Thursday, August 14, 2014

The Private Face

I have written about my mother and her growing loss of memory with some hesitation. It took me a long time to put words to this and even longer to share them. My mom is a private person which argued for me keeping this challenge private. My sister is on this journey with me and we have discussed the issue of privacy. Is it better to confront the stigma of Alzheimers by sharing one's story? And what exactly is behind this fear of being public about something that has touched the lives of virtually every one I know.

I think part of it is about our public face and a reluctance to show our loved one at less than their best, to preserve their dignity at all cost. There is also perhaps too much sensitivity to the discomfort of the external world where most are ill-equipped to deal with those who are in this awkward stage of life. Many people begin to retreat from the world when their memory falters. Aware that something is off, they cut back on social encounters. My late father also lost memory, but was not one to retreat from anything. He made his rounds each day to his familiar haunts. Some people were quite gracious as he retold his litany of stories for the umpteenth time, yet I often felt that others expected him to retreat. Perhaps they felt it was a bit unseemly, preferring that he preserve the image of himself at his career pinnacle, like an aging movie star who drops from public view to preserve the myth of eternal beauty. I knew what my father would have said to that and it would not have been polite. Sometimes I thought it on his behalf.

In this world of blogging I write about what I encounter and as an artist I go one step further and paint and talk about those encounters. I use my artwork as a way to better understand my world and to create a dialogue with others. That makes it hard not to address these changes in my mother, the person who has been my hero and role model for much of my life. My sister was the first to shatter that barrier in her blog aptly called Alzheimer's Sucks, But It Is What It Is.

"It is what it is" - a phrase we often repeat to each other. My sister and I share a pretty matter of fact attitude as well as a deep love for our mother. I figure given that, anything we say comes from a place of love and confronts the realities of life. With that assessment I too decided to dive in.

I've been asked to participate in a video that is being done for a caregiver's conference. There I will exhibit this body of artwork which I am planning. They have posed three questions to me to contemplate prior to filming.

1. What is the most challenging part of having a loved one with dementia?

2. What is the most challenging part of care-giving for a loved one with dementia ?

3. What is the most rewarding part of care-giving for a loved one with dementia?

And so I've begun to contemplate this experience. Our relationship with a parent is complex. Often we are still working out issues with them when suddenly things change and they need us in ways we never imagined. I've watched friends with unresolved relationships struggle with a sense of duty towards a parent who frequently made them grit their teeth. My relationship with my mother has always been comparatively easy. We share interests in art and literature. We have some similar threads in our make-up and understand each other. Because of that I have always felt a sense of empathy for her and she for me. That causes me to join her on this journey, to feel for her deeply when she is confused or fearful, to appreciate the parts of her I still see within. And yes, to feel the loss of what we once had even as I don't want to diminish what we still have.

Suddenly this competent thoughtful woman is reliant on me. It is a switching of roles between parent and child as I gradually lose the person I knew. We used to have discussions of books we read. Now she can't retain the thread of the story. We traveled together on many trips to Europe. Our first trip followed my breakup with an old boyfriend with whom I had traveled. In its wake I decided I wanted to build and share memories with someone who would always be a part of my life and I reasoned what better person than my mother. It never occurred to me that she might not be able to retain those memories at some point in the future. So one of the challenges is the inevitable loss, both hers and perhaps selfishly mine.

One of the hardest parts of caregiving is not knowing what comes next. You know it doesn't get better, but there are plateaus. You don't know how long you get before things worsen and you don't know exactly how it will worsen. I don't want my mom to feel fearful, to worry about this loss she lives with daily. She reports to me that she is "farmisht" (Yiddish for mixed up), aware that things are not working quite right. I want her to enjoy her remaining time, to feel connected and supported and productive. And so I call her each morning and fly in often to see her. I do what I can do from many miles away. I don't take anything for granted. That is the rewarding part. It forces me to recognize that life as I've known it is fleeting and I better do everything I can do to appreciate and support her while I can. I won't get a second shot at this so I better show up. At the end of the day it is the relationships that matter.

