Tuesday, August 9, 2016

What would you put in a Memory Box?

Last month, my mother moved into the dementia wing in her assisted living home. It had reached the point where she was so nervous about ever being alone that she wasn’t sleeping, was sitting next to the desk person to be near someone in the night. Now she has a room-mate, closer supervision and assistance, and more appropriate activities.

The bottom line: my mother is really happy with the move. She’s still in very familiar, supportive environs, and she likes the attention. I’ll be visiting her next month.

The director asked us to help fill a “Memory Box” for my mother, one with things that would remind my mother of events, happy times, whatever.

What do you put in a Memory Box for someone who can’t remember?

Last week, I made my mother’s rice pilaf for dinner. I followed the recipe she’d typed up for me when I was in college, including her notes, “Put lid on pan because it will shpritz out” and “You may not be able to get these brands in California, so use something comparable.” The card is covered with assorted food stains so I scanned it and sent it for the Memory Box.
Will my mother remember that she ever made rice pilaf? I doubt it. It’s probably gone the way of the gone-forever chicken fricassee. Even her famous Noodle Kugel, the one that won an award from the Yiddish Book Center, might be gone; she no longer recognizes the mug she received as an award.

My mother and I have long, laughter-filled conversations. I don’t rely on or even expect any memory to be operating: everything I tell her is just a new, funny story.

Nevertheless, my siblings and I have been struggling to fill the Memory Box. “The Photos” are going in, the ones we’ve taken every ten years of all of us sitting on the living room couch in the same positions the one professional photographer arranged us in when we were little. We’d hold the photograph from the time before so there was always a photo-within-a-photo-within-a-photo. Other recipes are going in. One Mother’s Day, I’d arranged for the local newspaper to write a feature story on my mother; that’s going in.
The Memory Box is really a snapshot of our memories. We are filling the Box with the things we remember, the things that seem to whisper “Mom” to us. I can’t hope they’ll trigger an awakened memory in my mother – although my siblings might – but I hope they’ll seem like nice things when she reads them. Maybe she’ll be pleased as if it’s a warm-hearted story she’s heard for the first time.

I made a book for her of all the thank you notes Sophie has written to her over her lifetime. They go from mere pictures and dictation to misspelled letters to long chronicles. We go through that book hooting and laughing over the phonetic spellings, over the lists of “what I’ll spend the money on,” over the elaborate descriptions of dresses and outfits. If it’s all new to my mother, it doesn’t matter. We are not making new memories because they’re gone in minutes, but we are having a good time in those good moments. And good moments are what we have.
But I wonder, if my mother were organizing her own Memory Box, what would she put in it? What would she look at in her life and say, “This, this is what I want to hold onto. This is a memory that I hope lasts and lasts.”

And then, because I’m in my Third Third, I wonder, What would I put in my own Memory Box?

What would you put in yours?


  1. There is a lot to think about here. What would I particularly want my "dementia self" to remember? That I was loved. That I was a good person. That I had a happy life.

    I have been cleaning out my basement for the past 9 months or so. I have thrown out, sold, or given away all the stuff that I obviously don't want to put in a memory box. I have decided to keep other stuff, but why?

    Does any of the stuff that I have kept go into my memory box? Most of it probably does not. Does it represent somebody else's memories, like the candy dish that belonged to my grandmother, that tells no story to me?

    If something is important enough to go in my memory box, would it be languishing in my basement?

  2. Many of the things I would want to remember don't exist in any form that would go in a memory box. I would like a picture of me with all my best skiing buddies over the years. Sound recordings of my oldest boy singing "The Star Spangled Banner" acapella at his high school graduation and one of my youngest telling me that he needed a quash quash (wash cloth). The guide books and a picture from my long distance hikes with my sister. I want an afternoon at my Aunt Roberta's kitchen table talking books. I want a video of my grandma teaching me the proper way to drink tea when I was five. Except for the guide books not one of these things exist.

  3. Thank you all for these lovely suggestions, thoughts, and emails. They've made me cry. I've learned we should include things from my mother's childhood, too; that we should try for different sensory stimuli; and (most importantly, I think) that we should include captions so other people can help her go through the Box, too. Someone raised an interesting question: would the things we want in our Memory Box be the things we'd save in a fire? She thought not....

  4. This is probably not what I would put in a memory box. This is what I did before my parents passed. I made short videos of their stories. I posted a few on Facebook for my sister and other family members. I wish I had done more videos, but what little I do have are very precious to me. We did a video of my parents trying to teach us mah Jong and it is hilarious. Maybe you can think of questions you could ask your mother and then video her answers. "What was your favorite toy?" What was the most memorable holiday celebration?"


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