March 30, 2014 by Paula Reed Nancarrow

This week’s blog post is a work-in-progress version of the story I will tell at Story SlamMN on April 1st at Kieran’s Irish Pub, the theme being “courageous.” The word is barely touched on in this story, but it is where my meditations on the concept of courage have led so far. Right now it’s about 150 words too long. Feedback is welcome.


 My daughter Maggie and I spent this past Christmas together in Chicago, where she is finishing up a graduate degree.

Then we went to the small town in New York where I grew up, and where my parents live now. Ostensibly this was about a late celebration of my dad’s 85th birthday, which was on the 22nd. But it was my mother I was feeling the strongest need to spend time with, before that vacant expression takes over her features completely.  While she is still not afraid to ask me how my son Aidan is, even if it sometimes comes out “And how’s…the boy?”

Aidan works in retail, so for him doing anything around the holidays was impossible. But when Maggie was done hosting her mother for Christmas – a first for us both – we got on a plane at Midway, and then, after a stop in Detroit, we landed at Elmira Corning Regional Airport, “serving the Southern Tier of Central New York and Northern Tier of Central Pennsylvania since 1945.” Probably with the same planes. Or should I say Greyhounds with propellers.

“If she stumbles on your name…” I say, as we head up the ramp.

“I know, Mom, I know.” And she does know. Though if I make any tentative jokes about my own memory, she rolls her eyes and cuts me off. “Mom. You’re fine.”

My mother doesn’t stumble on Maggie’s name. She looks almost normal. She hugs just the same. My sister warned me she might cry, but she doesn’t.

The first evening, after the dinner at Cracker Barrel – my dad wanted to take us to a chain restaurant they hadn’t taken us to yet – Maggie and I help with the puzzle.

It has five hundred pieces, and it has been on the dining room table for over a month.

“We usually do 250 pieces,” my dad says. “I don’t know what got into your mother’s head when she picked this one.”

“All the birds,” says my mother.

“Yeah, but they’re in all those leaves!” says my father.

My mother laughs.

My dad needs a magnifying glass to tell his fours from his nines, and all the puzzle pieces look the same. It’s the macular degeneration. My mom has a disease we don’t name, though my dad will occasionally refer to her “memory issues” and the problems she has “getting her words out.” It’s like her mouth has become a vending machine, and the words get caught in the spirals.

She used to be able to tell all the birds apart: the cardinals, the waxwings, the bluejays. She can still with some. But soon they’ll all be birds, like the leaves are all leaves.

My father brings out a box of chocolates.

“We need to finish this puzzle, and we need to finish these chocolates,” he says.  “In this house, we finish what we start.” My parents built that house, and my father has always said the only way he’s leaving it is if he’s carried out in a box.

Maggie sits at the head of the table, my mom across from her. They are the north and south poles, my dad and I are east and west. Across the vast plain between us is the puzzle.

I’ve never been good at puzzles.

At least not the spatial kind. My puzzles have always been around getting the words right, getting the images right, witnessing to the texture and complexity of human experience, getting the story down.  Now I am trying to look at what happens when a person stops being able to do that. But it takes courage. Often I’d rather make up my own story. Sometimes I do.

My mom picks up one puzzle piece after another and tries them out, then puts them back.

“No… no.  Not there.”

I am reminded of my eighth grade self playing softball, pretending to guard the outfield. Going through the motions. Trying to fit in.

When Maggie has success, both grandparents cheer her on.

“Thank God for Maggie!” my father says.

“Thank God for Maggie, or we’d never get done,” says my mother.

Once or twice Maggie finds a piece or two in my mother’s pile – “do you think that goes over there?” and my mother is as delighted to fit those pieces in as if she had found them herself. And then, the pump having been primed, she does find a few.

My father decides it is time for his bath.

I sit with my back to the rows and rows of books on shelves that line one side of the room, as if it were a library. All my mother’s.

My dad believes in reading the news and the comics, though both are hard for him now. But he wanted to show off all the books my mother had read, so he had the bookcases built. My mother’s summers as a school teacher were filled with books; my own summer reading list was always hers from two years’ back. When they retired, and the traveling began, my father’s souvenirs were always magnets; my mother’s, books. When they stopped traveling, the books were her travels.

“You’ve read so many books, Mom,” I say as we head into the living room for the evening ritual: wine and snacks and news. “What are you reading now?”

She pretends not to hear me.

“You should take them all home,” she says. “I’m not going to read them again.”

I pretend not to hear her, too.


60 thoughts on “Puzzles

  1. Annecdotist says:

    I could really sense the mixture of joy and sadness at your spending time together in this piece. Especially moving after you commented about your mother’s bookshelves on my blog post. I’m planning a post on dementia at the moment and will link to this. Good luck with the reading.