For me it is not only my relationship with my mother, but also my sister. I am fortunate to have a sister as a partner in this. For much of our lives we followed different paths meeting up annually around the Thanksgiving table. At crisis points we talked more frequently, but for the most part we were both busy with our very different lives. Because she lives closer to my mom she takes on a lot, a weekly visit which enables my mom to live in her home. We divide other responsibilities, I deal with finances, she deals with health. I trust her completely to always do what is best for our mom. Just as I commit to my mother, I also have a commitment to my sister. We're in this together and I do my best to hold up my end of things. In the process I have learned to appreciate my sister on a whole different level. That is one of the many gifts my mother's circumstances have bequeathed me. It occurs to me that someday my mother will become memory, made of that very ethereal substance she finds so hard to retain. My sister will be one of the few people with whom I will share that precious memory.


Sunday, August 10, 2014

Into the Wilderness

"I’m confused", my mother reports when I call her in the morning. "Where is everyone? I feel like I’m all alone. Has everyone forgotten about me? It's like I’m in a wilderness".

"I haven't forgotten about you", I reply. "Here I am with your morning call and Sally will be there soon". 

Every morning I coax her through her day. "What day is it?" she asks. Time is a slippery devil, it keeps changing, never standing still. On top of the refrigerator is a large digital display with the day and time in red.
She reads it to me. "Monday, 8:35" I remind her to take her pills and she goes to her pill box. "Is today Monday?" she asks. We again establish that it is Monday and she takes out the Monday pills."There are an awful lot of pills", she says, the same statement she makes every day. "Who is coming today?" she asks again. I remind her that is it Sally. It is a short list, the same person virtually every day except when my sister arrives. I repeat myself many times matter of factly. I have long ago moved past irritation. It is what needs to be done. Each time she asks, it is a new question for her. "I’m so glad you help me to know what’s coming in my day," she says gratefully. "I couldn’t live alone without that".

My mother is losing memory. I try to pinpoint where it began. Five years ago she was fine. My late father's memory loss was more severe and perhaps overshadowed her more gradual diminishment. She has been on a plateau for a long time, not great, but not terrible either. My sister and I had adjusted to this new normal when suddenly the ground beneath us shifted abruptly, the floor of a crazy fun house dropping suddenly, our stomachs lurch with it. We evaluate what we need to do to support this change. We worry about her being afraid, but take comfort in the familiar person still there in the middle of this. The core remains despite these changes.
I am intrigued with her description of her experience, a wilderness. I am surprised that she can identify her confusion, perhaps a stage along the way until she is lost in that wilderness and the confusion that it represents. She is an intelligent person and has the vocabulary to put words to what she experiences. I am beginning to think through a series of paintings that capture this experience and I ponder this wilderness, this new and confusing world that she is entering. What would she take with her, what does she see and hear?

We talk about her cat, a special companion to my mother. When we returned from a trip, I was worried about her reorienting, settling back in. When I heard her speaking to her cat in the night I sighed in relief. Her cat is her companion and gives her comfort, another living, breathing creature. Her cat would accompany her into this wilderness. My mother writes a lot of notes to herself. Not always logical, she writes down times that five minutes later will be obsolete. It is the act of writing that helps fix her reality. Today I reported how long before her companion would arrive, 20 minutes, 15, 10. She writes this down as if to capture time, to make it stand still for her like her oven clock, stuck at ten after eight for countless years. 

I picture a path of yellow post-it notes, a yellow brick road of sorts with her cat leading the way, her shadow behind. A thick and tangled forest in front. The red flash of time through the trees. And my phone call reverberating in waves, an anchor for her as she stands before this forest. Into the Wilderness. I often know the title before anything else. I can picture this wilderness with its echoes of noise and light, her following her cat into the unknown. I add it to my to do list of paintings on the theme of memory.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Validating Instincts

As a genealogist, I have learned to trust my instincts. They often lead me to pursue what might seem like a tenuous link to some, perhaps merely a coincidental confluence of facts, but for some reason they call to me. My challenge is to validate the connection through records to confirm that it is more than a coincidence, to prove or disprove my hypothesis.

