What the Body Remembers

Photo: © Nadia Belalia. All Rights Reserved.

The day before Thanksgiving, I escort my ewe lambs to their own field under a hawthorn tree, safely two pastures away from the rams in rut. The tree itself is broad and low, with the shape and thorny character of an acacia tree. It’s a favorite place for the flock, and all summer they have congregated there, for shade or shelter from the rain, wearing a circle of bare earth out to the drip line edge of the branches. They have nibbled as high as they can reach of the lower limbs so that the profile of the tree is perfectly even around the edge, a domed parasol against the sky. Like rays splintering out from the tree, little paths made by the sheep’s hooves squiggle through the grass and eventually disappear into the larger tapestry of the field, evidence of their wanderings and their tendency to follow, one in front of the other, seeking new shoots to graze.

Soon, I will sort the mature ewes in groups of six or eight, each with their own ram, and the seasonal ritual of breeding will begin, timed so that my sheep with give birth to their lambs in April. But first, I must drive from our farm in the mountains about sixty miles southeast to pick up my mother and bring her home. She just moved from her home of twenty years up a mountainous, rutted dirt road to a perfectly tidy retirement home in a small town, a parking lot away from the hospital that pinned her femur and elbow together after she fell on the ice outside her house. She fell in a winter storm, and though a neighbor found her and helped her inside, it took the town four hours to clear her road for the ambulance to get to her. She never went home again. Where she is now she’s not quite sure, that much is clear. Being in the hospital mended her broken body but seriously tilted her mind. We are learning to navigate by the stars.

She fell in a winter storm, and though a neighbor found her and helped her inside, it took the town four hours to clear her road for the ambulance to get to her. She never went home again.

I pull into the driveway and there she is, already outside. Ready. Possibly packed since yesterday, when I called to remind her I was coming. Hair to rival Einstein, cheeks puffed from medication and blooming red with a fine net of veins, eyes so bright they would appear maniacal if not so trusting and kind, a smile that crinkles her entire face, and a walk like a penguin balancing an egg on its feet, as if her legs are made of wood. “Look at meeeeee,” she’s declaring as she careens off-kilter around the car to where I’m holding the door open for her. “I’m walking. Can you believe it?!”

And I can’t, really. She had her surgery two months before and the scar down her leg still looks like the bark of an ancient oak has taken the place of her skin. For weeks she slept on the couch because she couldn’t step up to her bed, hobbling out to the deck to feed the birds with a walker. This time she doesn’t even have her cane.

As I drive home, I tell her about my recent trip to England with my youngest daughter, Wren, to visit relatives, including Mom’s sister in London. My mother was the only one in her family ever to leave England, emigrating with my father when they were in their twenties, but her trips “home,” once so frequent, are rare now.

“It was so green,” I say, as we drive north through the steel grey and snow-dusted hills of a Vermont November. “The parks in London were so beautiful.”

“Were there lots of blossoms?” she asks, and I hesitate, trying to understand where her mind went just then, as it’s fall, even in London. Perhaps, in her mental equation, “so green” = spring = blossoms. My mother’s mind, more and more, hops aboard trains that run on a different kind of logic.

I quickly learned not to correct these, which would just add to her confusion—just to board the same train and ride along. She doesn’t have the same ticket I have anymore, but sometimes I can find one like hers and look out the same window. It’s like a game of peering into an imaginary landscape with traces of what’s familiar from my own long life with her, and traces of something only she sees, conjured from deeper memories or dreams. We have wonderful conversations this way, as we have all my life, and the details hardly seem to matter.

It’s like a game of peering into an imaginary landscape with traces of what’s familiar from my own long life with her, and traces of something only she sees, conjured from deeper memories or dreams.

“I didn’t see any blossoms,” I say. “Do you remember, though, all the millions of flowers lining the Mall after Princess Diana died?”

“Yes,” she says. “Yes, I most certainly do.”


The first sign of my mother’s mind going was before her recent fall and her long rehabilitation in the hospital. Without warning, she reverted to driving on the wrong side of the road. The first time it happened she was with my nephew, and he said it wasn’t as if she’d drifted across the road, more like she firmly planted herself in the wrong lane and seemed surprised when he got alarmed. The next time, she was driving alone and caused a head-on collision on the twisty back roads near her house. Miraculously no one died, but that was it for her driving.

