The Turning Gem

Music, Film, Family


It ain’t no sin, to take off your skin and dance around in your bones

-Tom Waits

In light of current events (COVID-19, Black Lives Matter, 2020 Presidential “election season”), I asked my mom what her first memory of a world event was. She said, “Probably a person that was a purple-ette”, stumbling over her words. “I can’t think. I’m out of… purple-ette? I was referring to a certain person, but he can’t get it, so I think she went to that one.” She stopped talking entirely for several minutes, looked around the room, and took a few sips of one of her three bottles of water. “Bitty Wet!” she continued, “Betty White? No. She was about eight-years-old.” My mother was talking about Shirley Temple. 

I asked her if she remembered the Moon landing, which was right around the same time of year (July, 1969), and would have been when she was still in college, and most likely dating my Father. “It’s hard to remember. I was about done. I would have been with Dad, I’m pretty sure.” Without context, that’s a bit of gibberish, but it’s interesting, isn’t it, that what she remembers from then was her school and her boyfriend. NOT the Moon landing. 

Mom has always maintained that she met Muhammad Ali once. I asked her about that, too. “Oh, yes”, she blushed, “I remember, he was so much of a handsome man. We passed each other, I think, and I said hello, and he smiled at me.” Now, of all the things, I expected her to blank on this. Because, honestly, I never believed this to be true. In her retellings of this encounter in the past, she always added that it was a hard time for Civil Rights in the country, and that she had seen some things that were quite traumatizing. This part she doesn’t currently remember, so I asked Dad if he had any idea. 

According to Dad, Mom did indeed meet Muhammad Ali. But the story is quite a bit different from his angle. This would have been in Atlanta, GA in the late 1960’s. Mom had an African American friend named Alberta whom Mom had as a bridesmaid. Alberta returned the sentiment when it came time for her to be married, and invited my parents to Georgia for the wedding. So, there they were in the deep South 1960’s, two skinny white kids. Mom went out with Alberta and the other bridesmaids for a bachelorette gathering at some club in downtown Atlanta. It was at this club that Mom met Muhammad Ali, as he happened to be there at the same time and apparently took a liking to Alberta’s bridal party. He introduced himself, and when Mom got back to the hotel she was giddy as a teenager, telling my Dad all about the encounter as she jumped up and down on the bed. 

Mom has no memory of a human landing on the face of the Moon, but still gets red thinking bout Muhammad Ali’s dimples. Memories are quite a mystery. 

Taking the time to talk with my Mom can, at times, be a challenge. And I don’t mean specifically for those of us who take part in the conversations. I mean for her. It isn’t always the same level of difficulty, but it isn’t always the same level of understanding either. To be honest with you, Mom is much harder on herself than she needs to be. She becomes frustrated at her apparent lack of ability to communicate, but the truth is it just takes a bit longer to get to the heart of it all. 

After asking Mom all about life events that cover decades of time, she was understandably quite tired. She also seemed sad, because she didn’t feel like she remembered well enough. Can you imagine that? Feeling bad because you did poorly during a conversation with your son? I tried to explain to her that it was silly, but she heard the word “silly” and, well… that wasn’t my finest moment. It’s a learning process. 

What I ended up being able to remind her, and what I’d like to point out to all of you, is that despite the forgetfulness that goes along with Dementia, my Mom  (and by extension, others in the same situation) remembers a whole lot! We’re talking about a child superstar from the 1940’s, graduating college, getting married, and meeting a famous boxer in 1960’s Georgia. Think about the astonishing amount of ground that covers! From World War ll, to the Civil Rights Movement, to the Vietnam War, to the Moon landing, and the JFK assassination. She lived through all of that, and remembers an astonishing amount of detail. And NOT about the things you’d expect. 

During ALL of this, what she remembers most is her husband and her friends. Still, at a time in her life when memories are as precious as emeralds, Mom reflects fondly on the bits that matter. “A good life,” as my Dad might say, “And lots of it.”

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