The Stranger in the Plumed Hat: Extract

Chapter I

There was, in my parents’ album, a photograph which, as a child, I both admired and feared. It showed a beautiful young woman dressed in a dark suit and soft angora sweater; a black-and-white femme fatale wearing a diamond brooch and a felt hat with a white, audacious feather. It was my mother, but a mother I was barely acquainted with; a glamorous stranger who held me in her complex spell for years. Not that I was unaccustomed to seeing my mother elegantly turned out, but this photo – it had been taken in Lodz, around 1950 – suggested infinite mystery and hauteur. It had captured an aloof, Greta Garbo-like persona with crayoned lips and narrow, voracious eyes that bespoke both hunger and danger.

I don’t know which I found more unsettling, the hunger or the danger, but have since come to marvel that the postwar Polish photographer had managed to capture two essential facets of my mother’s being. The photograph itself I have not seen for some three decades; had all but forgotten it, until one autumn day two years ago when my mother, the wife of a millionaire, came over after a shopping trip to the Salvation Army. She seemed pleased with herself, as she always did when she found a bargain. She had found several that day: a plastic basket in which she could keep her purse safe from potential snatchers; a grey knitted suit – an old lady’s outfit – for my teenage daughter; a pleated pink wool skirt for me, and – the piece de resistance – a black velvet hat which, she delightedly reported, the cashier had let her have for fifty cents! The hat was ancient and a little moth-eaten, but its white feather may have reminded my mother of the elegant black hat she had worn back in Poland. It reminded me of it, and the contrast between the two hats – the two personages – seemed all too emblematic of my mother’s mental decline.

It was l997, and, aged 76, my mother was apparently a victim of Alzheimer’s disease. I say apparently because Alzheimer’s can be definitively diagnosed only after death, when an autopsy determines the presence of characteristic lumps known as neuritic plaques, accompanied by layers of tangled neural fibers. Until then, a tentative, 90%-accurate, diagnosis is reached by neurologists through a process of elimination and confirmation of familiar behavioral patterns.

Though memory loss does not in itself signify the presence of Alzheimer’s, it is the first symptom to manifest itself. My mother did not know the name for her affliction, but she frequently lamented the fact that her memory was not what it used to be. She often forgot the names of people she knew, and of objects, and had at some point begun having difficulty recognizing people. One day, she failed to recognize a neighbor who had moved away barely a month earlier; someone she had known for over a decade. She was also growing increasingly confused. In the supermarket, she sometimes addressed the cashier in Russian; she called my daughter by my own name; she kept misplacing objects. The common assumption that Alzheimer’s victims are spared knowledge of their own affliction may apply as neural damage becomes pervasive, but not necessarily in the early stages of the disease, when victims are often distressed by the cruel awareness of their own recurring failures. My mother alternately expressed dismay at her own blunders and made light of them: you did not reach the age of seventy, she would bravely state, without some impairment. Ever the optimist, she was certain some doctor would surely be able to offer help.

I made an appointment to see a neurologist at the Montreal Neurological Institute. The Institute is affiliated with the Royal Victoria Hospital, an institution to which my mother had been making generous financial contributions for years. When I took her there for tests, therefore, she insisted on first seeing the hospital director, who would surely see to it that she got the prompt and personal attention she deserved. She had his letter of thanks in her bag, promising the best care available.

The director was fortunately away, but my mother was given a CAT scan to rule out the possibility of a malignant growth, and was interviewed at length by a Dr. Michel Aube. Though her responses and conduct left little doubt about her condition, she was also sent for an electroencephalogram, a procedure which measures and records brain waves. Obediently, almost eagerly, my mother followed me to the hospital’s basement, to lie down in a small cubicle, her head seemingly sprouting a web of red and blue wires. Beyond a glass partition, a young technician sat at a paper-spewing console probing the secrets of my mother’s erratic brain.

“Would you close your eyes and open them only when I say, okay?” The technician spoke through an intercom.

I took my mother’s mottled hand and told her what she had to do.

“But I’m not sleepy!” she protested.

I explained she did not have to sleep – just close her eyes for a while. It occurred to me that I was echoing my own young mother at bedtime, gently steering her reluctant children toward their shared bedroom. I remembered a floral satin kimono, a smooth-skinned face wearing a familiar expression of amused forbearance. Sometimes, when one of us contrived to outwit her, the expression would change into one of determined sternness, but we could always see through it. She seemed at times torn between an awareness of her maternal role and a simultaneous longing to cast off its sober cloak and join the subversive camp of the very young. Now and then, she would find herself unable to contain her inner laughter, and it would come bubbling toward us: a high, girlish sound accompanying my brother and me to the realm of sleep.

“Keep your head still and your eyes closed,” the technician instructed. “Now open them. Open.” She repeated this procedure several times going on to flash a bright light over my mother’s head. She was to lie very still and keep her eyes shut tight. “Do you understand?” she asked.

“Yes.” My mother shut her eyes and I took her hand, feeling the fear coursing through her veins.

“It’s all right, it’s almost over,” I whispered in her ear. I noted that her pink jersey was stained over her pendulous breasts; her abdomen was a small hill with a rip at its bottom. I reminded myself there were greater tragedies. We would soon see one of them in the waiting room, on our way out of the clinic – a young man who had been in a bike accident and now could not even recall his own name. My mother, however, seemed oblivious to the young victim. The tests had been utterly painless but she seemed oddly shaken, speaking to me all the while in whispers, glancing over her shoulder. She said nothing about the purpose of our visit; she asked no questions about any of the procedures. It occurred to me that what my mother feared was the verdict concealed in all those hectic zigzags on the E.E.G. printout. She looked very small, very pale, clinging to my hand. This was when the same thought seemed to strike us both.

