The whole reason I’ve been circling this book for the better part of a decade, carefully putting off reading it (as instructed by a professor — I need to be better about not being so obedient people in power over me in this way) until I was “old enough to appreciate it,” was that it was about memory. And it hasn’t been disappointing so far.
The class in which the book came up wasn’t even literary — it had to do with the fluidity of gender and its expression in media, primarily in Japan. But the professor sidetracked himself on a description of a scene which I now believe is one I’ve just passed in the book, about a madeline cookie dipped in tea prompting, through its taste, an unfolding of memories formerly locked away. The professor seemed to imply, at the time, that this dogged quest to retrieve lost memories, and then their sudden unexpected return, was a loop expressed throughout the full epic length of the book, but since that entire cycle was expressed in that one scene within the first fifty pages, I wonder if I have been loyally not-reading this book for 9 years in obedience to the orders of a man who hadn’t yet finished the first 100 pages himself.
Again, deference is great, but I should probably take less as gospel the words of people in power over me. Especially those I met for one semester, and never saw again.
Loyally cut for spoilers, because I still remember my resentment at the spoilers for Anna Karenina I received as a 15-year-old about to read it:
Anyway. Early on I was trying to pinpoint why I was willing to take this character in as someone whose thoughts I wanted to keep seeing, whereas Call It Sleep, which began similarly, about a tender, anxious little boy bullied on the streets of early 1900s New York turned me off. I quit reading that book about at the same distance in that I am here with Remembrance of Things Past*, but I’m trying to place why. There, too, you had a lonely only child devoted to his thoughtful mother, fearful of his decidedly less-thoughtful father, whose life was predominated, in the text, by intermingled descriptions of patterns and textures that come to dominate a child’s memory (quilts, snow on windowpanes, the changing patterns of brick on a walk to school, etc.) and his many fears, minutely detailed. It couldn’t have been some embarrassing knee-jerk rejection to the too-familiar (I won’t put that past myself; I could still very well be capable of this) due to the other book’s Americanness, because so far, in each case, we’ve been limited to the immediate-rather-than-worldly viewpoint of children. Part of my rejection of the main character in Call It Sleep was, I told myself at the time, because I was tired of hearing just how terrible little boys had it back then, when my present-day newsfeed was filled with little girls actually killing themselves due to cyberbullying by, surprise, boys. But then why am I now willing to follow the fretful child of Remembrance of Things Past through his own exploits, when things have changed little from when I tried to read Call It Sleep? Worse, whereas Call It Sleep‘s family was very much working-class and thus should have been more relatable to me, Remembrance of Things Past‘s family boasts an array of servants, and the description of how happy one of them becomes when one of the “masters” bothers to realize that she has a life, family, hopes and fears beyond the confines of the house in which she serves should turn me off, in the way Downton Abbey quickly became a farce.
But this has not happened with this book. Especially now that we are reading about aunt Leonie, whose gradual decline after her husband’s death, from society and even from her own house, into a kind of self-imposed exile, has me thinking a lot about my mother, and wondering if affluent people back in the day might have been better equipped to deal with dementia than the most medicated, researched facilities of today. Like my mother, Leonie has drawn the confines of her world tighter and tighter, so as to limit her interactions only to those with which she remains capable of being familiar. But, again like my mother, she obsesses over windows and what she observes through them, as though having rejected life outside, she must then make a minutely-detailed study of it from behind the glass:
“A man grandfather didn’t know at all!” she would exclaim. “That’s a likely story.” None the less, she would be a little disturbed by the news, she would wish to have the details correctly, and so my grandfather would be summoned. “Who can it have been that you passed near the Pont-Vieux, uncle? A man you didn’t know at all?”
“Why, of course I did,” my grandfather would answer: “It was Prosper, Mme. Boulleboeuf’s gardner’s brother.”
“Ah, well!” my aunt would say, calm again and slightly flushed still; “and the boy told me that you had passed a man you didn’t know at all!” After which I would be warned to be more careful of what I said, and not to upset my aunt by so thoughtless remarks. Everyone was so well known in Combray, animals as well as people, that if my aunt had happened to see a dog go by which she ‘didn’t know at all’ she would think about it incessantly, devoting to the solution of the incomprehensible problem all her inductive talent and her leisure hours.
Before you scoff at the idea of dementia being applicable here, given the woman’s capacity to still keep track of names and relationships, consider the placating presence her most-loyal of servants (and the one mentioned earlier) serves in her life:
“Francoise, didn’t you hear that bell just now! It split my head.”
“No, Mme. Octave.”
“Ah, you poor girl, your skull must be very thick; you may thank God for that. It was Maguelone come to fetch Dr. Piperaud. He came out with her at once and they went off along the Rue de l’Oiseau. There must be some child ill.”
“Oh dear dear; the poor little creature!” would come with a sigh from Francoise, who could not hear of any calamity befalling a person unknown to her, even in some distant part of the world.
“Francoise, for whom did they toll the passing-bell just now? Oh dear, of course, it would be for Mme. Rousseau. And to think that I had forgotten that she passed away the other night. Indeed, it is time the Lord called me home too; I don’t know what has become of my head since I lost my poor Octave. But I am wasting your time, my good girl.”
