy
minded as the years go by. At eighty I have already noticed some alarming symptoms.
My doctor says the forgetfulness is only natural, that it comes with age. Still
the specter of Alzheimer's lurks out there. Someday if and when I become even
more cloudy minded and disoriented than I am now, unable to drive and unable to
tell you where "home " is, I expect I will ask you to take me
home, I know you will do your best to find the place I need to be. I leave these
notes for your guidance.
Often in dreams I go home to Virginia. I rent
a car at Dulles and drive down Route 29. Around Culpepper the Blue Ridge comes
into view in the distance and my heart lifts. Past Charlottesville I leave Route
29 and follow the curve of the narrow country road that borders the Rockfish River.
The river is old and the water level is low most of the year as it flows gently
over and around time worn boulders and mossy banks. It leads past farms that have
moved further up the hillside after Hurricane Camille turned the river into a
wall of roiling water that swept away the owners' homes and barns. There is a
spot right before Power House Number One where my brothers and I used to catch
as many small mouth bass as we could carry home. There is where the road bends
upward and where some domestic goats once got loose and established a wild herd
on a rocky ledge.
Then for the next six miles the road curves through wooded
country. These are old forests of white oak and water oak and red oak and every
kind of pine and dogwood and redbud and maple and sycamore and sassafras all of
them making such a show of color in the fall that it takes your breath away.
road leads me finally to the Village of Schuyler. Mixed feelings of revulsion
and love rise in my throat. I was born in this village. It is where I grew up,
and was once the storehouse of my most treasured memories. The house where we
lived has gone out of the family now but it is owned by a friend who is in the
process of restoring it. My father bought the house from The Alberene Stone Corporation
when the mill closed during the Depression and employees were given the opportunity
the buy the houses they were already living in. Darkness was usually gathering
by the time I arrived there, but my mother and father were expecting me and would
meet me at the car. Home! Three bedrooms, a living room, a bathroom, a kitchen.
Upstairs were the "boys' room" and across the hall was the "girls'
room." We boys slept two to a bed. In that room I kept a journal seated at
my "writing" desk, a contraption with four legs, a drawer which I had
built myself. It faced a window where a crab apple tree dominated the field. When
it blossomed each spring it was covered in pinkish white blossoms and then turned
to gold when flights of wild canaries flew home again and rested there. The view
of the misted Blue Mountains from the kitchen window was stunning and the yard
was filled all summer long with bird song. Even today I can still recall the aroma
of bacon cooking and coffee percolating on the woodstove while my mother started
breakfast. My parents raised eight children there!
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