The Slow Cruelty of Dementia

Fat, wet snow flakes plopped from the clouds to cover the the green leaves of the shrubs that flanked the front door.  All you could see was the red berries whose vibrant colors would not be hidden so easily under the soft white blanket.  It was freezing outside but I didn’t feel it.  I sat at the kitchen table eating a fried egg sandwich with way too much pepper thanks to my Papa.  Every sandwich the man ever made was covered in black pepper.  Papa leaned over the countertop, all his weight on his crusty elbows while he listened to WIFM on the radio.  My grandmother walked in the kitchen wearing her powder blue housecoat with matching terrycloth bedroom slippers.  She poured herself a cup of Maxwell House coffee, the kind that came in the blue tin with the black plastic lid.  I loved that smell.  Still do.

I freeze the image of this scene in my mind and scan it for small details.  The ceramic strawberry cookie jar sits by the window.  It’s always filled to the top with Little Debbie snack cakes, mostly oatmeal cream pies and banana flavored marshmallow pies.  They never tasted like bananas to me, though.  The dish drainer sits to the left of the sink and I remember how Mama Willie never let her dishes sit.  She washed them as soon as we were finished.  Now, she never put the dishes away, but at least they were clean.  On the table is a bowl of plastic fruit that I like to rub over my fingers to feel the bumps.

But my favorite thing to see is the bird feeder outside the kitchen window.  It’s full of birdseed, the red cardinals swooping in through the snow for their morning breakfast.  In the spring the humming birds zipped in to feed on the sugar water from the plastic strawberry feeder, but in the winter the cardinals reigned supreme.

I ask myself why this memory stands so vividly in my mind.  There are several reasons.  First, I spent a great deal of my childhood at my grandparents’ home.  I would rather have been there than anywhere else in the world.  Second, snow days meant no school and that meant a day filled with snowball fights and sledding down the massive hills behind the houses at the top of North Wall Street.  Finally, this memory is not from a single day.  This was what happened every time it snowed and I couldn’t go to school.  My mother dropped me off at Mama Willie’s because she had to go to work.  Sewing factories don’t call off work because of snow.  Every time it snowed I sat at the kitchen table eating my too-peppery egg sandwich and watched Mama Willie and Papa David go through their morning routines.  Nothing ever changed and that was comforting.

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My grandmother has no memory of those mornings.  At times I wonder if she has any memories of me.  But then she looks at my face and a feeling stirs.  She can not recall my name but she does remember how much, how deeply she loved me.  She still does.  And I still love her as deeply as I did on those cold winter mornings when the smell of Maxwell House coffee made me feel safe and warm.

My grandmother was one of twelve children born to a Baptist minister at the start of the Great Depression.  I knew all of those great aunts and uncles in my youth, but time and space separated us and now only a couple of them remain.  What stands out in my mind, though, was the family Christmas dinners when the entire clan gathered at the Pleasant Hill Fire Department to eat every Southern delicacy known to man.  All twelve of the brothers and sisters were loving and caring, but they were also divas.  Mama said it was because all of them had to fight for attention in such a huge family.  Mama Willie was just like that, too.  She was a diva and remains so even today.


My mother was one of five children born to David and Willie Newman of North Wall Street in Elkin, North Carolina.  Mama tells me that in those early days of motherhood Mama Willie was more reserved while my grandfather was more the affectionate one.  As a result, my mother was the quintessential daddy’s girl.


I think this was only because of my grandmother’s young age.  She and Papa were married when she was 16, so by the time my mother came along Mama Willie was only 24 and the mother of three little girls.  Raising babies on a housekeeper’s and a textile worker’s pay in a house with no bathroom took it’s toll on a young mother.  The fight for self-preservation took on the appearance of selfishness.

But with age comes wisdom and Mama Willie’s loving nature came more to the front as she grew older.  Her first two grandchildren were born prematurely and in a delicate state in their first few months of life.  But when I was born on November 20, 1973 I was the first full-term grandchild she had, a soft ball of chubbiness who loved to root his head under peoples’ necks just to snuggle.  Mama Willie often told me she knew she would love me the first moment she held me in her arms.


I craved my grandmother’s attention and was generously rewarded with it.  Part of the reason was because I was quiet, I cleaned up after myself, and I genuinely wanted to help out around the house.  But the biggest reason was because I loved her as much as she loved me.  We looked past each other’s faults and became nearly inseparable.  I spent as many days and nights there as I could.  She did have some characteristics that bothered me, though.  She loved to watch soap operas, her “stories” as she called them.  Days of Our Lives was her favorite.  The problem was she would watch for ten minutes and then fall asleep   If I tried to change the channel to watch Mighty Mouse, she would snap, “I was listening to that!” I learned to master the art of skillfully lowering the volume of the TV gradually, changing the channel, and then gradually increasing the volume.  That’s was the only way I could watch something of my own choosing in her house.


One spring day her stove went out.  It was due, to be honest.  I think she’d had the same stove since the 1960s.  Papa went to Elmore’s and bought her a new stove with a self-cleaning oven.  This was new technology in those days and Mama Willie had neighbors who told her that the stove could become unstable during the cleaning process and explode if she opened it too early.  On the first morning she chose to use this new feature, she carefully slid the locking mechanism in place, turned on the oven, and went to the living room with her cup of coffee in hand.  After a couple of hours she went back into the kitchen to see if the stove was done.  She gingerly touched the surface of the stove and noticed it still felt a little warm but not really hot.  It looked safe enough so she decided to risk it.  Just as she flipped the level to “Unlock,” Mike Kennedy who lived in a trailer behind the smokehouse let off a blast from his shotgun.  Mama Willie flung her arms up, screamed “Oh, goddamn!” and flew back into the refrigerator.  Her silver blue bouffant askew, she collected herself after she realized she had survived her first experience with 1980s technology.

