Several years ago, when I was home for a family holiday gathering in Tucson, my now 91-year old mother bemoaned the loss of Mama’s Brains.
Mama’s Brains was a treasured recipe from her mother, Mimi, handwritten on a lined 3 X 5 index card. It was usually crammed into a kitchen drawer, tucked under the nutcracker with a broken arm, and creased together with a newspaper clipping about ways to celebrate the Feast Day of San Juan Bautista.
I’ve always loved that recipe. Not for the taste, surely, but for the implicit prowess expressed in each step. It started with "Get some cow brains," as if my grandmother were as comfortable with the notion that one could kill a steer, cut off its head and pluck out the brain as she was going to the supermarket. One of my favorite cookbooks, the 1952 Eskimo Cookbook, has a similar recipe for whale. "Catch a whale. Cut whale in pieces and put into cooking pot. Add water and salt, and boil."
I’ve looked everywhere," Mama said. "Mama’s Brains are gone."
She was right, but we didn’t know it then. The recipe card had certainly gone missing, but soon enough, so had my mother’s brains.
Dementia set in gently. A pot left too long on boil. A sprinkler that ran all night. Reading the same newspaper article multiple times. She slowed down for the first time in her life, even pausing for a nap if no one was looking.
But she still drove. She shopped. She cooked. She forgot birthdays but sent notes and clippings for no reason at all. She took care of us all, just as she’d done all her life.
Then one day she drove to my brother’s house but couldn’t figure out how to get home.
We’ve moved into darker canyons now. She’s begun to wander. She’s forgotten the name of the daughter-in-law who sees her daily. And her conversations have been reduced to a ten second loop tape.
My brother has moved in with her, which was a good thing for both of them. And the patience and twenty-four hour care he’s giving have earned him the right to bypass Purgatory altogether. He’s building up so many karmic points that he’ll come back in the next life as a poodle and be pampered all day with chew treats and belly rubs.
I think she is comfortable in her senility. The same fog that has dimmed recent events has also allowed her to forget the loss of a child to cancer, and the death of her two mates. She still knows the words to all the old songs and she laughs easily. She sits in the morning sun "until the batteries are recharged."
There’s another pleasant thing about dementia: good news goes on forever. I gave her the first copy of Forcing Amaryllis and watched her reverentially open the front cover. "You’ve written a book and it’s dedicated to me!" It was like watching a sunbeam smile. Then, thirty seconds later, she noticed the book again. "You’ve written a book and it’s dedicated to me!"
I made her happy one hundred times in an hour.
I’m heading back down to Tucson soon. This time with door security alarms, memory-prompting books, gentle exercise videos and other gadgets from the Alzheimer’s Store to make her safe and warm and comfortable and happy.
That recipe says to "drain brains well." That’s already been done. But I’m not throwing away the cooking liquid. That liqueur is the sweet distillation of a woman whose love and courage has not been diminished, even in the face of a sea of forgetfulness.
"Do not go gentle into that good night?" My mother could teach Dylan Thomas a thing or two about gracious decline. Hers is truly a gentle good night, and I’d pick that for her over raging, any day.
Jeanne C. Ure
Comments are welcome. As are any suggestions on how to make her as happy and safe as possible.