Thursday, September 28, 2017

My Theory Regarding Language Loss in Alzheimer’s Sufferers Based Entirely on Anecdotal, Personal, and Idiosyncratic Observations of One Mother and One Grandson, Aged 6

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?

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

The Unlikely Meeting of Fly Fishing and Instant Gratification

CSB and I just went Wyoming to learn how to fly fish with my nephew. (Yes, the same nephew who can ably shoot, skin, eviscerate and cook an elk, but we we did not learn how to do those things.) I knew nothing about fly fishing, but had conceived the idea that it was a ‘peaceful’ sport, a contemplative pastime during which one communes with nature, ponders life’s imponderables, and exercises patience and mindfulness near running water.

But before going to Wyoming to be patient and mindful in the wilderness, yet still on the subject of fly-fishing, I achieved instant gratification at a stop light in Dobbs Ferry.

It turns out that I am one of only thirteen literate Americans who have neither read A River Runs Through It, nor have seen the movie. The other 12 are in the federal witness protection program.

I was driving through Dobbs Ferry when I realized that I really couldn’t go to Wyoming without reading this book. But we were leaving the very next day. Then came the stop light, and there was my iPhone staring at me, being affixed to this very handy magnetic gizmo my sister gave me. (It is worth pointing out that my sister is probably responsible for more than half of the useful gizmos in my life.) With a mere flick of the finger, I opened the HOOPLA app, which allows me to borrow eBooks and movies and audible books. Through the library system! At no cost! There at the stop light I entered A River Runs Through it into the search box, and immediately was given the choice of several versions of that book read aloud. I chose the unabridged version, and hit the download button. Ta-da. By the time the light turned green I was listening to A River Runs Through It. Because of course I would never ever fiddle with my iPhone while actually driving. Nor should you.

While we were float fishing on the glorious Snake River, gazing at the magnificent Teton mountains, I often had occasion to think of that moment of instant gratification at the Broadway stoplight, while I was not catching any fish at all.

Above: Our wonderful guide, Caleb, demonstrates what a cutthroat trout would look like, should I ever catch one.

No fish were harmed in creating this edition of SQD.

Friday, September 8, 2017

Untrammeled water

The day before yesterday.
First of all my computer guy’s Emotional Support Dog (Ozzie, a Papillon, admittedly a very appealing dog) peed on the red club chair in the living room. Being about 6 inches high, Ozzie stood in front of the chair, lifted his tiny leg, and squirted the red fabric. (See below. Not to scale.)

I’ve had that chair and its mate forever, at least since my grandmother moved out of her house and no longer had a sewing room. The chair and its mate were made in the 1940’s by Italian craftsman (apparently, or according to my mother, Italian craftsman made all the finest furniture) in Egypt, and resided in Bon Papa’s study in the house in Mahdi.
I had forgotten about the Italian craftsmen and their furniture, until we moved my mother into the Red House next door. Much of the furniture she chose to take with her was from her parents’ house in Egypt, and whenever she showed anyone around her new home she explained that certain pieces were made by Italians in Egypt. She had a spiel, and that was a key part of it. My mother still refers to Egypt and often will say she spent most of her life there, as if those first 15 years (minus a 4-year wartime hiatus) comprised most of her life. I don’t correct her. She no longer knows where ‘there’ is, or what Egypt is. A country? A state of mind? A French novel?

In 1956, Bonne Maman and Bon Papa moved to America, instead of the south of France or Belgium, because their children were here, spawning more children. The club chairs, along with all their other furniture, were shipped to America in a huge wooden crate. A kind of ancestor to the intermodal containers that are currently plying the seas. My mother hired a carpenter (perhaps he was Italian?) to transform the crate into a playhouse for us, the grandchildren. He installed a pitched roof, and created windows with window boxes; there was a front door and even a front porch. I spent hours in that former-crate-now-playhouse reading aloud from the Green Book of Saints for Children.

