The Poetry Thief

My mother's poems are a reminder of who she was before dementia robbed her soul and wit

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The poem is undated, but it would have been written in the 1960s, when my mother was a young woman. It's in her distinctive penmanship, the sight of which thrilled me when I was a lonely college student making daily trips to my little metal mailbox. I was homesick in my first semester at Columbia. My mother, trying to chase away my fears, would write little notes about comforting daily events: her trips to La Cienega Park with our dog Chloe and a legal pad for screenwriting, sightings of movie stars at the grocery store, dates with the man she was currently seeing and her assessment of his intellectual worth and, most importantly, what was happening on "Another World," the soap opera we used to follow together before I left for school.

I framed the poem, jotted down with a ballpoint pen on onion skin paper. The frame sits on my young daughter's bookshelf. It's an historical artifact and a good-luck charm, two things every library should have. The poem also represents my mother as she was. My daughter will not have this experience of her grandmother in the flesh, but she may have a taste of it in my mother's clever rhymes and soulful short stories, in some old television show clips and glorious black-and-white photos of my mother spinning and jumping on the Rockefeller ice rink.

To Mother on Mother's Day

Mother's Day is controversial.

Fathers think it's too commercial.

Sons essay in every way.

To recognize a Mother's Day.

Daughters shell out every dime

For they'll be mothers too, in time.

Mothers respond with lots of zeal,

For they're behind the whole darn deal!

My mother's ditty captures something about her which is now largely lost—her cleverness, sometimes biting—and her consistent refusal to lie. It took me a few reads to notice that nowhere in the poem does my mother wish my grandmother a happy Mother's Day. She practically points an accusing finger in a poem ostensibly about celebrating mothers. My grandmother was a cruel woman; she emotionally and physically abused my mother. She was a Mama Rose to my mother's Dainty June—a punishing, overpowering stage mother who sought her piece of the limelight in which my mother, a professional ice skater and actress, basked.

As mentioned, my mother is not a dishonest person. At my grandmother's funeral, my uncle, not known for his veracity but instead for his empty grandiose gestures, gave a long speech about his mother's many virtues and how much he would miss her. Certainly, the latter was not true; indeed, he had spent the last few years of her life avoiding her.

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My mother spoke second. She got up and spoke quietly. "I'll say this for my mother. She worked hard. She tried hard. She always insisted on cleaning her own house and her determination in certain areas was admirable." Then my mother sat down. My mother had walked the line between respect and honesty; with the grace of a champion figure skater. She did not mention loving her mother nor did she speak of her mother's virtues as a caregiver.

A hemorrhagic stroke is often fatal, particularly in a person 68 years old. Blood covered a full 3/4 of my mother's brain surface in 2009 and we were told to say our goodbyes. I would love to think my unconscious mother found the whispering in the I.C.U. patronizing and so woke up three days later to make a fool of the doctor who assured me there was no hope.

Nonetheless, there is damage. Sometimes you see your parent clearly through the fog of confusion she is feeling: a glimmer of a good pun, a moment of vanity, an old story she tells you. But much more is lost. You fight your way through the years to remember the scent of Bal à Versailles and the feel of her silk cocktail dress at dinner parties and you maybe sense them, for an ephemeral moment. But the whole world of your relationship has grown foggy even to you, who has not suffered a stroke. The current image you have of your parent, veiled in a cloak of mental disarray, replaces the real mother, the old mother, the mother made of the building blocks of many years of interaction and experience.

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Sometimes I see flashes in my mind's eye: my mother teaching a combination in her theater dance class at Lichine Ballet Academy, explaining that jazz and theatre dance has in its blueprints the vocabulary of Hindi dance. I see my mother applying makeup in her lighted mirror. I see the stack of paperbacks on her bedside table when she was hospitalized for drug addiction for a month in her forties. She read "Bonfire of the Vanities" in one day. I see her driving me to auditions and running lines with me in the fluorescent hallways outside casting offices. I remember her spreading paprika on roast chicken. I see the young boy who dropped me off after a date when I was 15, declaring to me that my mother should open a kissing booth.

Now the predominant image is the wan ghost walking through the shadows of dementia. It steals and plunders: taking the past and the future, and making a mess of the present. My mother can't remember the lovely days she's had with family and friends, and she can't know that soon, she will be among loved ones again. She calls from her assisted living facility to tell me it's been weeks since we've seen her. "Mom," I say, "It's been less than 24 hours."

The other day, I took my little girl down to her apartment to pick her up. I tidied up the place and I found scraps of my mother's writing. I often find these scraps around my mother's room—sheets torn from legal pads are on her bed, her dresser, on her little dining room table.

New York, 1944

She was five years old and small for her age. Her father tried to find skates in her size, but without success. So he bought her a pair of high white baby shoes, bought the smallest blades he could find and had them reduced to her size. "

That's as far as my mother got. It was a sort of history of her beloved father.

And then, this, which I found under her bed:

He walks in beauty like the night.

His tennis coach has taught him right.

He's smart and sweet and oh so strong.

He never does a thing that's wrong.

His clothes are perfect, hair well-styled

His speech is clear, he's never riled.

That one is about Jimmy, a friend of hers who visits faithfully and loves my mother for all that she used to be. He is a rare soul, a gentle man. The poem was clearly my mother's attempt to give him a gift; she used her once-formidable intellect to churn out a ditty of appreciation. I knew the poem would be lost if I didn't rescue it, so I snatched it up and told her I was going to send it to Jimmy. She thanked me for finding it; she hadn't remembered writing it.

The signals in her brain are often crossed; the roads converge in strange places and she is stranded in the wilderness. But then I see a scrap of poetry on her bed. And while the poetry is far from profound and the rhymes are a bit forced, they contain a fighting spirit that I don't often see in her when I visit. Occasionally, she "finds" her wit in space and pens a poem. And then she is lost again; her brain is floating once more through space, taking a ride on the past/present/future carousel of dementia.

When she was a dancer in the original cast of "How to Succeed in Business (Without Really Trying)," Frank Loesser, who'd composed the show (and would win a Pulitzer for its clever lyrics) read my mother's poems and encouraged her to keep writing. If you ask my mother about it, she might even remember her long days of rehearsal, and a famous composer admiring her poems between dance numbers. It makes for a good story, and my mother loves a good story.

I find them now in scraps and bits; framing them for posterity, catching time and trapping it under glass. Time is elusive; this much dementia has taught me. My mother might once have found my frames darkly poetic. I'd ask her, but I have no wish to remind her that the Poetry Thief has paid her a visit.

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