CHICAGO — It was the summer of 1969 the first time I came here, two months shy of my 12th birthday.
Mom had brought us to visit my father’s family, most of whom I knew only as characters in the old man’s stories or voices on a long-distance call. Presented with their California nieces and nephews for the first time, my aunts and uncles did the obligatory cooing over us, made the obligatory inquiries as to progress in school. A cheek or two may even have been pinched.
Then the adults retired to their own conversations. Grownups in that era, you may recall, did not spend a lot of time socializing with kids. They were great eminences who towered over our lives, unknowable as mountains.
My aunt Millie was different. She swept in, gathered us up, and took us to the museum to see the dinosaur bones. When you are 11, there is nothing better than dinosaur bones. Unless it’s ice cream, which we also had. I remember my father’s youngest sibling as, well… young (she’d have been in her middle 30s then), pretty, feisty, stylish and fun. She was like a rainbow seen against sepia tones.
So it is painful to find myself here, a few days past my 57th birthday, going to see her in a place that cares for people with Alzheimer’s.
You would know Aunt Millie in a flash. She totters along slowly, yes, but in this place of people slouching in shapeless frocks, she is the only one dolled up to the nines every day: church dress on, makeup applied, nails done, a flowered hat sitting low on her head, the very definition of all dressed up, and nowhere to go.
She asks us — my wife is with me — how we found her here. She asks if she lives here now. She asks if she has to pay anything. She tells me my head has gotten so big. She asks what happened to her car. She weeps.
In her confusion, she repeats herself. And repeats herself. How did we find her here? Is this where she lives now? Does she have to pay anything? And boy, my head has gotten so big. She weeps.
Ruin is the destiny of all flesh. This, I understand. But there’s something especially cruel when ruin takes the mind before the flesh. Without our memories, what are we? We are the equation after the blackboard has been wiped, the sandcastle after the wave — smeared images and shapeless shapes melting into the sand.
When you no longer remember yourself, those who love you must do it for you. I guess that’s what this column is about.
We spend two afternoons with Aunt Millie. On the first, as it happens, the facility has brought a band in to play for a gathering in a common room. Aunt Millie wants to go, so we do. One of the songs is, “The Way You Do the Things You Do.”
Because I am congenitally unable to not act a fool when Temptations classics are played, I put an arm around Aunt Millie and serenade her, thankful the music is too loud for anyone to hear me. To my surprise, Aunt Millie puts her arm around me and returns the favor. I’m watching her lips and she is nailing the words. She remembers.
And we rock back and forth, clowning, singing. “You got a smile so bri-ight, you know you could have been a candle…”
It is one of those moments you watch yourself from outside yourself, knowing even as you live it that it is special, that it contains a pearl of grace.
“I’m holding you so ti-ight, you know you could have been a handle!” It is a moment of absolute clarity.
The next day, we find her walking down the hall, coming home, she insists, from the movies. She asks how we found her. She is surprised to learn she lives here now. I change the subject, tell her I really enjoyed singing with her at the party yesterday.
She frowns. “What party?” she asks.
It is another piece of her, lost to her. But I will keep it for us both.
(Leonard Pitts is a columnist for The Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, FL, 33132. Readers may contact him via email at [email protected])