The only explanation I had for this new habit of my mother’s was that it came from a very old habit. She had learned to drive on the left, before moving to the U.S. when my sister and I were toddlers. Although in her full life as a driver she’d driven on the right side of the road four times longer than on the left, it was as if those early memories grew brighter as her mind began to dim. I say memories, but it isn’t that, exactly. She wasn’t remembering her days of driving on the left; she was just doing it, on autopilot, as a free association. The equivalent for me was walking into the house where I’d spent my entire childhood and reaching for the light switch on the wall where it was when I was small, even though it hadn’t been there for years. More and more, those kinds of associations—the way one thing is linked to another in the consciousness, but outside the realm of logic—seem to be what stay with my mother the strongest as so much falls away.

By the time we pull into my place and I settle Mom into a chair by the woodstove, everyone has gathered in the kitchen of our old rambling farmhouse, once an inn and full of small rooms and crooked stairwells. It’s hours before Thanksgiving dinner, but everyone is crammed into the one important room, which always makes me wonder why anyone needs a house bigger than a kitchen with a loft for a bed. My husband’s brother,  Glen, wanders around, holding his small blind poodle under one arm to shield her from our shepherd, who would love to herd her into the barn and make sure she stays there. Glen’s wife, Jamie, sits down on the arm of my mother’s chair, near the woodstove, and listens to her explain why she stopped driving.

“It wasn’t going so well,” Mom admits, always the master of understatement. “Everyone was quite relieved when I offered to give it up,” she says with a chuckle. No dementia there.

The crush of people delights my mother, but also confuses her. I can tell from her face that she’s trying hard to track the conversation and figure out how all these people are related to her, or at least to me. “Now, you are…?” is the way she begins each new interaction. She wants to set the table and I start to help her, but she goes automatically to each drawer and shelf, setting it the English way, with the spoon at 12 o’clock.


The morning after Thanksgiving my husband’s family is packing up to leave, talking about how long the drive back to New York will take them. For a couple of days my mom will stay on with Peter and me, and our two daughters. I have explained this to her half a dozen times or more and even heard her repeat it to Peter the night before.

And yet, a few minutes after everyone else leaves Mom reappears in the kitchen with her bags packed and her blue parka and sneakers on. “Right, then,” she declares. “We’re off!”

If memory is like the many layers of an onion, as I imagine it, time is the outer layer, and the first translucent skin to shrink and unravel. The concept of Tomorrow or the exact location in the future of Friday no longer seem to have meaning to my mother’s mind, no matter how many times you explain it.

Back in the bedroom, we sit on the bed and I open her case, which she keeps trying to zip closed so that she’s ready when I am. “It’s okay,” I say. “I know everyone is leaving, but you are here tonight, then one more night, then I’ll take you back. You’ll have more fun with us.”

Oh! Well that’s fine, then,” she says, as if I’m telling her for the first time, and always agreeable. She keeps trying to lean back on the bed as if she were on the couch, which is usually where we talk, and so she cantilevers back, ever so slowly, then rights herself when there’s nothing to lean up against. A few minutes later her mind must think Wall again, and back she goes, ever so slowly back and wondering why nothing is there.

“Do you know what might help you with the time thing? Maybe if you hang up a calendar and mark which day… .” I’m reaching. I have no idea what helps with this, if anything.

“Does it feel hard when you get it mixed up?” I ask.

“You know, this really is the one thing that makes me feel genuinely crazy,” she says, and she looks upset, a look I see rarely on my mother’s face. “In one ear and out the other. You could tell me when we’re going a million times and it just won’t stick.”

After everyone leaves, Peter and I make lunch and Mom sits at the table shelling some scarlet runner beans I collected from the garden in September and had drying by the stove. She pops open the long brown husks to scoop out the shiny pink speckled black beans inside, and her hands work like they always did at this familiar task, without the need for thought. I think of her, her mother visiting from England and me and Kate, all squatting on the cool slate of the farmhouse porch where we grew up, shelling peas until our thumbs turned green.


I head out to the barn to feed the sheep. The chickens are keeping their feet warm by sitting on the sheep’s woolly backs, and with my arrival the sheep shrug them off, as if embarrassed for me to see. It feels good to walk, freely, the cold air slapping my face. I sled hay out to the immature ewes I’m keeping away from the rams. As I walk in their trails to find smoother footing, my heavy sled of hay bumping over the lumpy frozen ground, an easy metaphor emerges. The animal paths are a fractal of the nerve endings in our minds, some more firmly trodden and worn than others and therefore smoother and easier to repeat, and some trailing off, not quite connected to anything else. Though clearly dementia, and just plain old age, changes the rules of the game, brain research tells us that more we practice a way of thinking, or a physical skill, the stronger that nerve pathway gets and the harder it is to lose.

