Mom, me (on the left) and my twin sisters

Oils and Artichokes. Reaching out to a Mom with Alzheimer’s

As a primary school student, I was never particularly good at art. In the third grade I sat next to Randy Royce. Plump, ruddy, polite, posture erect to a fault, he was a prodigy. Randy could reproduce any two-dimensional image placed in front of him. I’ve often wondered if he had gone on to success as a counterfeiter. My own art was not so special. And, of course, I suffered from being parked next to a wunderkind.

That year I began drawing evergreen trees on a page hidden under my schoolwork. These were, what I now know to be, white pines, Norfolk pines, juniper and hemlock — I must have seen them on my grandfather’s farm — and I became a sort of conifer savant. The phase passed.

Lack of artistic ability across a broader spectrum was, however, strange. My mother, and her mother before her, had taken up drawing and painting in their later years and became proficient at still-lifes. One of Mom’s early efforts, a ceramic pitcher with three yellow roses in bloom, hangs on the wall above my desk. She intended each to represent one of her three daughters.

As grown-ups, my younger sister, Kat, and I conferred and concluded that we must have had been dropped on our heads. Neither of us ever showed any talent for art per se — although she is a very fine hobbyist photographer. Events forced the issue to the front burner when, four years ago, our mother, at the age of eighty-five, received a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s. It was especially cruel as it coincided with the onset of Parkinson’s palsy. As anyone who’s dealt with dementia knows, thoughts trail off as relationships sputter, and all the while there’s a person in there watching, aware of and raging against his or her own decline. Among my mother’s other losses — her brushes and oils.

Exactly where, Kat and I wondered, were Mom’s skills deteriorating? Was it her mind that now failed to see an image and allow her to reproduce it? Did the trouble originate in the brain or did her nervous system scramble the message as it made its way to her fingers?

At one point we’d thought about trying to construct a brace that would help to keep her unsteady wrist and fingers still. It would need ball and socket in order to move in all planes. It would need this; it would need that. In the face of mounting difficulties the project foundered. A buffer against palsy wouldn’t defeat image distortion that began in the cerebral cortex.

Kat and our much younger brother, Scott, both live in Northwest Missouri, in the same general vicinity as Mom, and they were faithful in visiting and calling her. I, however, lived (and live) in New York City. It was very difficult to keep up an already faltering relationship at that distance. I came home often as I could and, of course, telephoned, but as Mom’s cognitive skills deteriorated, she understood less and less. She complained that I talked too fast, doubtless a consequence of having moved east.

I tried regular e-mails, but her hands trembled so that she couldn’t keyboard messages back. She would dictate short notes to her husband and he would convey them to me, untangling her syntax. I would return a short reply. This happened three or four times a day. And then the line went dead. She couldn’t articulate a sentence reliably enough for her husband to interpret it. And that was when it occurred to me to try to reach another way — through her fondness for art, but in a form that relieved her of the necessity to create it.

If I drew something simple like a rose. I could send it to her to be “corrected” or “amended.” These sketches would never be finished. Rather, they would remain “studies” or “works in progress.” (WIPs.) She could “comment” on them with a single word or gesture, depending upon her lucidity at the moment, and perhaps we would find a basis for rapport that transcended language.

So I bought a load of supplies. Charcoal, medium graphite pencils — 6B to 4H — a sketch pad, several small canvases and acrylic paint. (I was under no illusion that I could handle oils.) To jump-start the plan I bought several books on basic principles of drawing. One suggested tracing the desired object and painting over the lines. That seemed like cheating so I ignored it. Another came with a particularly blunt admonishment (paraphrased here): You may think that you are an untutored genius, but don’t count on it. A Grandma Moses comes along only once in a great while. All the rest of you must take lessons.

Note to self: Take lessons.

But I didn’t. I just mucked through it by trial and error. I would look at a two-dimensional image and break it down in my mind into geometric forms. Then, putting pencil to pad, I’d recreate the images, softening the shapes by drawing them in multiple strokes. The interim product often looked like a tangle of wires. But I would erase all the lines with a gummed eraser, then hold the pad back and study it. Due to slight lingering impressions I could usually see the form of the flower in the maze. Some strokes were false; some true. The true revealed themselves as a sort of palimpsest. I moved in and drew those true lines more boldly and erased everything else. And the flower emerged. (I don’t know if this highly reductive process is recognized by any school of art, but it does produce images.)

As I progressed, I experimented with the acrylics and colored pencils, and I’d send the drawings as e-mail attachments for my mother’s consideration. Her husband, a retired school principal, was a craftsman who worked in stained glass. He had high regard for my mother’s sense of color. His feedback to my own work was minimal, along the lines of “Your Mom says ‘more yellow.’ ”

Then, the pay-off; a telephone call from Mom herself, and, in a carefully-modulated voice that had to have been practiced and coached, she said,

“I’m so glad that you are trying to take after me.”

It was the last full sentence I heard from her. After that, she didn’t respond to any offsite overture, artistic or otherwise. I put my own pencils and supplies away.

It’s been almost two years now since Mom was moved into an assisted living center’s memory support unit in Kansas City North. For the past few months she’s been in hospice care. On Mother’s Day my sister, brother and I decided that we would all convene around her bed and whisk her away to a picnic table on a nearby patio — one sheltered a bit from the rain that afternoon — and we would throw “the best darn picnic” any family ever had. Or words to that effect. There was an unspoken assumption that this would be Mom’s last party. But she sat upright in her wheelchair and seemed to enjoy her batter-fried chicken and double fudge brownies. She never did recognize us as her children.

As a Mother’s Day gift, I’d drawn another rose, this time using a new technique. I would look at the original, in this case a line drawing, then close my eyes and commit it to memory. Opening my eyes, I would sketch with what I hoped would be carefree abandon. But there was some neural misfire. Rather than carefree, the image appeared to have been drawn by an anxious child and it bore an unfortunate resemblance to an artichoke. I didn’t have time to re-do it, but I rolled it up and packed it in my bag, intending to give it to Mom after dessert.

Things did not unfold as planned. The exertion of the picnic sent Mom into a premature nap. She was lifted by a nurse’s assistant into bed. Only then did I realize, I hadn’t shown her my sketch. I thought of leaving it there, but if she couldn’t recognize her own children, how was see going to make sense of the drawing? So I brought it back home to New York and pinned it to the cork board above my desk.

It belonged there, I thought, to remind me that my mother was once proud because I had ‘tried’ to be like her. On further consideration, however, I remembered that she’d said “trying.” She was proud that I was “trying” to be like her. I squinted at the sketch. Was there, indeed, a rose lurking beneath that artichoke? What if I subjected it to the rigors of a gummed eraser? Would the true strokes stand out against the false? Should I even try?

Note to self: Take lessons.

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