My mother was a very organized person. She just had a hard time throwing anything away. In the living room, piles of magazines covered side tables and towered neatly on the floor, organized by genre—professional magazines in one stack, news magazines in another. My mother would sit among them and sort coupons or recipes.
In fact, her recipe files put mine to shame. I have a cupboard full of recipes, given to me by friends and clipped from magazines. They are jammed willy-nilly into index card boxes or stuffed into binders. My mother’s, however, are categorized and sub-categorized: desserts—baked, frozen, fruit; main dishes—beef, chicken, lamb, pork, seafood.
We had piles of clothes in the house. Piles, but organized. One pile was for clothes that had been worn, but were still clean; another for clean, but not yet put away; another was to be ironed; and another to be mended. Ironing, or “pressing,” as she called it, had to be done in a very specific sequence. A collared shirt, for example, had to be ironed yoke first, then the collar, followed by the sleeves, and lastly the back and side panels.
My mother had loads of maps and guidebooks. Piled on a table. Stashed in a cupboard. Stuffed in side pockets and glove compartments. Some were old and worn to the point of falling apart from being unfolded and refolded so many times. But she always knew six ways to anywhere.
I thought about this recently as I sat with her for dinner at the nursing home. She is cruising right along the Alzheimer’s road. It’s an ugly journey. No maps can help.
She was served a meal of a hot dog, baked beans, and beets. At another time in her life she would have commented on the lack of color on the plate. It needed some green.
On this night, however, she looked at the food for a long time. It had been slopped on her plate, beets mingling with baked beans, hot dog resting in the beans. My father offered to feed her, but she didn’t answer.
Finally, she lifted her fork. One by one she selected the dark maroon circles of beet, speared them, and placed them on the paper napkin beside her plate.
She calmly separated all the beets out and arranged them in a neat row. Then she corralled the beans on the plate so the hot dog wasn’t soaking in their dampness.
She looked up at me and gave her funny little half smile. It’s all that’s left of her better smile. Her eyes met mine.
See? She seemed to be saying. I can still make order out of chaos.
And I wanted to cry.
Out of gratitude for a line of beets on a paper napkin.
My mom is still in there.
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