Wednesday, July 7, 2010

The Summer of the Great-Grandmother

By Madeleine L’Engle

New York, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1974

Week 28      Memoir

Ever since my mother’s health and memory began to fade, I have been planning to read this book by the author and Christian apologist, Madeleine L’Engle. I really only knew her work from the children’s book, A Wrinkle in Time, which won the Newberry Medal in 1963, and remains one of the most popular of all Newberry medal winners. Much like C.S. Lewis, she writes all her books from a Christian perspective, although her novels and children’s books are not overtly Christian.

Madeleine L’Engle was a prolific writer with over 60 published works. She died at age 88 in 2007. The Summer of the Great Grandmother is one of a set of memoirs called The Crosswicks Journal. The other parts of the series are A Circle of Quiet (1972), The Irrational Season (1977), and Two Part Invention: The Story of a Marriage (1988), written shortly after the death of her actor husband, Hugh Franklin. All are based at the family summer home, Crosswicks, in Goshen Connecticut.

In The Summer of the Great Grandmother, everyone has gathered at Crosswicks for the season, which begins with the marriage of L’Engle’s younger daughter and ends with the death of her mother. Two little great-grandchildren arrive for the summer about the same time as Madeleine’s mother, and so the four generations (10 people in all) spend this “summer of extremes” together. The great grandmother is failing rapidly – Alzheimer’s has taken over, and the whole family is affected. L’Engle begins her book: “This is the summer of the great-grandmother, more her summer than any other summer. This is the summer after her ninetieth birthday, the summer of the swift descent.”

Interweaving the details of the summer, L’Engle tells the story of her mother’s life along with details of her own childhood. She tries to remember her mother as she was, but she is filled with questions that she wishes her mother could answer, but of course she cannot. Over and over she cries out for understanding. She says, “I want my mother to be my mother. And she is not. Not anymore. Not ever again.” Another time she says, “I am furious with Mother for not being my mother, and I am filled with an aching tenderness I have never known before.” Yet, she says time and again that she is so glad that she can do this for her mother—have her at Crosswicks surrounded and cared for by family. When she needs peace and quiet, L’Engle retreats to the nearby pond, out of view of the house and her mother’s constant needs. At night she sleeps in the tower room because her mother calls out in fear all night, and Madeleine can’t sleep even though they have caregivers on duty 24-hours a day.

Most of my friends are in the same situation as I am—very elderly parents in nursing homes and in great need. My mother used to come to the family cottages on Lake Michigan for the summer, but last summer was the first that we didn’t have her with us. So this summer, my family has rented a small apartment near my mother’s nursing home so someone can be with her most of the time. Is this her last summer? We don’t know, but at least we have this special time with her.

As you can probably imagine, I related completely to this memoir. I kept affirming, “This is my life.” The faith questions L’Engle asks are my questions, her prayers are my prayers. She is constantly praying for her mother's death so that she can be relieved of the fear and anguish that is resulting from her descent into Alzheimers. I pray the same prayer: “Please let Mother slip away.”

Additionally, as L’Engle is telling the story of her mother’s life, I became filled with questions about my mother’s ancestors—things I don’t know and will probably never know, because Mother can’t remember those details most of the time. At least, our mother knows us, and while she can’t quite remember who the great grandchildren are, she remains our loving mother who can still score over 300 points in a Scrabble game and express her joy that we are there with her. And she always asks the question, “What’s going on with you these days?”

When you read Madeleine L’Engle, you know her intimately; if she lived near you, or went to your church, she would be your friend. I would have liked to have known her and shared this summer of the great grandmother with her. By reading her book, written 35 years ago, somehow I did.

Here is the obituary for Madeleine L’Engle from the New York Times:

An interview from Christianity Today magazine:

1 comment:

OnThePath said...

This book was given to me a few years ago by a friend. It is unique in that the author had no tools to deal with this situation, no Alz. Assn., no internet forums. It is very raw.

For me the book was a validation of how I cared for my mother, which was not to freak out at the loss of "where is my mother," but to deal with the actual person in front of me at the instant.

Unlike the author who distanced herself from her mother's pain, I stood by. Living til just recently on couch next to her bed. Both of us in the living room...for years. commode between us. Not as many people needed hired, family to support. ME. and HER.

I do not know if the author managed to connect and understand in the years following her mother's death. But the book made me feel proud that I did what this esteemed author, a Christian, could not. In my book, you see someone genuinely suffering, you run TO the person, not pull a Walden's Pond to protect one's own feelings.

Thanks for your excellent review. I should reread this one day, but I don't think my impressions will change. Read Lauren Kessler's "Dancing with Rose," for an account of daughter who dodged the bullet of her mother's Alzheimer's death, then got on staff at the very facility where her mother had been, so she could connect with the patients.

Those who have this sort of outgoing personality should look into working with dementia patients. If the person is not your total responsibility, thus crushing your own life, it is rewarding to find where they are still "in there" and bring yourself to them.

Search youtube for Naomi Feil and Gladys Wilson for video example. Feil is founder of Validation Therapy. Memory Bridge Foundation works in this area.

Mom is now put in nursing home, not by me!, and I find it rewarding to be among the residents. VERY rewarding.