My Mother Says She Was a Zoo Keeper

When the fiction of dementia is the truest thing

LaDonna Witmer
The Narrative Arc
Published in
6 min readJun 7, 2024


A close-up selfie of the author and her elderly mother sitting in a booth at a restaurant. There is a white glare from the window that obscures part of the mother’s face.
The author and her mother take a selfie

Last week over tacos, my mother told me she used to work at a zoo in Chicago.

As I recall, we only visited the Brookfield Zoo once my entire childhood. That was the trip in which a cop pulled my dad over on the Eisenhower Expressway for driving too slowly. (He was barely hitting 50 mph.)

I know for a good solid fact that my mother has never been a zookeeper. But she’s living in an alternate reality these days — one in which she absolutely 100% remembers taking care of zoo animals.

Last week, she also told me I was not her daughter. She didn’t disown me in so many words like, “You are not my daughter.” But when your mother asks you: “Now, when did we meet?” or “Weren’t we roommates across the ocean?” it kinda hits the same way. Bluntly, square in the solar plexus.

My husband, daughter and I were in Illinois for a week to check in with my parents and my sister, who relocated with her family from northern California to northern Illinois just months ago.

This trip was the first time I’ve ever visited my parents and not stayed with them in their wind-beaten yellow farmhouse.