As a child in Lincoln, Nebraska, Jeanne Murray Walker learned from her mother how to keep a secret. Recording in a little notebook every penny spent, the hard working, fundamentalist widowed mother of three “commanded” her children to “stash what [they] heard at home into the vault of Family Secrets and throw away the key.” Life, Erna Murray Kelly insisted, was “a game in which other people try to gather information about you. You can never tell what they’ll use it for. They’re probably up to no good.” Other people, Walker inferred, might include her siblings and her mother as well. Keeping “Family Secrets,” she learned, “can mean keeping secrets from your family.”
Luckily for readers, that early training didn’t stick. In her new memoir, The Geography of Memory: A Pilgrimage Through Alzheimer’s, the award-winning poet and playwright unveils those secrets, revisiting the losses and triumphs of her youth, and describing with gentle humor and the light hand of grace the challenging decade she and her sister cared for their mother as she succumbed to the disease.
As LaVonne Neff writes in Christian Century, “This isn't just a tale about an elderly parent or a frazzled caregiver. It is also, and equally, a coming-of-age story, and Walker's deft juxtaposition of her own story with her mother's is its genius." Interspersed as well with short “Field Notes” on mnemonic devices and list making, on memorizing music and scripts, the moving narrative is a gifted writer’s reflections on self, family, and the shifting nuances of memory.
The recipient of numerous prestigious fellowships and awards, Walker is the author of seven books of poetry and several plays that have been performed across the country and in London, and is a Professor at the University of Delaware, where she directs the Creative Writing Concentration. As a student, I was fortunate to work with her, and over many years since, she’s been an encouraging, generous mentor and steadfast friend. Warmth and compassion richly inform this beautifully crafted memoir; readers traveling along with Jeanne Murray Walker on her pilgrimage will find her heartening company.
~ What prompted you to write The Geography of Memory, Jeanne?
After we lost my mother, I did what I always do when I’m knocked flat. I started reading, hoping to find out what had happened to our family during that decade of caring for mother as she veered into Alzheimer’s. I wanted to discover language to talk about it, and I also hoped for companionship with someone who had traveled the same path.
But the Alzheimer’s literature was so bleak, so unremittingly grim that after reading a dozen books, I had to stop. I felt like winter had moved into my heart, maybe permanently. I am still gripped by the terrifying isolation of those books.
I thought, This language, these stories are wrong. For some people Alzheimer’s might be like this. But the books didn’t lay a glove on what happened to us. Yes, we had been on a difficult journey for a wild and unpredictable decade, but at least we had traveled together. And I remembered that sometimes we laughed.
Out of real hunger, then, I started to find words to explain what it was like for us. I did it because as a writer I needed language to understand what had happened. No one else had supplied words to do that, so I had to write them.
I happened to be launching into nine months when I had no teaching duties. So every morning I went to the gym and then sat down at my desk by eight. I was often still writing at six.
~ Tells us about the title.
The book is a memoir and I called it The Geography of Memory because it is not only a collection of memories of what took place in my life; it is also a reflection on memory.
Living through our Alzheimer’s decade, I discovered that no day was exactly like any other. We never knew exactly where we were. Not only were there medical emergencies and housing crises, but my mother’s past selves began to emerge, more or less at random. They spoke in the present—herself as a young mother, herself as a child, herself as a widow. This was shocking at first. I felt sometimes like we were living in a funhouse, a palace of mirrors. As I spent time with Mother, my own long entirely forgotten memories returned. After all, I had grown up with many of her past selves. Maybe it’s not surprising that spending time with them during her Alzheimer’s years catapulted me back to my own past self.
I suppose the book became a kind of map. Its subtitle is A Pilgrimage Through Alzheimer's, that wild, hair-raising terrain. Not that the book tells the reader what route to take. It’s a fast-paced story that recounts one family’s pilgrimage through that landscape.
Writing a book is huge undertaking. Could you tell us a bit about your creative process, your method?
It took me a long time to find a voice. Good writers need a lot of different voices. I hope that I sound academic and serious when I write recommendations for my students. On the other hand, my emails to friends usually sound up-close and sometimes funny. And in theatre scripts I have experimented with dozens of different characters’ voices.
When I sat down to write the book, I tried this voice and that. I wrote several early chapters. Then I rewrote them. None of the voices worked. I sloshed around for weeks, panic-stricken that so much time was going by, because I knew I needed to finish a draft in nine months. And then one afternoon the mean-spirited little critic who sits on my shoulder pointed her witchy finger and said, “That’s the ticket. Go for that!”
Once you get the right voice to tell the story, you can follow that voice to the end, the way the children followed the Pied Piper.
The voice in Geography leaves a lot of room for the reader. What I mean is that the whole story is not filtered through the narrator. For instance, there’s a lot of direct dialog between characters. Hearing the voices of the characters in the book situates the reader right there in the room with the people who are talking. In Geography I wanted the reader to experience what was going on: the aroma of bread in the oven, the terrible black V of a hawk above the skyline, the wind as it whips through sails on a skiff. The narrator doesn’t tell the reader exactly what to think about the action, either. So the voice in the book becomes a companion rather than an authority figure.