As for the club chairs, from 1956 until she moved out in the 1980’s, they were in Bonne Maman’s sewing room, and were upholstered with the strangest red, yellow and black plaid linen. It was a plaid as imagined by a Belgian lady in Egypt. They were situated nearby the large bookshelf (ditto Italian craftsmen) bearing Journeys Through Bookland, ten volumes and a guide. This series was, at least in 1909, proclaimed as a “New and Original Plan for Reading, Applied to the World’s Best Literature for Children”. In Volume IV I read, and wept, over The Dog of Flanders. I read The Elegy on the Death of a Mad Dog: “But soon a wonder came to light,/ That show’d the rogues they lied:/ The Man recover’d of the bite,/ The Dog it was that died.” In Volume VIII I read Kingsley’s The Three Fishes and Poe’s Annabel Lee.

Ozzie the Emotional Support Dog peed on the chair I had curled up in and read of dead dogs, and mad dogs, and beautiful beloved Annabel Lee in her sepulcher by the sea.

I cleaned it up, of course.

Then I flooded the downstairs guest room.

It happened thusly. I needed to wash the plastic trays from our handy countertop dehydrator, because I have been making vast quantities of dried tomatoes lately. I placed the trays in the kitchen sink to soak, and turned on the water. While the sink was filling with water, I ran downstairs to check a certain closet where I thought I might have stored, for safe keeping, my mother’s collection of Middle Eastern, Asian and African jewelry. I had no need of ethnic jewelry just then, or perhaps ever. But for reasons buried deep in my obsessive psyche, I had determined that what I needed to do was photograph all my mother’s ethnic jewelry and then disseminate those pictures to my siblings, children, nieces and nephews, so they could choose pieces and I would cease to be responsible for all this ethnic jewelry. In our world of cellphone cameras and instant downloads and email, this sort of dissemination is, theoretically, easy.
I guess it is obvious that my mother also had an obsessive psyche that compelled her to amass this collection of largely unwearable jewelry (unless you are a six-foot tall Berber nomad).

The box I sought was not in the closet downstairs, so I went through the basement hearth room and up the other basement stairs and then I noticed the postman delivering the mail. I said hello to the postman, but as usual he didn’t say anything. Unlike Richie our old postman who was friendly and always told me golfing stories, our new postman is extremely shy. That is what I have come to believe. He must be pathologically shy, unless he finds me so objectionable that he will never say hello no matter how cheerful I try to be. I prefer not to think that. I still say hello and wave whenever I see him pull up, as if I were Doris Day in an old comedy. That’s how I see myself. What he sees is Bette Davis in a creepy gothic movie.

Then I had to check the mail, in case someone had written me a love letter, or written to say I would be inheriting a small Caribbean island from a distant relative, or maybe just written me a postcard of a Jackalope. None of the above arrived. But I got the idea that I might have stashed the box of Mom’s ethnic jewelry in one of the cupboards in my office, because that would be so tricky, and then I checked all four cupboards. There was no jewelry of any kind, but I did find a small Moleskin notebook which would be perfect for Leda’s drawings. She always needs more notebooks. That reminded me that when she was visiting last weekend, she left behind certain articles of clothing, mostly socks, that I had washed. I went down to the laundry room to fetch them, so I could mail her the socks along with the notebook.

I still hadn’t found the box of ethnic jewelry and I wondered if it had been stolen, but that because I had hidden it away so well, I had never noticed. Who would steal weird unwearable jewelry? Who could even think such a ridiculous thing?

I got to the laundry room and heard water dripping. Somewhere. I thought it might have started raining again, and I would need to shut some windows. But it wasn’t raining. Could the dishwasher be leaking through the guest room ceiling again? I thought we had fixed that leak. I went down the hall to the guest room and water was leaking QUITE A LOT from the ceiling. Water was coming from a certain crack and then seeping out all along a crack that meandered from the center of the room almost to the molding. But this part of the ceiling was not underneath the dishwasher. Could it have traveled so far? Or could it be from the rain earlier? But that made no sense, because there is a whole room above the guest room, not a roof. Whatever. I went back to the laundry and got a pile of old beach towels, and a couple of buckets, and put them on the floor under the dripping.
Finally, I went back up to the kitchen. Sometime long before the search for the jewelry and the postman’s non-loquacity, I had left the water running in the sink. Water was pouring from the counter onto the floor. The puddles were impressive.

Yet there is something about watching footage of hurricane flooding that puts things in perspective. In the midst of obsession, perspective.