The wintered leaf

“In a Wonderland they lie, Dreaming as the days go by, Dreaming as the summers die: Ever drifting down the stream – Lingering in the golden gleam – Life, what is it but a dream?”  – Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass

Yvonne Lee

My mother is dying today. She is reposing, half-seated on “the community’s” divan, twitching and fidgeting, the vapors of her life coalescing, escaping in small electrical bursts. Utterances, half-heard under her breath, relay the signs of her ascension. Watching her now, knowing that she is treading her way through the muddy reeds outside Elysium, is gut-wrenching. It breaks my heart that she has been dealt this terrible curse of dwindling.[1] She is, after all, a witch of sorts.

But hold your pitchforks! I call my mother a witch only out of the deepest respect, reverence, and love. Her devilish children and New England roots bestowed this title on her, a name of which she spoke with wry pride and amused regard. She would half-smile at any of our ancestry that might bring her closer to Prince Harry and the old royal gang. Her indulgence was only a passing one for her many Revolutionary War patriot forebears – for it seems mother’s family contained as many Loyalists as Yankee-Doodlers. No, it was her ties to Rebecca Nurse, Martha Carrier, Susannah North, and Rachel Varney that piqued her interest in her son’s genealogical exploits. This is a woman who schooled her children by reading Through the Looking Glass to them at the earliest of ages – as only the true believer would.[2]

With her parents, Frank White Lee and Alta Violet Sage, ca. 1939.

She’s not as powerful a witch as some before her have been. She’s no sister in spirit or blood to Elphaba – that seems certain.[3] Even if sympathetic to the cause, her views would never allow for such a garish display, and she certainly would never have kept anyone’s little dog from them. And while it was true that several of her cousins were as resplendent as Miss Margaret Hamilton, she and they had been shown to be nothing but distant kin.[4]

No, she has always been an old school sort of witch, a herder of cats or children, of all small creatures. Her powers were those you might find in the sleepy sunlight of a quiet lea rather than by waters roiled in a tempest.

As her son, and as someone who might have (or should have) known things about her, I can honestly say I never saw her use her powers against good or for ill gain. (Though she did disapprove of a couple of my girlfriends who met with peculiar fates…) Rather, she would spell bind you with laughter, anyone who might come a-calling to her kitchen, making all the smallish sorts of things appear quite grand. She delighted in taking the most humble object and making it somehow holy. She did this not to make the ordinary extra-ordinary, but to make it beautiful and special in and of itself.

The mischievous grandmother

I once watched her bewitch the children into hanging a braided pretzel onto the bottom of a lantern fixture (as if in jest), allowing the simplicity of such a non-act to become extraordinary. Somehow she could make the object and the act meaningful, and, no matter how absurd, a special thing. As I recall, the children never touched the braided pretzel as it hung from that light fixture, never bothering it once. Instead they looked upon it in awe, and there it remained untouched until it crumbled into dust one fine spring day.

No, her magic was made of smiles and laughs, of painted ceramic figurines, and the proper use of molasses in any spell.

These last few years she has borne a Scarlet Letter A(for Alzheimer’s Disease) as bravely as anyone who might battle the memory disease. Even one with the witch’s blood could not triumph over such a terrible curse. She’s struggled, of course, with all the phases of denial and grief. “My brain doesn’t work…” became her catch phrase, or, “Do I know you?” when she cautiously answered the telephone. It has robbed her, and cheated the rest of us. It begs questions of evolution as to what one woman, simple and sweet, could have ever done to deserve such a wicked fate. In the end there are no answers to these questions, just the wintered leaf of her spirit as it moves on to the next part of her journey.

Her powers were those you might find in the sleepy sunlight of a quiet lea rather than by waters roiled in a tempest.

I am the selfish first child. Along with my siblings, any rules might be broken to save our mother. Indeed, we might not be above the sacrifice of seven goats (kidding here) or the drinking of any proper concoction of molasses to save her from this evil fate. For me, my sisters, for her husband and grandchildren, for the great-granddaughters who will grow up and not learn some of the finer spells and ways of marveling that we are at once blessed with and cheated of – we begin the process of our mourning.