~ Many reviewers have mentioned how your talent as a poet informs your work as memoirist. Can you speak to the connection between memory and metaphor?
What a great question. I think that both memory and metaphor love the body. Metaphor makes what the mind is thinking clear to the body. Oh, boy look, this X is like that Y! This lizard darts like a small tongue. The color of that roof is the red of a fox. The Y in the equation is usually a vivid image or action, something that registers on our senses.
And what about memory? There’s some evidence now that our memories may be lodged not just in our minds but in our bodies. We know that smell of licorice, for example, or lilacs, can send us right back to our childhoods. When I was a young mother swinging with one of my kids in my lap, the speed and rocking motion took me back to the jungle gyms of my own childhood.
Jeanne Murray Walker
~ Do you have any advice for anyone thinking about writing a memoir? How do you begin?
For me writing always starts with reading. I’d say this: gather twenty good memoirs and read them. Then read them again with a pencil, figuring out how each writer did it.
Figure this out: do you want to write a short piece or a long one? You might find a place to publish 1,200 words as a blog. Or you could publish an even longer piece as an essay. If you can do that, you may not have to write a book. Writing a book is quite a lot of trouble.
One of the most useful pieces of advice anyone ever gave me about writing a book is that to be a writer you need to write. You need love to hang out with sentences. You probably need to sit down early every day and keep writing for weeks—months. And when you get discouraged or bored—and all writers do from time to time—you’re allowed to run to the grocery store, but then you have to come back and sit down and write some more.
~ As I read your memoir, I felt not only that I was traveling along on your journey through your mother's decline, but back in time as you relived treasured childhood and family memories. Some of those memories were no doubt painful to recall. What surprised you most as you wrote about events that happened in the past?
I’m thrilled that as you read the book you felt a part of that journey. That’s what I hoped for.
What surprised me most when I was caring for my mother was a sudden vivid memory of a weird garish greenish glow-in-the-dark cross: a piece of kitsch. As a ten-year-old, I instantly adored it and saved my money to buy it at summer camp.
But wait. What was most surprising was the force and clarity and suddenness of memory itself. I had never thought much about my childhood or teenage years because after college I skewed off to graduate school, and then, even before I finished my dissertation—poof!-- I had children and a job teaching and writing. I didn’t have time to remember anything except what was utterly practical: the broccoli and orange juice I needed to pick up at the grocery store.
Then as I spent more time with my mother, whole sections of childhood flashed back. They were as vivid and alive as bright underwater scenes. No wonder. Mother was harking back to her former selves. That triggered my own memories. And that triggering was one of the most astonishing things that ever happened to me.
~ Your mother was a remarkable woman -- intelligent, resourceful, pragmatic, independent. How did you and your sister first recognize and come to accept that she was in need of help?
Yes, she was remarkable. She was always changing, of course, as everyone changes. I’m not sure when the changes first concerned me. People weren’t thinking about Alzheimer’s in those days. It was before the Big Scare.
When mother got lost in her own neighborhood, I took notice. She told me on the phone that she had parked at a Rita’s Water Ice, stepped inside, and bought a lemon ice. She watched people come and go for a while. Then she picked out a kind-looking older couple and explained to them that she didn’t know how to get home. She showed them her address on her driver’s license. The man drove Mother’s car to her house, while the woman drove behind them in the couple’s car.
When Mother told me this story, I felt intense admiration for her nervy smarts. At the same time, I was stunned to hear that she couldn’t navigate on her own turf. She had always been a good judge of character, but I suspected that in the future things might not turn out so happily.
Little by little after that, and only reluctantly, because Mother was fiercely independent, my sister and I came to understand that she needed more help.
~ When you think of your mother, is there a particular story that comes to mind?
The summer after my father died, my mother enrolled in a Shakespeare course. She must have been in her late 30’s. We were facing welfare, a prospect my middle-class mother was desperate to avoid. She was a nurse in a junior high school. Earning credits toward her B.A. was the only way to edge her tiny salary a bit higher. Every morning she would chug off to class in our old blue car, leaving us kids a list of chores to accomplish before she got back.
By noon she was sitting at our kitchen table, turning the pages of a huge volume of Shakespeare plays. She would twist one of her black curls around her finger and frown and mumble. Then she would spring up to water the plants or sweep the back porch or grab a piece of cheese. It was against her nature to read, and I don’t know that she ever finished any of the plays. But she hung in that summer and wrote a paper. And somehow she passed the course.
~ Did you harbor any fears or misconceptions about Alzheimer’s as you began caring for your mother?
Since I didn’t have any conceptions about what might happen next, at least I was spared misconceptions. I just simply had no idea of what was coming. As a nurse, my mother felt a rivalry with doctors. She evaded an Alzheimer’s diagnosis, even after she lived in an Alzheimer’s unit. And this was 20 years ago. So our family didn’t have any clear sense of the path her illness might follow.