  2. Thanks so much, Anne! I will look forward to that post.


  3. Kate says:

    Beautiful, inspiring & sad… but I still enjoyed a lot while reading & maybe this Puzzle idea will inspire me for something too =) tnx for sharing your story ^_^


    • Thanks so much Kate. It’s really only a third of the story I thought I wanted to tell when I began. Though it still needs cutting for performance. Spoken word is such an interesting art form. Will be curious to see what happens in revision. ;-)


  4. Charli Mills says:

    This brought a sting of tears to my eyes, this cycle we all go through yet none of us knows how we’ll do until the test arrives. It takes courage, indeed. One of the strongest lines is, “It’s like her mouth has become a vending machine, and the words get caught in the spirals.” I think that’s where the story gets sharp and focused. The beginning is a bit slow–I understand trying to put it in context, but maybe that’s where you can eliminate (or tighten) those 150 words. I love Kieran’s Pub and if I still lived in Minne I’d be there to cheer you on. Funny, too, reading “Elmira Airport” when my Elmira is nothing but pond and horse pastures. Good luck with the reading! You’ve got a great story crafted!


    • THANK you, Charli! I think you may be right about the beginning. I’m still not used to having so little time to work things over. Although there are many people who write on top of full time jobs, I’m a very slow processor, and I like to take my time revising. Blogging is forcing me to learn some new skills.

      I wonder if you know that Kieran’s moved a couple of years ago; it’s in the infamous Block E now. Inside, though, it’s still the same.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Charli Mills says:

        No, I didn’t realized it moved! I also love the Liffey because I would research at the incredible library at the St. Paul History Center and then go review my notes over an ale at the pub. You’re right–blogging helps. It also helps to hone “voice” which I think is a writer’s best asset. Each voice is unique in how we tell our stories. You have a good one! Come practice flash with us, too–it helps you to write tight and fast! :-)


  5. This was really beautiful and moved me. I don’t even have words left. Great work, good luck reading it. I know it will be well-loved. :)


    • Thanks so much, Crystal! And read it I probably will, though the best stories, I find, are the ones I tell without paper between me and the audience. Lately I just don’t have time for that part of the process, but I’m grateful to have energy left for writing outside of the day jobs.


  6. segmation says:

    What a moving blog! Life can be one big puzzle!


  7. Like puzzling different lives together creatin family


  8. Very moving piece, Paula; the tone is quite a poignant one. Your account zoomed(!) me back into memories with my mom. Dancing with any form of dementia, at any level, is tough. Funny, my most peaceful times during mother-sitting came while doing jigsaw puzzles as my mom read to me – in garbled language – from The Bobbsey Twins. We were both so content at that time. You got me, deeply moved, when I read, first: she pretends not to hear me. Then, I pretend not to hear her, too. I have no doubt that you’ll find your way into editing out those 150 words.


    • Thank you, Doreen. I did, in fact, get that 150 out, and the story won second place at the slam. Because this is a blog about writing practice and performance, I’ll probably end up posting the second version, either in written form or as performed, and discussing the process of making those changes. It is interesting that the book my mom enjoyed best most recently was one we read at the same time, 1000 miles apart – A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Which (sigh) is very much about reading and writing stories.


  9. Reblogged this on Books Are My Thing and commented:
    My recently-passed grandmother suffered from dementia, and while we miss her greatly we were all somewhat thankful that she left this world with her mind still intact enough to know who we were. Dementia and Alzheimer’s are often hereditary, and one of the greatest fears of my life is that I will someday be diagnosed the same way. The thought of one day never reading again, something I’ve loved all my life, is gut-wrenching.


    • Yes, my mother’s mother had it too, and the genetic implications are not lost on me. One of the most difficult things about this is that she knows quite intimately what is happening to her. The second most difficult thing, possibly, is putting my own fear aside to pay complete attention to where she is and what she needs from me now.


      • I don’t think my grandma always understood was what happening, which often made it harder when she got angry about something because she couldn’t follow a sequence of thoughts about it. It was hard for me to be there with her as a granddaughter, so I can only imagine the difficulty of being there as a daughter. A wise woman once told me that mental diseases such as these often hurt the family far more than the individual, and I definitely agree with her. Sending strength and courage your way my friend, and thank you for sharing your struggles with the world.


      • I’m not sure my parents would thank me, Krystal, but it’s the way I process experience and try to find meaning in it, and it seems to be helpful to others. Thank you for taking the time to respond, and keeping reading your heart out.


  10. What a wonderful story!


  11. sschroth53 says:

    Hello I nominated you for the Liebster Award


    • Sam that is very kind of you, but I’ve already been nominated for the Liebster Award by another blogger, the lovely Nillu Nasser Stelter (http://nillunasserstelter.com/) and am already committed to answering her questions. I am, however, looking forward to reading your blog.