In mid-March of 1988 Papa David took me to K-mart to buy some poster board and markers for a school project on the upcoming presidential primary.  While on the way back home Papa started coughing.  I asked him if he felt well and he said it was just a cold.  A week later he was in the  hospital with pneumonia.  He died on April 8, 1988.  Our lives turned upside down quickly and without warning.  Mama Willie lived with her oldest daughter for a period after this and it took a little over a year before she returned to her home.

In the early 1990s Mama Willie suffered her first major health setback.  She suffered a heart attack, forcing her to change much of her lifestyle.  Cigarettes were now out and she was instructed to change her diet.  She managed to keep up the no smoking pledge, but her love of good Southern food meant she wouldn’t eat a vegetable that wasn’t flavored with pork fat.

I grew up and left for college, but I still stayed with her as much as possible.  I visited every weekend and she came to eat Sunday dinner nearly every week at our house.  On Sunday evenings before I left to return to Appalachian she often handed me a $20 bill to get me through the week.  After I graduated and moved away, my visits became less frequent but I still called her on the phone every few days.

The first time I sensed something was wrong was when I surprised her with a visit one evening.  When she stood up from the couch to embrace me she smelled like urine.  I didn’t say anything to her, but I called my mother to tell her I was concerned.  Mama drove up there the next day to fuss at Mama Willie for not bathing as often as she should.  A few months later her TV started to go out and the screen became compressed, majorly distorting the picture.  Mama Willie never said anything.  She just kept watching it.  I asked her why she didn’t call me or Mama.  She said she thought it was funny.  I arranged for a new television and entertainment center for her as a gift from all her grandchildren.

A couple of years drifted by and Mama Willie seemed incapable of caring for herself.  She forgot to eat or clean her body.  Her dentures began to show signs of series decay.  The worst part was that she forgot to take her medications.  Mama bought a medication dispenser to help keep up with what she was supposed to take and when  But when Mama Willie overdosed twice by taking medications at the wrong time, the family had no choice but to seek nursing care for her.  She was diagnosed with dementia and admitted to a long term care facility in Yadkinville.

Her health seemed to get better for a period of time even as her memories began to fade.  But then she developed breast cancer and faced a double mastectomy.  The seemingly endless rounds of chemotherapy nearly did her in, but she kept fighting.  She thought she was too pretty to die just yet.


Each morning when she awoke she put on her makeup (as best she could, sometimes to comical effect) and put on every piece of jewelry she owned.  Nearly all of it was costume jewelry, but that didn’t matter.  The bigger and gaudier the better.  She asked people, “Don’t you think I’m pretty?”  and they always responded with affirmation.  I was lucky to take my daughter to see her not long after we brought Autumn home from the hospital.  Mama Willie held Autumn in her arms and told her how much she loved her.  It was a special moment for me to see my grandmother holding my little girl.  The thought of it still makes me smile.

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Time continues to pass.  Mama Willie is tired.  She rarely gets out bed anymore, preferring to sleep.  On the rare occasion I have seen her in the past few years she holds my hands, admonishes me to lose weight, and tells me a hundred times that she loves me.  I look into those clouded eyes and I wonder what is more cruel:  the way my Papa was taken from me so quickly in 1988 or the gradual decline of the woman who held me in her arms and loved me every day of my life.  I wonder how much of her life remains in her memory.  Specifics no longer remain, only moments, feelings.  The fact that she tells all of us how much she loves us even though she can’t remember who we are reminds when what an amazing woman she still is. Though time has taken much of who she was away from her, she leaves a legacy with my mother and me:  love your children with all your heart and with all your soul.  In the end, love in the only thing that matters.

I cherish my memories of my time with Mama Willie and Papa David.  Those cold winter mornings in Wilkes County seem a lifetime away.  But every time I see a ruby red cardinal against a sea of glistening snow I’m taken back in time to a simpler life when a fried egg sandwich and the smell of Maxwell House coffee meant today was going to be an awesome day.  Thank you, Mama Willie and Papa David, for the great memories and the love you gave me.  I hope I make you proud.

3 Comments Add yours

  1. Tiffany says:

    I enjoyed hearing memories of the time spent with your grandparents. So many memories of my own returned . Although, This has so many parallels to my father in law and mother in law who also suffers from dementia.
    Great words Josh.


  2. Amber says:

    Wow Josh. I am in tears again. My Grandmother is going through the same thing. It’s all about the memories and what they have bestowed in us.
    I am so blessed my sweet Aubela has had the chance to meet and love on my two babies. I will never forget.


  3. Christina says:

    Such beautiful words (I already love your grandmother though I never met her!) — and really lovely photos. I, too, am very close to my Oma (grandmother) and…though I know that life is what it is, I struggle to even imagine. I never know what to say when someone loses a loved one, but while I am truly and deeply sorry for the loss of your grandmother, I am so glad that you have these incredible and comforting memories. Thank you so much for sharing this amazing woman with us.


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