Mama’s Brains

By Louise

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.

               Mamasbrains

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."

                        Eskimocookbook

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 "€œuntil 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.

                         Mombw

                                                 Jeanne C. Ure

                                                Tucson, Arizona

Comments are welcome. As are any suggestions on how to make her as happy and safe as possible.

28 thoughts on “Mama’s Brains

  1. Karen Olson

    Louise, your post got me all teary, but not in a bad way. Your thoughts about your mother are so caring and she sounds like a wonderful woman. Hold her hand, sit with her, be with her, somewhere in there she knows. And you know.

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  2. Don

    Louise: How eloquent. My father, who is 80, is now playing the same role as your brother. Gladys, a lovely woman he married six years ago following the death of my mom, is now sliding down the misty path of dementia. By coincidence, they live in Tucson. Dad doesn’t read much beyond the morning paper, but I believe I’ll send him a copy of your blog entry.

    BTW, I met you when you signed my copy of FORCING AMARYLLIS, at the Seattle Mystery Bookshop during LCC. I’m sure Gladys, who was an avid reader of all genres before her decline, would have loved it.

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  3. Louise Ure

    Great advice, Karen. And thanks for the kind thoughts. There truly is a connection at the hands … and the heart.

    And Don, of course I remember you. Avid collector, and a reader who is interested in writers’ “other lives.” Their hobbies, their passions. What they do in leisure time.

    Your father has chosen a difficult road. But I’ll bet he and Gladys still have very special moments together.

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  4. billie

    Louise, what a beautiful post and tribute to your mother. You capture some of every emotion. I wish I had tips for you – hopefully you’ll get some good ones.

    One of my longest-standing writing groups had a member who wrote a memoir about her father’s Alzheimers and those “dark canyons” you mention. It was astounding to hear her read from the ms each week – like your post today, her chapters always elicited so many feelings all at once. She decided at the end not to seek publication – that the writing of that gorgeous book was all she needed.

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  5. pari

    Louise,This one choked me up. Thank you for that. It reminded me of all the love that can be in families. Since all of my parents (stepdad and goddad included) are gone, I sometimes forget to stop and remember what they truly gave in my life. None of my relatives had gentle declines. Every one of them did an emotional Evil Knevil — but didn’t make it to the other side of the canyon.

    Here’s something that might be of interest. I saw the found of the Alzheimer’s poetry project a few years ago at the Mountains and Plains Booksellers trade show. He trains healthcare workers and travels throughout the world — but is based in NM and goes to AZ frequently. Though poetry, he’s able to bring joy to people with Alzheimers by tapping into their memories and working the beautiful rhythms of language.

    http://www.alzpoetry.com/

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  6. Don

    Well,you certainly don’t have any memory problems, Louise. With all the folks you met that weekend, I’m surprised you remembered our conversation. BTW, I still want a ride in your Cobra next time you race in the Seattle area.

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  7. Sharon Wheeler

    Beautiful piece, Louise. Your mother sounds a wonderful woman.

    I admit I did smile at the thought of the cows’ brains. My mother used to feed me pigs’ brains in milk when I was little. I swear it’s why I became a vegetarian!

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  8. Louise Ure

    Billie, I’ll bet that just writing the memoir was cathartic for your friend. And then seeing your reaction to it as she read sections in your writers’ group. As my mother has always said, “it’s not real until you say it out loud.” I’d say you helped her a great deal.

    And Pari, that Alzheimer’s Poetry Project is a brilliant idea! I’m going to investigate whether they have a Spanish language version of it as well, as much of my mother’s retained memory is in that language.

    You’re on, Don. I already wrote myself a note to tell you and Janine when I’m next racing in Seattle!

    Reply
  9. Naomi

    So touching. And I love the brain recipe. (Your mother is also gorgeous; I see where you got your good looks.)

    My writing mentor Virginia Stem Owens is coming out with a memoir about her caretaking experience: “Caring for Mother: A Daughter’s Long Goodbye.” Publisher is Westminster John Knox. It recently received a starred review in PW; you might want to check it out.

    Reply
  10. Louise Ure

    Naomi, I see that Virginia’s book comes out May 21. Thank you for letting me know about it. I just pre-ordered it.

    Oh, Shaz, I can relate to the pig’s brains. What is it about organ meat that folks find so tasty?