My mother often says, “If only I could be useful, that would make me happy.” After a life of growing up in rural England, then creating a homestead in New Hampshire next door to a ’70s hippie commune where we had an almost absurd zeal for self-sufficiency—heated with wood, grew our own food, milked cows, made cheese, boiled sap—she hates sitting and not being able to contribute. Here on the farm, there’s almost always something I can give her to do with her hands that her body remembers instantly how to do. There is a place for elders to find meaningful work in an agrarian culture. In our industrialized culture, so concerned with efficiency and safety, we shut our elders away in a sanitary place without any connection to the world of work, of weather, of things being made and born. What will be the equivalent for my daughter, when she is eighty, of something as hardwired to my mother as sitting on the porch shelling peas?

When my mother pauses, as she often does now, to search for a word, it’s as if she’s there, at the end of one faint sheep path where it fades back into the field, not sure how to cross the blank space to pick up the next. What is more precious, I wonder: these paths in the physical world that guide our bodies, like our animal kin, toward food or water or the gathering places for love, or the trails in the mind, those elusive words that are translated from objects we can see and touch to something potent yet ethereal, akin to poetry—our memory? What will we each have to hold onto that our bodies remember how to do when our minds can no longer lead us there? What does it mean that our culture is so intent on preserving the ageless mind when at the same time it teaches us so little to do with our hands, our bodies, our hearts? Memory doesn’t only exist in the mind.

When I come inside, Wren says she took my mom upstairs to help her have a bath and thinks I should go up and check on her. I find Mom sitting on the edge of the tub, her Depends partway up her soft thighs and her tights caught on her leg where the terrible scar is, which looks sharp enough to rip fabric. The skin on the bottom of her legs looks so hard and scaly and purple from poor circulation that I want to cry.

“Look, Mom,” I say. “Let me try some of this amazing Skin Food cream on you that Peter gave me.” I start rubbing her shins with cream as thick as butter and smelling like a candle shop. It stays on the surface of her skin like paint on a shingle.

She looks down at her legs and it’s almost as if she doesn’t recognize them anymore, isn’t bothered that they look like something from the zombie apocalypse.

“Now that was pure luxury,” she says. “You’ve given me a real treat, lovey.

“And here I am, looking like God only knows,” she says, “God’s last gasp, that’s what.”

The one thing about Mom that never changes is how easy it is to make her absolutely happy and overflowing with appreciation. A bright-eyed sparrow with a blighted leg who always finds the next delicious crumb. Maybe, to her, a crumb is not even a crumb, but a whole cake. I have heard, too, that the temperament one carries in the world, whether we are born with it or cultivate it, shines through when the mind is gone. True or not, the core of my mother is this brightness, a brimming glass.

When I take her back to her apartment the next day, we are both pretty quiet in the car. I miss our long talks that usually ended up with her giving me really good advice about something I was wrestling with, and realize I don’t initiate them as much any more. I’m trying to get used to a different version of the intimacy we’ve had, trying not to share thoughts or news that would worry or confuse her. And yet it would be utterly foreign to be superficial with my mom. I settle for silence and she seems content, drifting in and out of sleep. And I drive, already missing the woman sitting next to me.

“I hope you have a lovely holiday,” she says, squeezing my arm and breaking the silence as we turn into her hospital-home complex. I know she is saying it because she means it, but also because it’s what the brain comes up with when the body readies itself to leave. She is good at all these social graces. They haven’t left her; she reads the cues even when she doesn’t quite know what she’s saying.

“Thank you,” I say, hugging her. “But I’ll be with you at Christmas.”

“Will you? Oh, well then!” she laughs, and I help her to the door.

“I love you,” I say.

“I love you too, my darling. Come back soon.”

We pull into the apartments, which she can never remember the name of but doesn’t yet call “home.” “That place I’m staying,” is the closest she gets. I walk with her to Door 219 down the carpeted hall, with its photos of the farm that once thrived on the hillside where the hospital and parking lot and low line of retirement homes called Harvest Hill (honestly) were built. Her apartment is small with a grey-brown rug and a beige couch, gauzy curtains over the windows. I help her settle in to rest, make her some tea. I give her a last hug and peel myself away. As I close the door, I am hoping that from her chair, her hands idle in her lap, her mind will travel into fields she has known, to the wide open, where the sheep go to lie down when they are resting and unafraid.

Helen Whybrow is a freelance writer, book editor, and Editor-at-Large for Orion Magazine. She is the creator of two books, Dead Reckoning (W. W. Norton, 2001) and A Man Apart (Chelsea Green, 2015).  Also an organic farmer and co-founder of a retreat center that nurtures leaders working for land justice, she lives with her family in northern Vermont.

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Issue 11

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