Snapshots of My Mother

This photograph, which I’m guessing was taken around 1940 by my grandfather, shows my grandmother, Dorothy Kenyon Handy, enjoying a day with her children, Joyce, John, and Carter. And some four-legged friends. My mom would have been about twelve in this photo.

Dorothy Handy with Joyce, Carter, John (around 1940)

Daughter

Girl Scout

Girl Scout

My mother died six years ago today, although my sisters and I had lost her long before that, to the ravages of dementia, a disease that is not as cruel to the victim as, say, cancer, but that torments the loved ones who watch it take away memory, recognition, speech. The loving but stricter-than-most mother we knew had become a passive childlike woman who smiled nearly all the time. Her eyes seemed to recognize us, but she was unable to speak any of our names (at one point, she thought my name was ‘Fizzy,’ another time, “Swamp’ while she could still say a few words).

The summer I turned twenty-one was also the summer I returned from a year abroad, and the summer after my father died (three months earlier). A difficult time for everyone, especially for my mom and me, navigating our way through a too-empty house together, me wanting the same freedoms I’d enjoyed in Switzerland, she, probably afraid when any of us was out of her sight for too long. She was a widow, younger than I am now, with three daughters, one still in college, one yet to go. A woman who attended college but whose greatest joy was being a wife and mother. Intelligent, she set the bar high for her children, and didn’t tolerate bad manners, bad language, or kissing a boy in a convertible parked in the driveway late on a sultry summer night. She and I found our way eventually, as mothers and daughters do, and one of my fondest memories is of a trip we took in the early nineties to Switzerland (her second time there). Days were filled with train trips to points around the country. I had a rare opportunity to teach and translate. At night we played cribbage and she won every single hand.

Bride

Bride

I watched her take control of her new life as a husbandless woman. The invitations to parties and bridge games on Saturday night vanished. She learned what her assets were and how to manage them. She traveled, eventually, seeing places she might only have dreamed about.

Travels

Traveler

Montauk

Montauk

Dementia takes its sweet damned time, and my mother lived with the progressive disease for more than four years. It didn’t surprise me at all that she waited until her three daughters and two sons-in-law were gathered around her bed before she took her last breath, as morphine helped her wind down just like a clock.

But today, instead of focusing on that one moment of loss, I’ll finish a crossword puzzle and make a Rhode Island chowder in her memory.

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21 Comments

Jean Huhn Vreeland August 30, 2013 at 3:32 pm

Hi Martha, I remember your mother and father and lots of good times at your house. I also remember great times in girl scouts together and time spent with you and your sister. Remember jump roping and our mothers and their needlepointing days? I miss my Mom too, but they are still with us and we have great memories. It is wonderful to see you doing so well!!!

A lovely story, Martha. I know you must miss her terribly.

Eyes stinging – sure sign of great writing about a great mom. Thanks, Martha.

Love to you, friend, on a difficult anniversary. Thank you for sharing your mom – and dad with us. I see you in both of them! Your mom and I had near identical wedding dresses. 😉 they both would be…make that must be…so proud of their Martha. ❤

Beautifully said, Martha. I feel like I was there.

What a precious story and wonderful pictures. There are so many similarities before your mom and mine. I lost my mom 6 years ago last May right after Mother’s Day at the age of 86. She also had dementia and it was so heartbreaking to go through that with her. For the last several days of her life, we kept expecting every day for her to go but she hung on until all five of her children were with her. My sisters and I were there waiting on my brother. 30 minutes after he got in from Portland and got there and had knelt by her bed and said his goodbye, she took her last breath. Her name was Grace and we were gathered around her bed singing Amazing Grace when God called her home.

What would we do without these women above womanhood who we call our mothers. Thank you for sharing such a beautiful piece of writing. I absolutely adore your mother’s wedding dress. Stunning. 🙂 x

You’re mom was one of the most lovely women!

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