I recently lost my mother to Alzheimer’s. The disease made the last few years especially painful, but she lived to age 85 and led a full life. Perhaps the only silver lining was that the disease’s slow progression gave my five siblings and me time to process her death, reflect on her life, and arrange an appropriate memorial service. After some debate, my family elected me to compose and deliver our mother’s eulogy. I was honored.
Because there were so many of us, we grew up in a noisy family. My mother, who had a way with words, might have said we were “multivocal.” Thus, I thought my mother’s eulogy should be multivocal as well, and I asked each sibling to help me by sharing a favorite memory or two that paid tribute to some of her values — e.g., sacrifice, dedication, humility and a sense of humor.
As everyone took stock of our family’s past, I learned a surprising lesson: Memories borne through touch, taste, sound travel well. I had expected my siblings to focus on their grand milestones that my mother had been a part of, but they mainly focused on small, sensory details that continue to reverberate across time.
For example, one of my sisters recalled how Mom overcame her disdain for cooking and managed to have dinner ready at 6 p.m. sharp, basically every night of the year, for decades. Granted, my mother never learned how to cook as a child, which meant a lot of creative variations of instant and frozen food with names like chicken loaf and porcupine rice balls. The taste of her cooking, however, remains prominent in our memory bank. My mother also had quite the sweet tooth, which resulted in a small, beloved room off our kitchen that we called “the cookie closet,” but which I later learned other people call a “pantry.”
One of my older brother’s favorite memories of my mother’s commitment to family involved the sense of touch: specifically, how she washed our hair over the kitchen sink when we were kids, no doubt to save time and mess. One year at a family event, my siblings and I started reminiscing about this practice. We all described how vigorously Mom would wash our hair, almost violently digging into our scalps with her strong fingers. When confronted with the question of why, Mom laughed and said: “I don’t know. I probably wanted to throttle you and I was taking it out on your heads!” We all laughed hard, then noted how long it took for each of us to realize you don’t have to shake your head violently to wash your hair.
Another older brother of mine cherished the sensory memory of hearing my mother’s footsteps. As a child, he always associated the clippety-clop sound of her approaching shoes with a sense of comfort, a sign of someone coming to provide care and security. Alas, as teenagers, the sound of those approaching footsteps often signaled we were in trouble, but I left that part out of our mother’s eulogy.
Ironically, it seems fitting that such body memories ended up dominating a eulogy for someone who died of Alzheimer’s disease. They say that one’s “deep” childhood memories are the last to leave a brain invaded by Alzheimer’s, in part because they are literally “embodied” in one’s skin and bones. And I can attest that one of the last memories my mother shared with me consisted of her as a child, sledding down a hill, excited to reach her mother’s outstretched arms at the bottom. Again, a sensory memory of security became the most indelible legacy of a loving parent.
I try to remember that inspirational lesson as I parent my own children. For it’s easy to lament what seems like all the invisible, underappreciated toil of parenting. But you never know what small, barely noticeable gestures and habits might become your most visible, defining characteristics in the eyes of your children someday.