In my latest project I was asked to identify the towns of origin for both sides of my client's family. My starting point is what I know which in this case was very little except for grandparents' names. This is a fairly typical beginning point. This client reached out to other family members who offered some rumored ports of arrival, all helpful information if applied wisely. While I use this in my search, I am always careful not to let it blind me to other possibilities. Often family members immigrate separately or in small groups so while I assumed at least one family member followed the route of family folklore, I also explored alternate routes.

As always I began by searching for census records on which tell me at least the approximate year of arrival so I can narrow my focus. With that information, I turned to which allows me to search for immigration records on many variables. After a number of searches I found some immigration records for each family which revealed the towns of origin. Mystery solved, but wait a minute. One record noted Warsaw as the town of origin. I've learned that many immigrants will note a nearby large city rather than the smaller town in which they live. My grandfather's marriage record notes he was from Warsaw when in fact he came from a town an hour away. I wondered if this might also be true in this case.

I did a search on with the given names of both husband and wife along with the married name. I was searching for Leon and Bella, but first I converted Leon to Leib and Bella to Bayla, the non-Americanized versions that they went by in Poland. Only a few index entries came up and the most promising was a marriage record for a town about 80 miles from Warsaw. The entry had the correct surname and the given names of Szija Leib and Bayla Brandel. Close, but no certainty, still very much in the realm of hunch.

This was just the index and I wanted the actual record. Records can be located in one of three ways. Some records are held at the Family History Library in Utah. The JRI-Poland site will often tell you the film number or you can search the FHL catalog on-line to learn whether they have the film for the year or town in question. You can order a film to review at one of their church libraries or if it is an isolated record for which you know the precise coordinates you may ask them to send it digitally.

If not at the FHL you can contact the appropriate arm of the Polish Archives to order the record, sending them a wire for the cost involved. Needless to say this is the most cumbersome means with potential language barriers to navigate.

The third way is fairly new. The Polish Archives are beginning to digitize records and in this case the index advised me that this specific record was on-line and provided a link. It took a while to navigate the all-Polish site, but with the year and record number I was able to ultimately locate it.

The record was in Russian so I deciphered enough to believe it was still a possibility. I decided to cross-check my translation by posting it on Jewishgen's Viewmate translation site in hopes that a kind and fluent researcher might translate it for me. After a few days I had received my translation.

To verify this record I needed to know one more detail, what was on their tombstones. Jewish tombstones have the Hebrew names of the individual and that of their father, the same information that is in a marriage record. I circled back to my client who sent me photos of the tombstones. Then I began to see how the information matched up.

So what did I find? The record showed Szija Leib's father as Mechil and Bella's father as Izak. Their tombstones showed Menachem and Yitzhak, a pretty close match in the art of tombstone matching. I then looked at the Hebrew tombstone names. Leib's appeared to be Joshua Arieh and Bayla's was Bayla Brina. I knew that Szija is derived from Isaiah which comes from the same root as Joshua. I soon learned from baby naming sites that they all translate to God is salvation or God saves. Similarly Areih and Leib both mean lion. Bayla's name in the marriage record was Bayla Brandel, not far from Bayla Brina.

My hypothesis has strengthened, but still reliant on comparable names, not a perfectly clean match. How else can I prove this out? I decide to return to immigration records, but this time using the town's name from the marriage record I had discovered. Searching with this new piece of information I found the immigration record of Bayla and several of their children. There are two pieces of data on which I focus, nearest relative in Europe and who were they going to. In this case I had a perfect match as she named her destination with her husband's name and town. Even better she gave her mother's name as nearest European relative, a perfect match of both given name, surname and town to the marriage record.