“A stranger would think you were the mother and I the child,” she said.


Alzheimer’s disease is named after Dr. Alois Alzheimer, a German neurologist who, early in the century, was the first to document the pathological changes associated with the disease. Ironically, he died (of heart and kidney failure) at fifty one, the same age as the patient who was to make his name a household word. It is a household word because one in three families is said to have a relative afflicted with dementia – a general term applying to any progressive degeneration of the human brain. Dementia (from de mentis, Latin for “being out of mind”) may be caused by head injuries, strokes, brain traumas and infections, but Alzehimer’s disease accounts for at least 60% of all diagnosed cases. It is the fourth leading cause of death in the United States, female victims being twice as numerous as males.

“How long has your mother had it?” people invariably ask on hearing about my mother’s condition. And I always have to admit that I do not know. Where does eccentricity end and dementia begin?

It is a question I have asked myself over and over, often racked with guilt over remembered quarrels with my mother; my prolonged failure to recognize that her mind was in the grip of a cruel force beyond her control. But even in retrospect, I cannot say when it all started. Though at some point, and in certain ways, my aging mother began to seem like a caricature of her former self, in other ways she seemed almost a stranger. She had always been generous to a fault; had for years been making pierogi and stuffed chicken and cheese blintzes for me to take home. Gradually, however, the dinner portions she served on our weekly visits seemed to grow smaller, and one day, the grocery bag she gave me proved to contain nothing but a roll of pink toilet paper and a half-eaten bunch of grapes. Always a worrywart, she began rejecting trips and restaurant outings, fearing that a kitchen worker with AIDS might cut himself and contaminate her food. All this was in character. But when my father was discharged from hospital following an operation for cancer of the bladder, my once-spendthrift mother almost persuaded him to take a city bus home rather than splurge on a taxi.

Were they both crazy? Were they becoming more like each other after all their years together? Friends said the elderly often became odd and miserly. They laughed when I told them she had begun covering the yellow plastic tablecloth in the kitchen with an exquisite postwar Damask – ”to protect the newer one,” she would explain.

My father was perfectly lucid, but both he and my brother dismissed my early suspicions that my mother was suffering from more than memory loss. Denial is a common problem among relatives of the afflicted, but in the family of every Alzhimer’s victim, the time comes when everything is suddenly, undeniably, clear; when you want to bang your head against the wall, unable to understand how you could have been so blind, so cruel, for such a long, long time. John Bayley, in his biography of his wife, Iris Murdoch, writes of the “horrid wish, almost a compulsion at some moments, to show the other how bad things are. For her to share the knowledge…” What appears to be, at best, insensitivity and, at worst, outright cruelty is most often only a manifest refusal to concede the terrifying failure of reason; an expression of the bullish hope that the loved one can be made to see the precipice, and to beat a hasty retreat before it is too late. An acquaintance has told me that her grandmother had quit scolding her husband only after he began peeing into flower pots and emptying his bowels into the bathtub. Up to that moment, she was to say later, she had been engaged in a daily battle of wills, fighting what she saw as an aging man’s simple contrariness.

When my mother began to frequent the shopping mall, and to come home with stories of her putative popularity with perfect strangers, my father would grow red with embarrassment and exasperation. Even when she was clearly beyond reason, he never gave up trying to persuade her that she was merely deluding herself. “They’re making fun of you, Genia!” he would try and tell her; or, “They’re laughing behind your back!” He threatened to leave her if she went on pestering strangers, but she only accused him of perennial jealousy. “Everyone loves me!” she would insist. “Everywhere I go!”

By then, she was beginning to resemble a bag lady, with her stained coat and absurd hats, and her arthritic feet thrust into mangled, ill-fitting shoes, also from the Salvation Army. The handles of her plastic basket got torn, and she fixed them with chicken wire, impervious to all my attempts to take her shopping. There was nothing the matter with her shoes, or her bag, she would retort, and then change the subject. Had she told me about the bank teller who wouldn’t believe her age? About the ring she had hidden and couldn’t find? About the letter she had received from her sister? My aunt (a doctor’s widow) lived in Russia, and one day she wrote to say that drinking one’s own urine was supposed to improve an aging memory. She urged my mother to try it. My mother may have lost her memory, but not yet the capacity for hope. It was difficult to kiss her after that, for she often smelled like a chamber pot. My father began to sleep in the den.

One day, my daughter and I came back from a weekend in the country to find the answering machine flashing. Nothing unusual there, except for the fact that there had apparently been twenty calls while we were away. Twenty was the maximum the machine would take, and it was highly exceptional for us to have that many after a two-day absence; so exceptional that a terrible dread instantly rose up to fill my chest: had someone been trying to reach us with some bad news? Someone had, and the message was devastating. It left my knees weak and my heart pounding as I sat listening to my mother’s disembodied voice speaking to the answering machine; shouting at it, “Hello? Hello? Who is there? Who is there?!” Over and over. Cut off by the machine’s timer, my mother went on to call back at least ten times, her voice increasingly distraught. “Hello, hello, HELLO!!!” I listened to each call – listened with my daughter beside me, neither of us speaking – until the machine ran out of tape. And then there was only the last lingering signal. And then silence. Silence.

When people ask me when I knew for sure about my mother, I think of that evening: the red eye of the answering machine flashing in the dark room. But of course I had known before.

page 1 page 2