“Indeed no, Mme. Octave, my time is not so precious; whoever made our time didn’t sell it to us. I am just going to see that my fire hasn’t gone out.”
In this way Francoise and my aunt made a critical valuation between them, in the course of these morning sessions, of the earliest happenings of the day. But sometimes these happenings assumed so mysterious or so alarming an air that my aunt felt she could not wait until it was time for Francoise to come upstairs, and then a formidable and quadruple peal would resound throughout the house.
This is as yet early in our introduction to Leonie, so it could be that she descends into the same vitriolic attacks as characterize most modern-day apparitions of dementia. But you see that repetitive conversation about the bell, that fixation on one tiny detail? The patience required to address that is something they teach in classes on caregiving, but it is also something required, here, of this family servant, whose familiarity to Leonie, and her pre-existing connection to the house and the people in it, likely serve to ease Leonie’s descent into dementia far better than a stranger with a stethoscope and a basket of pills would. Francoise even puts up with patronizing attacks on her character (“oh my poor girl, your skull must be so thick!”), and while this is deplorable from a class standpoint, it does speak to a level of competence, in dealing with the increasingly incompetent, that is often lacking in people suddenly facing the mental collapse of those they love.
I recall one visit, when my mother could still live at home and when I’d been able to secure entry to a conference near enough to justify staying with my parents (I apply to all conferences, symposiums etc. held where they live, to try and be able to see them more often), where I came down with a horrible cold that I was terrified I’d communicate to them. Wanting to keep an eye on my mother, so she didn’t wander off, but not wanting to make her ill, I decided to repaint their porch, which was decaying and peeling. I thought if I was outdoors, my germs might be less likely to inflict themselves on Mom. She watched through the window for a time but kept tapping on it as I was sneezing and covered in paint, so that I’d have to wipe all the paint off my hands onto my pants and carefully peel open the door to hear her warning: “Be careful, those trains will run you over!”
There were no trains. What my mother was seeing, glimpsed through the trees in her backyard, were the cars of neighbors pulling into and out of their driveways. But their movement she turned mentally into the prospect of trains (even when I pointed out the sound of an actual train, when it passed, to try and distinguish it as being elsewhere than behind hour home), and, unable to trace their path, she worried they might hit me. Since she kept wanting to warn me and since I did want to finish the porch before my father got home (it was meant to be a surprise for him, since he wouldn’t have been able to do it himself), I installed Mom in a chair out in the middle of the otherwise-empty porch with me, again trusting to the outdoor air to keep my germs from her, and hoping that her ability to keep an eye on the “trains” for me would keep her calm enough to let me finish painting.
This is a tiny, low-drama example with no disastrous conclusion (I finished the porch and Mom did not catch my horrible cold, although Dad did), but do you see how hard it is to juggle everything? I was familiar to my mother but I lived elsewhere, such that my arrival still put her, in the most distant of ways, into a kind of host mode, where she fretted that things like bedding or cleanliness wouldn’t be to my liking. I was trying to:
a.) keep Mom safe and calm,
b.) paint the porch for Dad,
c.) recover from the worst cold I’d had in five years,
d.) prepare for the conference, the attendance to which I’d won a grant for and thus needed to report out on, and
e.) distract my parents from fixating on each other when in the same room, since my father’s reaction to my mother’s decline was despair-turned-to-anger, and my mother’s reaction to my father’s anger was confusion and tears.
This is a fucking lot. For one person, for two people; for anyone whose heart is tied up in the people involved. Years ago, I think it was in Slate, someone wrote about how the American distaste for servants, for the idea of anyone not of the house being in the house, and helping run it, started in WWI with the necessarily public embrace of the working-class, without whom everyone suddenly realized the country would go to shit. After this, it became understood that yes, you should be able to grow the victory garden and make the jam and bake the bread and teach the words and fix the ripped pants and keep everything running, all on your own. Were many people doing this beforehand? Of course — most people couldn’t afford to pay someone to come help. But this cultural distaste for servants for all but the very wealthy remains to this day, and had that distaste not rooted itself so firmly in our culture, maybe my father might have allowed someone in to help my mom, before it got so bad that she had to leave.
Then again, since that wouldn’t have been normal or familiar — since we had done it alone our entire lives, as almost everyone does here — perhaps she would have reacted to the in-home care person with the same vitriol which which she now reacts to my father. Perhaps, with no foothold of familiarity in there, any help would have been deemed as “someone I didn’t know at all!” and thus, strange and worthy of fear and/or resentment. I can’t know for sure.
But if there had been some other person there, who didn’t want to shriek with misery when they saw my mother confuse cars on streets for trains liable to smash into the house; who saw people outside where no people existed and for whom words blurred and ran off the page where once she had prided herself on her library; well. It would have helped us, is all I’m saying. Maybe we couldn’t have afforded it — in cash or in the bank of our own self-regard. You are supposed to do it yourself in this country.
But with dementia, you can’t. You just can’t. And maybe, back when there were always people around to help in some way, people with dementia had a better shot. For awhile, anyway. For longer than Mom had.
*I realize that current translations are now calling it In Search of Lost Time, but since I’m reading the older translation by its earlier translated title, and since this is the way I’ve referenced it to myself all the years that I put off reading it, Remembrance of Things Past is how it will stay, for me.