Caring for a parent, memory loss

The Cheerful Cherub

Among the books on Mama’s bookshelf are two volumes of The Cheerful Cherub: sappy, preachy four-line rhymes by Rebecca McCann, illustrated with a little winged kewpie doll image. The thick red-covered volume and a thin book of selected verses have been on the shelf for as long as I have memory. Mama read the poems to me when I was little; my moral education, I suppose. Although Rebecca McCann died in 1927 at the age of 30, her verse appeared in newspaper syndication until 1972.

Cheerful CherubThis morning, I noticed a small yellowed newspaper clipping on the floor in the dining room, floating there unnoticed when Mama was messing with the pile of paper on the buffet last night: “The Cheerful Cherub: The sharp retort I didn’t say/Has lightened someone’s load./I must be gentle every day—/At least till I explode!”

It would not be unprecedented for Mama to leave things lying about for me to find and theoretically learn from. Leaving library books in strategic places was how she taught my sisters and me about sex. (At least, that was her intention; I didn’t read them.) But I doubt if that is what happened with the clipping. It does speak to my, again, ramped up intention this week to be more gentle with Mama’s eccentricities. But I am also curious about why she cut it out in the first place and saved it for decades.

I have always held in hurt and anger until it explodes. So does Mama, except her escape valve is superglued shut. Neither seems like healthy communication to me. Did she cut this out in an attempt to understand me, or to remind herself to keep a lid on her own emotions?


Mama’s forgetfulness is on the rise. Yesterday she asked me if I was going to market and would I get some “good jelly, maybe at Trader Joe’s.” I asked her if she was tired of the blackberry jelly I canned last summer—of which there is half a jar in the refrigerator and several more in the pantry. She said she had forgotten I canned jelly. She said there wasn’t any in the freezer (there are three jars, and she has selective vision for what’s in the refrigerator; therefore there was none; and she won’t ask me to look for her). Then she asked me (again) if I was going to market.

Where before I would have reminded her that I had just answered her question about when I was going grocery shopping—or implied it in my tone—this time after the barest pause, I just answered the question again like I had never heard it before. In some ways it seems easier as the forgetting becomes expected. In the past, I have been sure she wanted the opportunity to say, “Oh, that’s right, I did know that,” even though she rarely made that acknowledgment. I have regularly realized how cruel it is to point out her memory lapses, but it took me by surprise every time and words were out of my mouth before I could rein them in. I’m trying to keep the retorts, however innocent, from light of day.

I find I am not sad about her loss of memory. It’s really more my issue than hers. This is the progression of life. This week a friend sent me a quote from an Armistead Maupin novel (The Days of Anna Madrigal, I have put a request in at the library) that intrigued him, and me: “her days were full of small surrenders, so why make a fuss over them? You could see them as loss, or you could see them as simplification.” I do wish Mama could see it that way. She doesn’t seem concerned about her memory loss, however, like she does about her vision loss, which she reminds me—and herself—of several times a day.

“Is there mold on that loaf of bread? I can’t see it.”

“I can’t find my hearing aid remote; is it on the table? I can’t see.”

“Did I get my signature on the line? I can’t see.”

It seems like it’s attached to every third sentence out of her mouth.  Rebecca suggests I ask her what she is hoping for when she tacks it on. Sympathy? Acknowledgement? Does she feel incompetent, and does reminding herself that she can’t see give her false reassurance that it’s not her brain that’s failing? Or is it simply a line that falls out of her mouth that, like breathing, she can’t control?

This week she has been using her vision to watch the Olympics, particularly figure skating. She can apparently see that. And she asks a million questions:

“Where were they from?”

“I don’t know, I wasn’t paying attention when they said.”

“Were they perfect?”

“They’re never perfect.”

“Well, I didn’t see anything wrong.”

“That’s why there are judges.”

“Did they win?”

“It’s not over yet.”

“Well, they were the best. Was that the skater from Seattle?”

“No, she’s from Germany.”

“She looked like the one from Seattle who skated yesterday.”

She’s driving me out of my mind. I’m struggling to be cheerful. No, really, I’m not even trying. With barely contained impatience, I tell her that I watch it because I enjoy the artistry and athleticism. That I don’t pay attention to the details, and I don’t care who wins. I suggest she could do the same.

“I didn’t see anything wrong with that,” she says. “That looked like a more complicated routine. I didn’t think they were very good.”

Sigh. And here I thought she couldn’t see.

❧ ❧ ❧

And speaking of cherubs, in case you have been in a cave for the past week, I have a new grandson, born last Friday morning.


4 thoughts on “The Cheerful Cherub”

  1. I love your observation of your responses, monitoring them for sharpness. Yes, it can be a painful lid on truthful communications that must be delivered. My wonderful Mom died this morning after I’ve been in her home with my sister for a week. We did not expect the sudden death after a rally she enjoyed for the past 2 days. How I wish I could take back my impatient undertones and subtle accusatory remarks! From this perspective, it is good to have a third party to receive frustration and anger you feel so that you can be present to a magnificent human being as she completes her journey. In the end, that’s all Mom wanted was for me to be there for her, be present and allow her to be herself. What a gift that is! I’m afraid I’m left with some regrets, call it guilt, but I believe in this awareness of being kind that you can introduced me to, Gretchen. It makes all the difference.


  2. It’s fascinating how your commitment to your mother requires you scrutinize your feelings and responses to her, thus making you acutely aware of your own behavior. I see how your feelings must rise and fall through the day according to her own ability to function. It’s exhausting, and reminds me of accompanying my parents to their own ends.


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