It's an unsettling turn for a child to suddenly become the caretaker. At first, one is held aloft emotionally by the physical demands of the tasks involved. But over time, a recognition of the change in the roles emerges. Can you speak to that recognition and the evolution of your relationship with your mother?
Sometimes it was unspeakably lonely to sit with mother in her Dallas apartment during her early incoherence. She might leap out of her chair and say, “We have to pay the egg lady!” I sometimes felt as if a stranger had invaded my mother’s body. I would try to soothe her and tell her that there wasn’t any egg lady. I tried to haul her back to reality.
Then during one visit I realized that the egg lady was totally real to her. When I contradicted her, sometimes she quarreled. Then she got quiet.
It was the Egg-Lady remark that made me stop to think. Our mothers’ own mother kept chickens and sold eggs. And when she was a young housewife living with my father in a small Minnesota town, there was an egg lady from a near-by farm who dropped off eggs at their house.
Maybe she was reporting a scene from earlier in her life.
I stopped contradicting her. Once I started paying attention to what she was saying, I remembered some of the stories she had told me. I began to understand her speech as metaphor. I would ask her questions: "Tell me about the egg lady." And she would answer.
It was different from the way we had known one another before. Earlier we'd been more formal. After all, I'd done a PhD in English and I was a writer. My mother didn't read. We had connected by celebrating holidays and sharing my kids. But during her last decade, even when I didn't understand exactly what she meant, we began forging a connection, not on the logical level but at some deeper emotional place.
~ What about the impact on your faith? Did you feel tested? Did your faith ultimately deepen?
I often wondered how a decent God could permit such havoc in the life of a woman who had been so brave and faithful. But I came to see that as a question that might not make sense. Come on. Does a good life always bring a happy death? And anyway, what is a happy death?
Furthermore, God isn’t a superman figure. Who was I to ask him to swoop down and stop whatever I didn’t like?
I would not have chosen for my mother to suffer. I would not have chosen for our family to go through the Alzheimer’s wringer. But by the time I was writing the book, I saw that-- as the ancient Greeks knew-- suffering brings knowledge. During the Alzheimer’s decade the bond between my mother and my sister and me deepened. And I learned what I probably couldn’t have learned any other way—about patience and prayer and letting go.
~ Finally, what advice do you have for those caring for elderly loved ones and concerned or dealing with Alzheimer's?
Alzheimer’s has the power to blow a family to smithereens, but it can also draw a family together. My sister and I eventually took on my mother’s care—financial and emotional and physical—together, as a 50-50 project. We pledged that neither of us would make a significant decision without talking to the other. We sent one another hundreds of emails, really, thousands—and those became the scaffolding of The Geography of Memory. We frequently argued on the phone. For a decade we became one another’s chief support system. Geography tells the story of our battles and compromises and how two sisters who are very different came to understand one another.
But it took our whole tribe, really. Our husbands helped enormously in different ways. And our children did too. Moving my mother, for example, happened during a crazy weekend when our daughter and my niece and I sorted and boxed and schlepped my mother’s belongings to assisted living. We worked almost around the clock. By 2 am, we were slap-happy with exhaustion. We laughed a lot. If the kids hadn’t been there, I’d have cried through it, and I don’t know whether I could have finished. Partly because the kids got to know one another during this time, they now stay in touch. It’s well worth the effort of trying to enlist your children and your spouse. After all, our kids deserve to witness that stage of life and to know what is going on with their grandparents.
You might also consider joining a support group. You can find those groups in every nook and cranny of the country. Sometimes they’re organized by regional offices of the Alzheimer’s Association, sometimes by communities or churches. If you find yourself frayed beyond endurance, there’s an Alzheimer’s Association hotline where you can talk to a counselor any time of the day or night. They’re trained and helpful. The number is 1-800-272-3900.
Perhaps most importantly, when you take care of a dementia patient, it helps if you can remember his or her past. What particularly terrified me about my mother's Alzheimer's was the isolation I felt-and I'm sure she must have felt it, too. On the one hand, I was forced into physical intimacy with her; I was buying her diapers. On the other, I couldn't understand much of what she said. Eventually I saw that she was using metaphors. . . . [which] not surprisingly, were drawn from her past life. I knew about her past; after all, she had told me many stories about it. Geography tells how I slowly learned how to interpret my mother's sudden outbursts in light of her past.
One more quick suggestion: take time away from care giving, if you can. That’s easy to say, much harder to accomplish. But if you can get a break, it will offer you a new perspective.
Finally, don’t give up. It was awful for us, yes. But not without redemption. Hang in there. And wait for a while, if you can, to tally the sums. Maybe, like me, during the long trek you will find you’ve formed some deep and death-defying bonds. Maybe you will have learned something.
Walker reading from The Geography of Memory.
A reading in Vermont this summer is in the works.
In Vermont's Northeast Kingdom? Pick up a copy at Green Mountain Books and Prints, 1055 Broad Street, Lyndonville.
This interview appears in the April 2014 issue of The North Star Monthly, an award winning community magazine featuring human interest and historical articles focusing on the Northeast Kingdom and North Country of New Hampshire. Visit their site: