My husband and I are visiting my mother at her assisted living, sitting at the dinner table with her while she finishes her meal. She’s a very slow eater and is usually the last person left in the dining room. Today a new resident (of a couple of weeks) wanders over and sits down in a chair next to our table. She is, sadly, where my mother was two years ago in her dementia. She's near tears, keeps saying, “I don’t know where I am. I don’t know how I got here.” I’ve seen the CNAs talking to her, trying to reassure her, but in dementia there’s no reassurance. You forget what someone told you just a minute ago, but the fear stays with you.
To distract her, my husband starts a conversation, asking her questions about her family. She says she was born in Brooklyn. My ears twitch. So was my father! So was my husband! When she graduated from high school she went to work as a secretary at an insurance company. “Which one?” I ask. “Equitable Life,” she answers. Now I sit up straight in my chair. “My mother worked at the Equitable! In Manhattan?” “Yes,” she replies. “Right across the street from Penn Station.” That’s the one!
I turn eagerly to my mother, who’s still eating and can’t hear our conversation. I touch her arm. “This lady worked at the Equitable,” I say, pointing at Fran. (I know pointing isn’t polite, but it’s less rude in my view than shouting, “the lady over there, across the table from us.”) My mom’s alert now; she remembers that part of her life. “Really? What year?”
I relay the question. But Fran can’t remember. Her recollections are a little vague. All she says is, “I started before the war and worked there all during the war.”
The same years my mother was there. I try to tell my mom this, though her hearing is so bad that I need to speak in short sentences and repeat everything. But she says, “Ask her what department, what floor. I was on the fourth floor.”
Fran can’t remember. She goes on, talking about how much fun the girls there had. How they would go out at lunch and shop at Macy’s and Gimbel’s. My mother did the same. Fran asks what department my mother worked in.
Mom remembers this as well. “Claims,” she says.
“Oh, Claims was a good department. You had to have a brain to work there.”
I relay this to my mother. She pulls herself up in that self-mocking way she has. “Well, of course,”
My mom and me at Christmas, Canterbury Woods
Now I’m wondering if they might possibly have known each other. I know the names of my mother’s closest friends there: Myra, Mickey. She never mentioned a Fran, but that doesn’t mean they might not have been acquainted. We tell Fran my mom’s name and tell Mom Fran’s last name at the time. It doesn’t ring a bell with either of them. “There were about a thousand people working there,” my mother says.
Mom around 1958
Their stories have other things in common. My mother was born in Manhattan, my father in Brooklyn; they later both moved to Queens Village in Queens, where they met. Fran’s family moved to another part of Queens. She lived in Levittown after her marriage, my parents in Hempstead, Long Island. They both rode the Long Island Railroad into Manhattan for work. Now they’re both in New England.
But after that their stories diverge quite a bit. Fran is much younger than my mother; she started working there later. She found the war years a little dull because “there were no guys around. They were all at the war.”
My mother was married in 1935, before the war; Fran married her boyfriend after he returned, she says. But she has her dates somewhat confused, saying she was married in 1942, which was during the war, not after.
My parents moved to Chicago in the late 1940s, where my brother and I were born. Fran raised her family in Levittown and later moved to Massachusetts; my parents moved to Rhode Island.
I’m feeling electric but at the same time frustrated. My husband and I are acting like interpreters, repeating everything each woman says to the other as though they were speaking foreign languages. If only these two could really hold a conversation. They might discover much more in common. I know my mother would love to reminisce about Long Island and about her work.
But my mother can’t hear, neither of them can remember, and their dementia makes it difficult to follow conversations. I wish so fervently that my mom could make a friend there, but I’m afraid she’s beyond the friend-making stage. It would be so good for Fran, too. As I observe the people there, I see some who are isolated within themselves, nonverbal. Others talk to each other and often seem to be “hanging out” together. Yet none of them ever calls anyone else by name, and conversations don’t sound as if they come from a background of knowledge about each other.
Now the tantalizing question remains: did my mother and Fran actually know each other seventy years ago? Did they know some of the same people? Neither we nor they will ever know. They each have their memories, but they’re separate ones. As separate as they are, each on her little island of dementia, the disease that steals your life from you.
My mom by the fireplace, Canterbury Woods