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)
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.


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.


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.

A Few Things I Learned from my Mother

Wedding Day, October 22, 1955

When we first knew about my mother’s illness, I remember sitting in the car with my husband one day.  We were parked in the driveway, and he was about to back up.  I said, “I wish she would just die.”  He stopped backing up and looked at me.  “You don’t really mean it,” he said.  “Yes, I do mean it.  I wish she would die now, rather than have to go through this.”  I hesitated. “I don’t want to go through it either,” I whispered.

My mom was so intelligent.  She was precise.  Very precise.

When I was ten: “If someone asks, ‘Who is it?’ you should answer ‘It is I,’ not ‘It’s me.'”  I thought to myself, that just sounds weird.  But I remembered.

When I was a teenager, she hooked me on crossword puzzles, and I added “epee,” “aerie,” and “alee” to my vocabulary.

When I was a young adult, we’d play marathon Scrabble games, and she decided we should use nine letters instead of seven, because we could make better words with nine letters.

In Switzerland

When I was newly married, I researched her genealogy, tracing her mother’s line back to King Alfred the Great.  This prompted us to start spending Saturdays traipsing around old cemeteries in Kent County, finding Stones and Wightmans and matching them to the names in the family tree.

Joyce, Carter, and John

A few years before dementia invaded her mind and robbed her of reason and memory, she stated, “It’s not correct to say ‘I feel nauseous.’  You should say ‘I feel nauseated.’  Did you know that?”  My husband just shook his head and smiled.  Joyce strikes again.

Years after she lost the ability to speak, or to recognize my sisters and me, my mother died at a quarter to eleven on a Saturday morning.  My wristwatch stopped ticking at the same time.

The day after we laid her to rest, my husband took me to Newport.  We ate lunch at the Red Parrot and sat by the water, watching the endless cycle of waves: rush in, hurry back out.  She’d been lost to us for years; still, the finality of losing both parents was inescapable.

On the drive home, my husband turned on the radio.  We were hoping to catch the news on the hour, but had to listen to a few minutes of a talk show first.  The caller on the air was upset about whatever situation was the topic of the show, I guess.  “You know, Dan, I’m just nauseated over it.”

I turned to my husband, who was grinning, too.  “Joyce!” we cried in unison.  She’d have been pleased to hear he got it right.