Her disease has imbued itself on my family’s future. However futures can be replaced, pasts cannot. This disease has stolen our mother’s past, a past she can no longer share with any of us. In the end, it will be the loss of her and who she was that will ultimately cost us more than we would have ever been willing to pay.

Author’s note: Yvonne Lee, Mrs. Edmund Guerry, passed away quietly 24 January 2018 after a long, hard-fought battle against Alzheimer’s Disease.

 

Notes

[1] Cassandra Burrell, “Elderly Cope With the Dwindles,” The Los Angeles Times, 18 June 1995.

[2] Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass – and What Alice Found There (1871).

[3] Gregory Maguire, The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West (New York: Harper Collins, 1995). “Elphaba Thropp” is a character in that novel.

[4] Margaret Brainard Hamilton (1902–1985), the “Wicked Witch of the West” in The Wizard of Oz (1939), an alleged ninth cousin.

Jeff Record

About Jeff Record

Jeff Record received a B.A. degree in Philosophy from Santa Clara University, and works as a teaching assistant with special needs children at a local school. He recently co-authored with Christopher C. Child, “William and Lydia (Swift) Young of Windham, Connecticut: A John Howland and Richard Warren Line,” for the Mayflower Descendant. Jeff enjoys helping his ancestors complete their unfinished business, and successfully petitioned the Secretary of the Army to overturn a 150 year old dishonorable Civil War discharge. A former Elder with the Mother Lode Colony of Mayflower Descendants in the State of California, Jeff and his wife currently live with their Golden Retriever near California’s Gold Country where he continues to explore, discover, and research family history.

35 thoughts on “The wintered leaf

  1. Jeff,
    So sorry for the loss of your mother, and the infinite small losses of her personality along the way in this terrible disease. All of us coping with Alzheimer’s in our family will remember this lovely tribute that you have composed.

  2. I’m so sorry for your loss. As a descendant of Rebecca Nurse myself, I like to think that whatever it was that singled her out of the crowd in Salem passed down to all of us in some granddaughterly, witchy way. It sounds like your mother was one of the best of us.

  3. Condolences for your loss. In time you will find comfort in keeping her memories alive by writing and story-telling to those younger generations.

  4. What a wonderful tribute to your mother — the loss of a mother is like no other. I hope you find comfort in the wonderful memories you have stored of this special lady.

  5. That was a great tribute to your mom Jeff. Perfect. You were very eloquent with your words as usual. My prayers are with you and your family

  6. Lovely article… it is my mother’s 92 birthday today and she is still on her long, hard road of Alzheimer’s. May you and yours find peace.

  7. Alzheiner’s is a terrible disease. My condolences on your loss, which of course is very personal and yet known to many who have said those long good byes. May your memories not only sustain you, but also be shared for generations to come.

  8. My condolences on the loss of your mother to this horrible disease. My husband of 63 yrs and I are traveling this road together, as he was diagnosed in April 2016, and is now in a nursing home. He still knows us but is unable to do anything except feed himself. Your mother was a great inspiration and I’m sure was one of the influences on you to search for other family members. What a great memory for your descendants.

  9. What a beautiful tribute – thanks for sharing it with us. Prayers for you and your family for healing and comfort. I also lost my mother to Alzheimer’s and it was a difficult journey.

  10. Amazing tribute to your Mom! My brothers and I lost our Mom to same malady in 2011 so know the long, painful decline of the person you call Mom. My mom’s family was from WMass so we talked about different history, but don’t worry she was a Putnam by choice whose husband, my Dad, descended from the Salem Putnams and even a couple of the victims like Rebecca Nurse, Mary Estey, and Susannah Martin. Our family is still interested in all the continuing new discoveries about the Salem incident.

  11. So sorry for your loss… reminds me of my motherʻs challenge with dementia… a long, lonely journey… may your mother rest in peace and aloha…

  12. I am so very sorry for your losses. First the gradual loss of the personality of the spirited and magical lady your wrote of and secondly for the loss of her physical self. My Daddy also suffered from Alzheimer’s Disease, this cruel thief that steals a persons mind causing pain to both the sufferer and those who love them. May you find comfort and healing in your treasured memories of her.