So what's next? With a firm foundation, we can begin to look for related records. On JRI-Poland I find indices for birth records for both Leib and Bayla, a marriage record for Bayla's parents and a death record of a Leib with the correct last name just one year before the younger Szija Leib's birth. Given the time proximity it may well be his grandfather after whom he is named. I order the records from the Family History Library and settle in to await further discoveries.

And there we have it, puzzle solved.


Thursday, July 31, 2014

Old Friends, New Friends

Me at 19
Recently my old college roommate was in town. About eight years ago it dawned on me that as a genealogist I was pretty good at tracking people down. I turned my lens to some of the people who I had lost touch with who were important to me at an earlier time in my life. That exploration led to a reunion with two of my college roommates, among them Toni, a woman who once knew the 19 year old me.

Back in those days my roommates studied occupational therapy and often got me to lie on the kitchen table. There they would manipulate my limbs as they applied their classroom learning to a "real" patient. After college Toni joined the Peace Corp and took off to Ecuador for a stretch. Now she sent me an email to tell me that she would be in town and would like to introduce me to her friend from the Peace Corp who now lived in my community.

As I wrote in a prior blog, my latest topic of inquiry is the loss of memory relative to identity. Interestingly her friend focused upon occupational therapy with Alzheimer's patients. Over dinner I asked what that entailed when one no longer had an occupation. She explained that the focus was on the things they they needed to do to exist in their life, but also on the things they could do to occupy their time and energies, much of which my mother managed to discover on her own. Of course I had to share my mother's story and her artistic collage creations.

She told me that the cognitive functions, reading and finance were often the first to go, but some people with strong cognitive abilities were able to sustain those skills for longer. I thought of my father, a college professor. As my father's memory faded, my mother asked him what would they do when he could no longer remember financial matters. "I'll never forget that,"he asserted. Eventually when property taxes went unpaid, I stepped in, but I was amazed that he still retained the ability to transfer money between his accounts and withdraw funds as necessary.

My mother too possessed strong cognitive skills. She returned to college as an adult and graduated with honors. A life-long learner, she loved to take in new information be it through books or experiential learning. Now faced with declining cognitive abilities, she still values being productive and focusing her energies on a consuming task. I remember her typing school papers at the kitchen table where she now does her daily collages. The same energy source fed both activities.

I google occupational therapy and dementia. Dementia, I really hate that word. As if we call someone crazy, demented, when memory flees. What I find speaks of participating in occupational tasks that meet one's need for productivity. My mother didn't need an OT to identify this need. She diagnosed it all by herself and in her "diminished" capacity she has discovered how to meet that need. And I speak of diminished in quotes as I suspect some of her success comes from the very ability to release herself from self judgment that many of us seek to achieve.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

The Process Begins

So a concept for my next series has begun to take shape, from memory and identity to loss of memory and its impact on identity. I've listed out twelve ideas. Each with a story and underlying imagery. Some I've written about in this blog, the memory jar, blowing kisses. Each has some context relevant to how one can support a family member with Alzheimers. The memory jar offers an example of assisted remembering, how we can help someone recall treasured memories. Blowing kisses relates to my mother interacting with an image of my father on a digital picture screen that keeps images actively before her, reinforcing her memory of loved ones. I work in series so I want to be sure that I have enough to work with. Twelve is enough to begin. Some will fall away and new images will emerge.

I remember a book I read on memory, Moonwalking With Einstein, which spoke of the memory palace as a vehicle to help us retain memory. You take a childhood home or place you know intimately and place visual imagery in each room, often in absurd combinations that are memorable. You remember through imagery, through a spatial sense, through the unusual within the familiar. When I last visited my mom I took pictures of the little vignettes throughout her home, the things in which memory is vested. My mother's home is a memory palace that anchors her memories. I am thinking of a painting called the Memory Palace, small paintings that form a whole, the little elements with embedded memories. Larger paintings will complement the Memory Palace.

