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My Mother's Lake: Where Alzheimer's Fades and Memory Lives

Ann Campanella - June 11, 2018 12:27 PM

For the last 14 years of her life, my mother lived with Alzheimer’s. She forgot where she’d left her checkbook, if she’d eaten, how to find her way to the store and, eventually, even the names of people she loved. Yet, she always remembered the place where she had grown up.

As a young girl, my mother spent her summers swimming, hiking and sailing around the spring-fed waters of Lake George, New York. When she grew up, married and had children, our family traveled hundreds of miles to vacation there.

On bright, sunny days, we gathered with cousins at the small sandy beach, sailed on the old Sunfish or went hiking through the virgin forest to reach Joshua’s Rock, a family landmark of grey granite that juts into the bay. Perhaps it shouldn’t be a surprise that these beloved memories remained with my mother throughout her life, even as her illness progressed.

The cottage we visited at Lake George was built in the 1880s by Mom’s great grandfather, Edward Eggleston, a writer who was famous in his day for penning old-fashioned classics such as Roxy and The Hoosier Schoolboy. On rainy days, we curled up on the couch to read old family letters or a musty book from my great great grandfather’s extensive library. At Lake George, we were connected to our history.

 As my mother began to lose words and phrases, images from her summers at the lake remained. When Mom was in her mid 70s and living in North Carolina, I began noticing changes in her. She talked about the lake all the time, but often it was out of context. She spoke of her siblings, who we always visited at Lake George, as if they were in the next room. As her disease progressed, she asked me if her father, who had died decades earlier, was going hiking without her. Even in her last years, she would scan the parking lot of her rest home and point out the masts of sailboats to me.

I inherited a love of books, and writing became a way for me to capture pieces of my mother and her history before her mind lost the ability to hold them. My mother’s love of Lake George and what it represented to her – a deep connection to family – is one of the threads woven into my life.

As my mother was slipping away, I wanted to have a child of my own but had a series of miscarriages. Some summers it was hard to return to the lake because I was surrounded by reminders of what I’d lost and how my branch of the family tree was achingly empty.

I was blessed with a daughter at the age of forty. My mother had been the same age when she gave birth to me. This disease of forgetting made me look at my own life differently. I was in the middle of an age continuum. I couldn’t help but be aware that everything I experienced with my own mother might come to pass for my daughter. There was a telescoping of time that brought an intensity to my emotions when I visited the lake. Writing provided an outlet for my grief, and it was a way to preserve moments of beauty and family connection.
I will always remember my mother’s last trip to Lake George. She had been wheelchair bound and had gone through periods where she could barely communicate. But when she arrived on the family property, it was as if she had stepped back in time.

My mother stood up from her wheelchair and began to walk up and down the familiar hills of her childhood. We took her boating on the lake. Our extended family came for visits and ate meals around the picnic table with us. Mom’s expressionless face transformed into a complexion of radiant joy. This change would not last, of course. But, it was a gift our family will always treasure.

These days, when I return to Lake George and look out at the blue water ringed by mountains, I think of my mother and am grateful for the time we spent there together. It makes me want to create the same kind of lasting memories for my daughter.

Ann Campanella is the author of Motherhood: Lost and Found, an award-winning memoir about losing her mother to Alzheimer’s at the same time she was trying to become a parent. A long-time journalist and poet, her writing has appeared in publications across the globe. She is a member of the AlzAuthors’ management team. Ann lives on a small farm in North Carolina with her family and animals. For more information, visit Ann’s website at www.anncampanella.com.

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