      • sschroth53 says:

        Congratulations on already being nominated! :) Thank you so much for following my blog and I am glad you are looking forward to reading my blog. I am looking forward to reading more of your blog as well :)


  12. rohitmaiya says:

    It was very nice to read. I hope you all keep meeting more often.


  13. mishradeepak143 says:

    very nice…………………


  14. This was beautiful and inspiring. I have a family member battling with dementia so this really hit home with me. Thank you so much for writing this.


  15. socialbridge says:

    Thanks so much for sharing this beautifully written, loving, poignant post. It brings me back to times well spent with my late parents ~ times when my father had ‘memory issues’ and my mother was physically frail but still full of poetry and hope. In a strange way, they were the best of times and what I would give to be able to spend time with them again now.


    • I know what you mean, Jean. My parents and I have had a lot of conflict over the years – my dad and I in particular. When you see that all too soon there will be no opportunity even for friction, it puts a lot of things in perspective. I am trying to make each moment count. Thanks for stopping by.


  16. Amlakyaran says:

    very nice post…


  17. spikey1one says:

    Its funny (weird), now I’m old, I fear dementia, more than death. Not for me, but for those around me.
    Love the story.


  18. I really, really enjoyed this read Paula – it is lovely and so well written. I love puzzles and it reminds me of Christmas one year when I wouldn’t share my puzzle with my Uncle! He died in the April that year and I so wish I had. Thank you for your generosity in sharing on PoCoLo and thank you for linking too :) x


    • Thank you, ma’am. (What do you prefer – Vic? Vicky? Victoria?) A week from today I’ll be visiting there, and I hear my sister bought them another 500 piecer. I wish my daughter were coming with. ;-) Thank you for reading and commenting on all of us. That’s quite a generous act in itself.


  19. MagicMom says:

    Oh, that hurt. It reminds me of my own mother.


    • I’m sorry it was a painful reminder. I’m glad you stopped by, though. And I love your picture of Savannah in the drawer. ;-)


      • MagicMom says:

        That Savannah…she is just so photogenic! All my kids are, actually. They get it from their mom. :D

        That was a beautifully written piece.

        There were times with my mom that we just had to laugh though. Hubs and I were watching a 60 minute thing about a woman who’s job is only to train for the Boston marathon. At one point she said that when her legs start getting fatigued she talks to them. Rick and I just looked at each other and had to grin. Mom used to talk to her legs like they were people. She would pat her leg and ask if it wanted coffee. So…there were moments……sometimes you just have the option of either laughing or crying and you just have to make a choice.


      • MagicMom says:

        EDIT! “WHOSE”! Not “who’s!”


  20. […] after one of my posts, Puzzles, was selected to be promoted on Word Press, several people nominated me I had never heard of […]


  21. […] story, Puzzles was selected to be featured on Freshly Pressed. That resulted in a lot of attention, as you can […]


  22. […] favorite reads on that blogging platform. The post of mine that caught one editor’s attention, Puzzles, was about trying to come to terms with my mother’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis. The week I was […]


  23. Norah says:

    Hi Paula, This is such a sad but touching story. The love is tangible. I’m so pleased that Anne Goodwin linked to it in her recent post. I get that it is about courage; coping for all family members requires a special kind of strength – and love. Thank you for sharing your story. :)


    • Thank you, Norah. That’s very kind. There’s an update to that story coming soon. Usually WordPress notifies me when someone links to a post, but I may have been too busy this week to see the email – I will have to check Anne’s blog out.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Norah says:

        I think WordPress may only do that with WordPress blogs and Anne is not with WordPress. I look forward to the update. I hope I don’t miss it as I am on holidays at the moment.


  24. This is so moving Paula…. i’ve read it before..it bought tears to my eyes then, and has again this evening. I’m not sure why I never commented on it the first time round..perhaps I planned to come back and then, well, you know.

    You paint such a beautiful scene, of family, love, togetherness, understanding, compassion – the sadness is the Elephant in the room, so to speak, the rest is bigger than the Elephant!

    Bless you and yours my friend – your warmth, and theirs, shines through!

    Kimmie x


  25. […] “Puzzles” was also about my parents and how they are coping with my mother’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis. The similarity in theme to “Forgotten is Forgiven” is not a coincidence. The same editor picked both pieces. This phenomenon is not something I’ve seen referred to by others who have had a repeat pressing, but it makes sense. Editors are readers first. They come back for more of what they like. […]


  26. […] My first Freshly Pressed post, “Puzzles,” was a story I was getting ready to tell on stage at a story slam. The traffic boost was […]


  27. What a colorful story, engaging and touching and beautiful…


  28. Donna says:

    That was a lovely read although touching and a little sad. I guess all of us can relate to the ageing process one way or another. Well deserved on getting freshly pressed.


  29. […] – and the second post on aging. As regular readers will know, my mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease in 2012. Each visit home is a new encounter with that shifting […]


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