Without Words

If I picked one thing to represent my mother, it would be the maroon patterned tote bag of library books she always had hanging from a doorknob. There were always several novels in it, because she’d need a number of books to get through three weeks between visits. It was conveniently placed to be visible from her chair in the living room and handy for grabbing as she went out the door.

My father was a collector of books. He owned far more than he ever read. We had rows of bookcases to house them. But Mom only collected volumes for reference, including an encyclopedia she won by submitting a word puzzle to a game show called You Don’t Say! back in the ‘60s. The ones she read for pleasure always came from the library.

My mother was a collector of words. She did crossword puzzles and was a whiz at Scrabble. We had an unabridged dictionary on top of one of the bookshelves and we learned to use it early and often.

Throughout my childhood, Mom read. She read to us when we were little and she read nonfiction to learn, but for herself, she read mysteries. She did six people’s laundry on an old machine where you had to move the clothes from the washer to the spinner. She cooked meat and potatoes for my father most nights, but experimented with quiche, boxed pasta, and even soybean burgers out of Diet for a Small Planet. She sewed and mended, did mountains of dishes, cleaned a bit, but through it all you might find her surrounded by folded piles of laundry with a book in her hand.

As we grew older and moved away, she had more time to read. By the time she was living alone, when we only came back to visit, she read so many mysteries, so quickly, that she sometimes found herself a chapter into a book she’d already read. So, she started a list of all the ones she had read and updated it regularly. Then she’d take the list to the library with her to check before she brought more home.

So, it was a surprise when we found the tote bag empty.


In the doctor’s office, she answered all the questions correctly. She knew where she was and why she was here. She told the date, the time and who the president was. She recognized all the people around her.

How could I explain my concerns without hurting my mother? Feeling disloyal, I started with the books.

“Mom used to read several books a week and now she reads none. She did crossword puzzles in pen. She’s the smartest person I know, and something is wrong.”

While the doctor answered in careful clinical-speak, I looked over at my mother to see how she was taking this, my betrayal.

I saw a familiar look on her face as she gazed at me, a half-smile of pride.

And I could see that she knew – she knew – what she was losing.


38 thoughts on “Without Words

  1. Oh dear! That was such a moving piece.. I had the entire picture in front of my eyes as I read about your mum, her tote bag hanging on the door knob, and she surrounded by laundry with a book in hand.
    What a shock it must have been for you, for her, to realise she was losing that which had sustained her all her life!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Oh! This was such a stunning portrait of your mother, and of your relationship with her. My only quibble was that the second paragraph should have been solely about your father, and the lines about your mother could have been incorporated into the third paragraph. I hope you’ll consider submitting this (or a version of it) to a paid publication.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. This is heartbreaking and I feel it so hard, not because I have a parent that went through this. My parents are 80 and still avid readers. But because I am like your mom. I look forward to the New York Times puzzles every Sunday and I read avidly and I just want to be able to do those things until the day I die.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh wow, I didn’t think of this hitting anyone that way. I hope it’s some comfort to know that dementia is often genetic, so your parents being active readers at 80 is a good sign for your own long-lived neurological health. I had an aunt by marriage with a sharp mind until she died at 101. Unfortunately, I don’t have her genes.


  4. I know the pain of not knowing or not finding the right words. I am glad you helped your mother articulate what her brain refused to release to her. Her trust in you to succeed when her mind failled; speaks volumes. Again you deliver a superb write … a tough subject. Merry Christmas my friend.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. That is an amazing piece and I missed reading it on the grid when the voting was open. The portrait of your Mum was right there in front of me. The maroon tote bag and the books, the drier-washer kind of washing machines and the laundry – very vivid descriptions and a fantastic piece.

    Liked by 1 person

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