When I opened The Geography of Memory (Center/Hachette, 320 pages, $22), by Jeanne Murray Walker, I expected beautiful writing.
After all, she is a local poet and playwright whose work I knew and admired.
I knew the book was a memoir of her care for her mother, Erna Murray Kelley, through the frustrations and losses of Alzheimer’s disease. Erna started to show symptoms in the late 1990s (“but the thing is, you don’t know what it is at first,” says Jeanne by phone). By 2000, it became clear she would have to move from her apartment into assisted living. Erna’s story ended in 2008, shortly after she injured herself in a fall.
What I wasn’t prepared for was how much in the book is hopeful, loving, how much, in the end, is balanced, is gained.
Walker, a resident of Merion Station, is a professor of English at the University of Delaware and a much-published poet. But this book was something different, something she’d never done, and at first she found the idea, as she puts it, “scary.”
"I never expected in a million years to write a book like this," Walker says. "And I didn’t take notes while all this was happening. I was a poet and hadn’t written a book of extended prose." But after an editor indicated some interest, she began.
Her biggest struggle was to find the right voice to write in - “and at last,” Walker says, “I did, I hope. It’s a Midwestern voice, because that’s the kind of people we are. Straightforward, spacious, concrete. Once I got the voice right, I found it easier to access memories and details, often with a physical clarity.”
It also helped that she’d saved “more than 1,000 e-mails from my sister Julie,” who became her close ally in caring for Erna. The growing closeness between them is another reward of the book. After she learns her mother has died, we have this phone interchange:
"Promise me something," I say to Julie.
“That we’ll still see one another.”
She means it, I can tell; I just don’t believe her. Both our lives are monopolized by children and houses and demanding jobs.
“Mother would want us to,” I tell her. “You promise?”
Geography is not a straight narrative, but rather a series of vignettes, back and forth in time, from different points in the story, plus looks at her childhood and family life. These are interspersed with “Field Notes,” short meditations on memory, what it is, how it works, and how, when you get right down to it, it is us:
Why does Mother’s mind keep lighting on some memories and not others? What is a human being without memory? Doesn’t character itself depend on memory? Above all, can a person without memory still be human?
These are questions anyone who has worked with a person with Alzheimer’s, any child, friend, spouse, caregiver, has asked.
The last thing Walker wants this book to be is a self-help manual. “My experience was only one particular experience rather than a template for everybody,” she says. “And the disease is so wily. It takes different paths with each person.”
For her mother, it took many paths indeed. There is suffering, disorientation, humor, displacement. There are moments of realization, light and dark (Walker realizes her mother can’t move in with her because of, among other things, religious differences: “Our churches would divide us”).
At one point, at a concert, Erna jumps up from her seat, leaves the auditorium, and begins to wander restlessly backstage, a metaphor for the nightmare the process can be.
Walker says, “Of course there was much that was very sad. But I never felt I lost touch totally with Mother. Even in her last five years, when she didn’t always make that much sense, she was working through conflicts from way back in her life. And if I could see it that way, there’s a connection, a comfort to it.”
This is one of the many rewards of The Geography of Memory. Walker, as a poet, as a theater person, realized she had resources, techniques at her disposal, to stay in touch, even as her mother became more distant, less predictable, less the woman she knew.
"I could think: ‘This is like theater, like improvisation,’ " Walker says. "If she said, ‘We have to catch the elevator,’ even if that statement came out of the blue and didn’t make sense, I’d go with it, and I’d say, ‘OK, I’ll punch the button.’ That’s a rule of improvisation - you never ‘block’ the other actor, you never get in the way or try to redirect what he or she is doing. If I didn’t block her and try to haul her back to reality, we would have less conflict."
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At last, you feel Walker has answered her own question - is there a person left when memory goes? - with a yes.
"I do think so. Even at her least sensical, she kept returning to issues from earlier in her life, scenes, images, some of which I knew, some of which she still, even in her state, was trying, somehow, to work out. She might not have been taking much note of me at that time" - said with a slight, rueful chuckle - "but it was still Mother, still living Mother’s life.
"That, too, was something to hold on to."