The summer I was fifteen, just as I was about to fly alone to Brazil, I read Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying. Bad idea. I checked in with my mother, Alice, about my mounting trepidations. She said, “Driving is far more dangerous and you get in a car with me every day.” That was enough. Mothers know things. So do teachers. My mother, a biology teacher, possessed a double dose of authority and confidence. She has kept this voice through Alzheimer’s. She is as certain of her hallucinations and the stories she uses to make sense of a fragmented world as she had been of the Krebs cycle, Mendelian genetics, or the Hardy-Weinberg theorem.
A mother and teacher myself, I’ve used this same voice to make her stories and hallucinations safe, normal, something not to be challenged. When she was certain that her own mother, who died in 1954, had just been sitting on the sofa in the living room, talking with her, she would say, “You see her don’t you?” I’d say, “I can’t see her but I’m sure you can. You have special powers. You can see things that we can’t.” For her, that was enough. As her old powers continue to fade, she uses this voice to keep going. She had been an avid New York Times crossword puzzle person. As even Monday’s puzzle became too hard, she switched to Scrabble. But as specific words increasingly eluded her, this voice continued to help her win. She created new words with ready definitions: mladz (mə-lǎdz′) n. A term of address for a group of young men; pissquilch (pǐs′-skwĕlch) n. A small green-feathered bird, native to South America; drends (drĕndz) n. The sweepings that don’t make it into the dustpan. Challenge her? Never. I just wish I had photographed some of those boards.