Last weekend we went to Squam Lake for a family wedding. The ceremony itself was held on tiny Church Island. Planning a wedding on a tiny island requires excellent logistics and good luck. Cold, rain, wind, faulty seamanship, and nasty insects are only some of the things that could possibly go awry. None of the above transpired. The day was exquisite. While the bride and groom paddled away in a canoe, a large water snake was spotted curled up by the dock. But no worries. My snake-phobic sister, the illustrious officiant, never even saw the snake, thanks to some quick thinking. We had among us one experienced herpetologist, and one crazy, risk-taking, snake-loving young man. Guess which one wrestled with the serpent?
The reception was held in a barn back on the mainland. This lovely old barn was decorated with galvanized buckets of artfully arranged flowers, mostly white and blue flowers, and foliage in multiple shades of green. The next morning, we stopped by to see my brother and sister-in-law, the happy and exhausted parents of the bride, and were enjoined to take a few buckets of flowers back to New York for my mother. We did, and only about a quart of water spilled in the back of the car.
Monday morning, I carted a bucket of artfully arranged flowers to my mother’s Little Red House, and placed it, artfully, in her living room.
“What are those? The big things?”
I explained that they were flowers from her granddaughter’s wedding, and that her son and daughter-in-law had asked me to bring them to her, knowing how much she loves flowers.
“Why are they…down?” she asked, and gestured with her hand, so I understood she was referring to some pendulous fronds in the arrangement.
“They were arranged that way. Aren’t they lovely?”
“Why are they here?”
We went over the history and provenance of the flowers 3 more times.
That evening I went back to my mother’s with some garden vegetables and a book about Palladio* from the Travelers Restaurant, where you get three free books with every meal.
It was clear my mother was not adjusting well to the flowers in the bucket, not matter that they were so artfully arranged.
“It’s too …” she said, and gestured again.
“Messy?” I suggested.
“Yes, they are messy,” she said.
“I can fix that.”
I lugged the bucket to the table on her patio and brought out several small and medium size vases. Back at the Orchard, my mother had amassed what must have been one of New England’s largest collection of vases. Her vases filled an entire, floor to ceiling, closet. They came from all over the world, and in many sizes. But as in all such things, certain vases were favored, and over the years I recognized that the large Costa Rican painted vase would always be in front of the corner window in the kitchen. The slender silver flute would always be on the small table in the blue room, in front of my grandmother’s photo. Certain vases came in multiples, and she used them on her dining table. (Full disclosure: I too have more vases than is healthy or essential. Unlike my mother’s, which were mostly very tasteful, some of mine are quite ugly. Yet those are the hardest to get rid of. Because if I don’t keep them, who else could possibly want a vase that resembles - in fact IS - a tortured lump of clay?) My mother always arranged the flowers herself, and brilliantly. She grew Russian sage, peonies, delphiniums, astilbes, and lots of other things I never learned to name. Her azaleas came in tempestuous and exotic colors. Her arrangements did not consist only of flowers; she used pine boughs, dried stalks from the fields, bittersweet, woodruff, ferns and massive hosta leaves.
If I know anything about arranging flowers, it is because of my mother.
So there on her outdoor table, I removed all the flowers from the bucket, and extracted them from that weird green styrafoam-ish stuff that absorbs water and then degrades and gets everywhere and is such a pain to clean up. I picked through the mass of flowers, trimmed their stems and arranged them in the vases.
“Look at her,” Mom said. “She’s amazing. What is she doing?”
“I’m re-arranging the flowers in smaller vases,” I said.
“What is that, the big one?”
“It’s a delphinium. Or do you mean this one, the hydrangea?”
“That one. You know so much,” she said. Her eyes were almost sparkling.
“Mom,” I said. “You knew all about flowers. I learned all this stuff from you.”
“That’s amazing. Isn’t she amazing?” Mom said to Shedley. “How does she know these things?”
“From you, Mom. You were a great flower arranger.”
She looked oddly at me. “Who is there?”
I couldn’t interpret that one. I said. “Now you can just relax and let me arrange flowers for you.”
“Isn’t she amazing?” Mom said.
So here is my theory: for those who develop Alzheimer’s there is a correlation between the years spent acquiring language and the years spent losing language. Early language is mostly - but not always - general: flower, boy, mother, table, running, dog. Then it becomes more and more specific.
In Iggy’s case, for instance, he is onto photosynthesis, ottomans (yes, he referred to an ottoman the other day.), boa constrictors, villain, hydration, atmosphere, cement mixer, stegosaurus and killer whales. To make my conclusions more scientific, I have watched several grandchildren acquire language. Auben is now naming animals, and discussing tropical fruits and edible fish; he is learning all the words to help him understand death, and what it means that Bruno is in dog heaven. Minerva is still in the generalist phase: apple, cheese, and always, the names of her beloveds: Leda!!! Iggy!!!!
Meanwhile, for the past six years, more or less, I have watched and listened as Mom has lost language. Initially she forgot people’s names. Then went the names of particular trees or architectural styles or places or household appliances or foods.
I remember the first time she had no idea what pesto was. Pasta with pesto was a staple in our house; my mother’s pesto was a favored food of all 15 of her grandchildren. We all use her recipe, as do our children. And then one day she had no idea what this green stuff was.
So it was that first Mom lost the names of the trees and flowers: chestnut, stewartia, European beech, Koosa dogwood, gingko, American elm and black birch. Then she lost the word for that whole vegetable group, the splendid source of oxygen, shade and beauty: tree.
For now, she still has pronouns, prepositions, conjunctions, adverbs and some verbs. While Iggy and his cohorts are parsing philosophical concepts, prehistoric creatures and thanatology.
*I was hoping this book - with pictures! - might spark a glimmer of recognition. Back when, Mom was an architectural historian with an especial fondness for Palladio. The pattern of a Palladian window graced all her stationary, her reams of stationary. Sadly, Palladio means nothing to her now. Forcing me to ask, for the 839th time, how is this possible?