I begin to write a grant to fund this effort. Midway through I begin to think about exhibiting this work. How will I get it out in the community? Always a good thing to address in a grant. I email several people who run an Alzheimer's support group for caregivers. I went to it for a time. They are tied in to organizations that address this issue. I outline my idea. They have seen my earlier work and heard me speak, hopefully they liked what they saw. I am asking for their help on spec as I haven't yet begun this series. A few days later they respond with an invitation to showcase my work at a Caregiver Conference, to contribute to a video as part of their PR. Things are beginning to move. I'm tickled to have an invite without the work to show.

Now the challenge with grants is timing. I suppose the bigger challenge is getting them. I've had occasional successes, but all efforts help me to hone my concept. Once I send them in, I let go of expectations. What I think is a great idea might not speak to them. I don't let my sense of self or the value of my work rest in their hands. Artists that do probably don't remain artists. A tough skin is a requirement when you lead with yourself, especially in unfinished, tentative form.

So timing...They fund as of a specific date so I don't want to get too far ahead of myself. But that's OK, I need to figure out my approach and that will take some experimentation. I don't experiment enough for the sake of experimentation, too busy trying to get somewhere. It is hard to shut off my driven personality. It will be a luxury to have the time to play. Perhaps I will use a sketchbook or small panels to try different approaches and themes, a preparatory stage.

I stop in at the art store and buy inexpensive papers and surfaces on which to experiment. I look for semi-translucent qualities, things that suggest holes, lend themselves to layering. Memory is layered, elicited by a word, or deeply buried. How can I express that in a way that adds visual interest?

The topic of the Artists' Lab next year is water. That seems to fit with memory. Memories submerge, bubble up, flow. There is a fluidity to memory. Perhaps there is a way to connect these concepts.

So this is my process, how things come to be. My thinking side explores a framework, then hands it over to my creative side to flesh out. Then the thinking side comes back to build a structure and narrative around the artwork. This duality is both blessing and curse. My challenge is always in knowing how to shift between modalities, how to let each complement the other rather than block.





Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Birthing a Concept

I've been thinking about a new series of paintings and it occurred to me that it would be interesting to trace its development within this blog. There is a process by which work develops, from concept to execution. By the time I look back on it, it feels rather magical. "How did this happen?" I wonder. I hesitate a bit to report on its beginnings, thinking perhaps I should "knock on wood" lest I jinx it, but then you will have a glimpse into one of the false starts that are also part of the process.

First I look for a topic that inspires me, encourages dialogue within a larger community and lends itself to a visual medium. I don't want to just paint pretty pictures for people to hang on their wall. There has to be more to it for it to sustain my interest.

The concept is the hardest step. I don't always know what comes next, but I've learned that each body of work births the next. I often look back to look forward, to find the patterns that will take me to my next step. In 2007 I began with a series on family history. Gold metallic paint and language were my approach, layering with glints of what was hidden, heavily figurative. Text, always text accompanies my work, stories embedded and in this case words also embedded.

Language became my stepping stone to the next series. Off I went to Lithuania to study Yiddish in hopes of using it in my artwork. Along the way I was struck with the silence about the Holocaust and did a series on the silence surrounding it, using language and collage-like imagery. Less figurative, a departure. Stories of murder, silence, memory.

The Holocaust, the subject on which I now balanced, finding my footing on this new stepping stone, stepping carefully, gingerly. Off to Poland followed by a series on the former Jewish community of my ancestral town. In the style of a pinhole camera, small, figurative, limited palette paintings edged with darkness. Together they formed a larger whole. A lost community.

Community my new stepping stone. From that lost Polish community to my own Twin Cities Jewish community. Identity and legacy, the theme. I interviewed Jewish elders. Where did they come from? Who were they? What made them Jewish? What was their legacy to subsequent generations? Once again collage-like imagery to capture the depth of story, Each painting, a new experiment growing out of story. I found I preferred larger imagery, fewer details, a strong focal point. Each painting captured memories, a time capsule of stories.