  13. With your mother’s Alzheimer’s disease your mourning began long ago, I’m certain. It’s a vicious, cruel fate for all concerned. Thank you for sharing a bit of your mother with us, your readers and fellow witch-lovers and seekers. RIP Yvonne Lee Guerry

  14. Please accept my deepest sympathy, Jeff, and know that I really do sympathize, having lost my mother to Alzheimer’s in 2005, and my father (to pneumonia) on December first (the day before my 55th birthday). Becoming accustomed to the new reality is difficult, but it does get easier with time. Know my thoughts and prayers are with you and your family, and with your mother. That was a beautiful tribute you wrote.

  15. Jeff, that was a beautiful & insightful look at your mom. My heart goes out to all of you at her loss. She is finally at peace & her memories are restored again. May she rest in peace.

  16. What a beautiful tribute to your Mom! Thank you Jeff, from those of us who have loved our own witches. May you take comfort in those memories. We ARE our past, and the sum of all those who have gone before us.

    Her Kind
    Anne Sexton, 1928 – 1974

    I have gone out, a possessed witch,
    haunting the black air, braver at night;
    dreaming evil, I have done my hitch
    over the plain houses, light by light:
    lonely thing, twelve-fingered, out of mind.
    A woman like that is not a woman, quite.
    I have been her kind.

    I have found the warm caves in the woods,
    filled them with skillets, carvings, shelves,
    closets, silks, innumerable goods;
    fixed the suppers for the worms and the elves:
    whining, rearranging the disaligned.
    A woman like that is misunderstood.
    I have been her kind.

    I have ridden in your cart, driver,
    waved my nude arms at villages going by,
    learning the last bright routes, survivor
    where your flames still bite my thigh
    and my ribs crack where your wheels wind.
    A woman like that is not ashamed to die.
    I have been her kind.

    1. What a perfect poem to complement Jeff’s lovely tribute! My condolences, Jeff; Alzheimer’s is so very cruel, turning my own brilliant grandmother, who graduated from UCLA at 19 and was in charge of everything, into a mere shadow of herself. I’m so sorry that your mother and your whole family had to travel that road.

  17. Thank you for this lovely tribute to your mother from a fellow California Gold Rush area resident. A beautiful, heartfelt piece of prose. I still miss my wonderful mother every day, never mind that she has been gone for 23 years.The grief has diminished, but the memories are as real as yesterday. Sincere condolences.

  18. It is a terrible thing to watch a once vibrant person slip away and die. My mom had Alzheimer’s and unfortunately she knew it. She fought to hold on to everything she had ever known and/or loved. She was a nurse and knew all the signs. On her last visit to the doctor she told hime she was dying and that she was sorry they could not continue their friendship. On the way home she asked me what the date was. August 1st. I knew she was thinking in her mind that my brother had suffered a devastating accident and was paralyzed from that day forward and that my father had died on the same day, 12 years later and that my husband and I lost a child, again 8 years later….August 10th. She wanted to die on that day. I could see it in her eyes. She did not but it was agony knowing that she WANTED to die and end this horrible disease. It’s so sad.
    Nothing can replace your mom but keep the sweet memories near. My deepest sympathies to you and your family.

  19. “Watching her now, knowing that she is treading her way through the muddy reeds outside Elysium, is gut-wrenching.” What a stunningly evocative piece of writing! And an absolutely beautiful tribute to your mother.

  20. A wonderful and very moving tribute beautifully written. My wife, who died almost exactly eight years ago after 57 years of marriage, retained her memory and sense of humor to the very last day, literally. Her ancestry got me interested in genealogy. Her Salem witchcraft connections were many, including Chandlers, Abbots, Fryes, Ingalls, Allens, Asletts, Carrriers, Parkers, Cogswells, Emersons, Hawkes, Hathornes, and so on–as is the case with many New Englanders. What a way to get children interested in history. May your memory of your mother carry you a long way.

  21. A beautifully written tribute to a lovely woman. Blessings to you and your family at this sad loss from this devastating disease.

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