The Geography of Memory: A Pilgrimage Through Alzheimer's
I’m walking alongside a dear friend who is increasingly ravaged by Alzheimer’s. Early in this journey, I had determined not to read any medical or personal books about the disease. I’d just take it a season at a time. But a friend so highly recommended THE GEOGRAPHY OF MEMORY that I picked it up. What a delight --- if that’s even an appropriate description of an Alzheimer’s-care memoir. Jeanne Murray Walker’s mother dies seemingly from complications after breaking a hip, so we do not see the final-stage ravages of Alzheimer’s.
Walker is an English professor, an acclaimed poet, and clearly a fine narrator. Her premise is that her mother’s increasingly fragmented conversations can be related to any season of her life, not simply the present. Does her mother think her teenaged grandson is her own son, now deceased? It seems so, and Walker uses that insight to tell the reader about her brother’s untimely and somewhat mysterious death as a college freshman. How did her brother’s death affect her personally? So a driving theme is the fluidity of time and memory, alongside a theme of conversation as metaphor. Her mother’s pet phrases have several meanings, and the puzzle is just finding out which meaning is relevant.
"THE GEOGRAPHY OF MEMORY is a very good read. It’s a reminder that we can’t ignore the ravages of age but, through them, can know ourselves, the sons and daughters better, even as we face the night before the dawn."
Walker refers to the “stages in a journey.” For herself she mentions “the child, the disillusioned teenager, the mother, the poet, the grandmother --- the stations on the way toward learning what it means to be human. They are not unlike the many mothers who lived inside Mother.” By the end of the book, you’ve seen many personas of two generations of women, who are oh-so-different from each other even as they are oh-so-similar. These women of faith are serving their Lord and making a good-hearted effort to do the right thing by their fellow man.
Part of Walker’s “leaving home” scenario is her faith journey, having left the low-church worship style and fundamentalist theological interpretation of her parents and settled into a liturgical church that allows for more mystery and leaves theological questions unanswered. Her mother, who had originally resisted her penchant for poetry and “literature,” had also resisted this element of Walker’s life.
Some of the most insightful passages deal with tensions between care-giving siblings: a younger sister living near the mother, attending her mother’s church, and overseeing daily care; Walker living clear across the country and full of long-distance advice about what ought to be done with, about, and for Mother. As you can imagine, some sibling irritation surfaces. From a distance of several years, Walker writes with a keen objectivity, not defending herself or maligning her sister. (There’s a lesson here for all adult children.)
THE GEOGRAPHY OF MEMORY is a very good read. It’s a reminder that we can’t ignore the ravages of age but, through them, can know ourselves, the sons and daughters better, even as we face the night before the dawn.
Reviewed by Evelyn Bence on January 23, 2014