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  11. Jason Summers

    Louise, some Spanish-language poetry suggestions:

    Gloria Fuertes, most anything of hers is funPablo Neruda, Odas elementales and Veinte poemas de amor y una cancion desesperadaFederio Garcia Lorca, El romancero gitano, Poeta en Nueva YorkNicolas Guillen, an anthology is probably best, although Tengo is one of his most famous individual booksGabriel Mistral, an anthology as well, since they usually get all three of her books into oneOctavio Paz – I like Ladera este, but his Obra poetica (1935-1988) has everything.Ernesto Cardenal – the Antologia nueva has lots of favorites, or you could go with Epigramas, Oracion por Marilyn Monroe y otros poemas, and Los OVNIs de oro (Gotta love that title: The Golden UFOs)

    Feel free to e-mail me (summersj@ipfw.edu) if you want any more suggestions – my wife is the poet and native speaker of Spanish – she’ll have numerous other suggestions for me to pass along if you are interested.

    Reply
  12. Louise Ure

    Twist and Elaine, thanks for the kind words. Sometimes you wonder about posting something so personal, you know? It’s nice to have kind eyes reading it.

    And Jason, you are a godsend. I only know half of your suggestions, but am entranced. I’m off to find copies to take to Tucson with me.

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  13. Janine

    Louise,

    What a loving tribute to a special woman, and how proud she must be of you…she’s raised a loving, compassionate and very talented daughter.

    Janine

    Reply
  14. patty smiley

    Louise, many of us are at the age when we are forced to watch our parents decline. I sympathize. You are a wonderful loving daughter and that’s what will keep your mother safe and happy.

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  15. Louise Ure

    “You are a wonderful loving daughter and that’s what will keep your mother safe and happy.” Back atcha’, Patty. I know you’re doing the same.

    And it’s nice to have friends like you, Rae and Janine. Yes, my mother is proud of me, but when she remembers my writing at all, she tells people I’ve written a book on business management. Oy.

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  16. JLW

    Out of twenty posts in reply, only three of them here were by two men (four posts by three men if you count this one). And men call the women the weaker sex.

    What fools we are.

    Reply
  17. FosterAbba

    I volunteer (I sing, tell stories and play guitar) at both a senior daycare and a convalescent care center where most of the seniors present have some degree of dementia.

    What seems to make these folks happiest is to reminisce about “the good old days.” Talk about happy experiences that are clearly remembered from the past. Live in the moment. Share bits of good news, even if they are only remembered a short time before they are repeated.

    One of my fondest memories of volunteering was a time when I spoke at length to a man who had been in the military and had been stationed in Greece. He told me about his adventures there, the places he’d visited, and the people he knew. These were fond, pleasurable memories, and I could see that they were well-worn and very much savored. Eventually, the conversation wound its way back to the beginning, and we started again, his pleasure equally evident the second time around.

    He would have been delighted, I am sure, to repeat the conversation many more times, but it was growing late and I had to get back to work. As I bade him goodbye, he smiled. “Come visit me anytime,” he said.

    I visited with him several times, and each time he would share his Greek adventures and smile. He loved Greece, and I never grew tired of listening about the same adventures because they obviously gave him so much pleasure.

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  18. Louise Ure

    Foster, what a grand story. It’s clear that you’re a good listener. That made all the difference.

    When I leave my mom’s house, I say “I had a great time today.”

    She replies, “That’s okay. Take it with you.”

    And I do.

    Alex, there is poetry here. I just don’t know the meter.

    And JLW, I don’t know if it’s a matter of strength. Maybe it’s just that women find it easier to talk about the tough stuff. Glad you left a note. It made me feel good.

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  19. Cornelia Read

    Oh my dear Louise… this is beautiful, and I hope you have a truly splendid visit with your mom. And Naomi’s right about the hereditary good looks in your family.

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  20. toni mcgee causey

    Louise, one of my dearest friends has had a tremendous amount of success helping her mom avoid her aunt’s decline, mentally. What she did was find things for her mother to practice, mentally. (For her, it was the Lord’s prayer, for example.) She would get her mother to memorize something each week and then practice it all week long, and she’d have to prompt her sometimes, but it seemed to have a marked improvement the rest of the day. Maybe it was just forcing some of the other brain cells not directly related to distant memory to work harder and stay active which seemed to help.

    Your post brought tears to my eyes; my grandmother isn’t far off from this state, and it’s so hard not to be able to be there often to help. Thank you for this lovely tribute.

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  21. Louise Ure

    Hi Miss C. Thanks for checking in. I do have my mother’s nose, but not that skunk-white stripe of hair. It’s all hers. I wouldn’t dare replicate it.

    And Toni, that’s a great idea. Maybe I can combine that memorization/practice idea with the poetry suggestions from earlier in the comments. Or just have her recite the names of her grandchildren!

    Reply

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