And now I perch on two stepping stones, one a continuation of memories, stories sourced by interview, the other the Holocaust, I paint the Holocaust stories of a close friend, a survivor from my grandfather's Polish town. How do you paint stories of horror, of fear?  You find the human response, how people preserve their humanity in the face of horror. In this case the relationship with her mother became the story. Simplified forms, figurative, a connecting narrative, limited palette. Each memory vividly expressed. Together they form her identity, her sense of obligation to tell the story for those who can't.

If memory and identity are connected, what happens when we lose memory? Do we lose ourselves? My mother in her 80's is losing memory, but I still see her, the person inside this new self. Her identity seems intact, a reader even if she no longer reads, a lover of art even if she can no longer remember her favorite artists. As I recently wrote, she still retains and develops the ability to make art, creating without conscious thought. She described for me how it flows, perhaps better than for those of us who think too much. I am fascinated by this new passage.

How does one paint the absence of memory? How does one paint absence? But not complete absence, things surface, elements remain. Conversely, how does one paint a presence, but a different one than that to which I was accustom. What do we lose? What do we retain? What changes?

It seems a natural step to go from memory and identity to the loss of memory and all that goes with that. I begin to list ideas. What would I paint if I were to paint this story? What are the underlying stories, the themes that this work would raise? I paint for a purpose. I want to create dialogue around topics that call for it. What do I know about this subject? What have I observed? What can I learn? When I work on a series I read widely about my topic. My research begins to stir associations that in turn suggest approaches. And so I begin.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Everyone Has An Idea

Everybody has an idea and they work it.- my mom

My mother is an artist. She's never had a show and the last art class she took was when she was pregnant with my brother over 60 years ago. She quit when she could no longer fit in the seats. It was her love of art that spurred me on in my explorations, that made it tangible. As a child I used to leaf through an envelope of her drawings, marveling at how she used an eyebrow pencil to capture my uncle's Navy uniform. I tried something similar in an early drawing, mimicking her technique.

We would go to the Chicago Art Institute and she would get postcards of her favorite paintings, lots of Klee and Roualt. Her taste was interesting, often quite contemporary and abstract. An Austrian artist named Hundertwasser was one of her favorites. She put the postcards in a little kitchen gallery, glancing up at them as she cooked or washed dishes, her little oasis of personal expression. When we were children she allowed us to each select a plate from her Van Gogh book to post over our beds. I grew up with his sunflowers watching over me.

My mother became a first grade teacher and carried her love of art into her classroom. She was known for her puppets. She constructed them of paper-mâché with carefully stitched clothing, paws or hooves and tails.

Now 87, she is contending with memory loss. Her world has shrunk as her ability to retain the thread of a story has faltered and reading has fallen by the wayside. My mother is a good problem solver however. Her problem was how to occupy her time now that books no longer filled her days. She is a purposeful person and needed a reason to get up each morning. She found that in a new pursuit, collaging. Or as she calls it, cutting and pasting. Each morning she gets her notebook, her newspaper and her glue and scissors and begins to cut. She marvels at how much good material is thrown out each day that she now makes use of.

When she started she was placing discrete images on a page, unconnected to the other images. But an interesting thing has begun to happen. Her images began to overlap, to meld together, color and form juxtaposed in unexpected and interesting combinations. Virtually anything is grist for the mill. Family photos sometimes appear causing me to wince when she uses the originals, even as I rather like the result. I make a frozen dinner for her lunch and notice the image from the box has joined her collage. When we go out she grabs any loose paper, menus, ads, all possible imagery. She works at this like a job, focused and intent, highly purposeful. She knows what she likes. She always did.

I like what she is doing and sometimes envy her ability to suspend planning.  I would agonize over finding the perfect arrangement of imagery. She follows her eye and just as a photographer takes many pictures to get the critical moment, she just keeps producing and as you can see her work is often quite interesting. She tells me"everybody has an idea and works it". This is her idea.