Friday, September 11, 2009

Remember the plums: A tale of Alzheimer's

I've just gotten back from summer in France. It was beautiful as always, and poignant in many ways. But the thing, I'm afraid I'll remember the most is the story about my mother-in-law (N.) and the plums.

Last year, we purchased a tiny strip of property next to our little house that contains a single plum tree. The French call these particular plums—small, yellow and tinged with violet—"Mirabelles." Who knows how long that tree has actually been there, but N. insists that it grew during the war, and that she used to benefit from the rare plums that would fall on the house-side of the wall.

As soon as they ripened this summer she was obsessed with them. I think because she has such strong memories of being in Accolay during that dreadful war, of eating whatever presented itself (it seems they gathered and ate dandelions in great quantities) and possibly often going without, she felt the need to not waste one single piece of fruit from that tree!

At any rate, she couldn't remember, ever, that we owned the property. So rather than picking the good fruit from the tree, she would only gather it from the ground. Good, very good, half rotten. Whatever the condition she would eat it. And she ate them all day, preached their benefits, carried bowls full of them into the kitchen—sometimes several times a day, forgetting that she'd already brought some. There was frequently a little cloud of fruit flies in the kitchen, which drove me nuts, or the slightly vinegary smell of semi-macerated fruit.

And every day it would start again. More plums. More insistence that we should all eat them. And always the heartbreaking invective: We can't let them go to waste! We have to eat them! (I ate about 10 one day that I picked from the tree—they are small and easy to pop into your mouth—and they gave me a very bloaty feeling, and a good bit of gas. So the girls and I ate the few we wanted, but refrained after that.) But N. continued to eat and eat, and fart and fart. She farted for days, sometimes having to run to the bathroom. After about ten days, she decided to make jam, insisting as always, that the fruit couldn't be wasted. I told her that no one in our family really eats much jam, and that they'd truly be wasted if she did that. I explained that it was better to leave them on the ground, let nature take its course, where nothing is wasted, just composted. But she would have none of that. If they weren't eaten—by us—they were wasted.

I hoped she'd forget her obsession, but she didn't, and one day, just to put it to rest, because by this time there were various bowls of Mirabelles lying in the kitchen with their little buzzing clouds, I said, "N., why don't you make the jam today. I need to get you some sugar, but I'll go this morning, and when I get back you can make the jam." So, I got the children up, dressed, made the beds etc., slowly working up steam for the trip to the grocery store, and before I knew it, there was the smell of cooking fruit in the house. She'd gone ahead and made the jam using confectioner's sugar instead of normal (it was horribly sweet), and forgetting to include an enormous vat of plums she'd left outside. When I pointed this last bit out to her, she shrugged her shoulders, and made another enormous batch without sugar and mixed it with the first. All this, she put into jars she found in the garage, which were in no way sterile and which did not have proper lids for conserving. Those jars still sit in the kitchen in Accolay, because no sooner had she made it, then she forgot and started collecting them from the ground again.

That afternoon, too late, because we needed it anyway, I got sugar. When she saw me unloading it from the bag, she said, "Oh, we should make jam." I told her she already had. She stared at me blankly.

Two days before leaving she was still madly collecting plums, and this continued on up to our departure. She insisted on taking them back to Milan, so she stored them in a discarded 6-bottle wine carton. Overflowing, the carton had to be put inside a large plastic bag, before being the last thing loaded into the car. Even as we packed the car, she was putting plums into her purse for the trip and insisting that my Roberto, my husband, lock the gate so that none of our neighbors take any. (This, I found very odd from someone who didn't want to waste. I would have put a sign on the garden wall that said, on the contrary, "Please come in and help yourself to plums.")

Roberto and the girls piled in with N. and her plums, balanced on top of an enormous load. And I followed in the smaller car.

When we got back to Milan, and began unpacking, Roberto took the girls and N. up to open our respective apartments, and the doorman and I stayed down to take the bags out. We cracked open the back of the car, the plums came cascading out of the car out onto the dirty, dirty floor of the garage. It was comical. The car was so overstuffed, and things had shifted in the journey, so that when it was all over, both shoes and plums were dropping out of the car. We did our best to put it back into order, and within a half hour or so, I was carting the plums up to N.'s apartment. I proudly plopped them down on her kitchen table, and said, "Here! Here are your plums!" And she just looked at them and said, "What are those?" I explained, adding that since they'd all fallen in the garage, she'd need to rinse them really well before eating them. She nodded, but I know that her instinct to eat them "as is" is too strong; she won't remember.

Two hours later, she was back at our house with plums in hand and mouth. "I've brought you some plums," she said. "I just gathered them in fresh in Accolay. And since you all weren't there, I thought you might like some."

And there it was. Recent history entirely re-written. She somehow, now, remembered gathering the plums, but had erased our very constant and patient presence from the entire summer. It's probably the way she would have wanted it. Herself. Her childhood. The miraculously abundant fruit on the other side of the wall. The threat of the German soldiers occupying the grandest houses of the little town. The steady hand of her grandmother. And a world, though tragic, that made sense to a child and that she remembered from one minute to the next. And we, well—not even born yet.

Or maybe it was just the lure of that perfect, simple goodness—the impossible to resist:

I have eaten
the plums 
that were in 
the icebox  

and which 
you were probably 
for breakfast  

Forgive me 
they were delicious 
so sweet 
and so cold
—William Carlos Williams

No forgiveness necessary. What is is. What was was. We're all in this together. —Charlotte


  1. that is, without a doubt or a beat or a pause, the most beautiful post yet. so beautiful, i have no other words for it. thank you for writing that Charlotte. - Janet

  2. Donna Shands11:21 PM

    Yes, it was heart-warming and heart-wrenching. And I think I love plums as much as she does. My grandmother is starting to have these "spells" and has just been put into a nursing home. I'm glad N. is still able to spend time with family and visit & linger with memories, too. You are kind, patient and a loving daughter-in-law, Bella!

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  4. Thanks, both of you. I think a lot of us are going through these "sandwich" years. Younger people to take care of on the one hand, older ones on the other. And the fear that our own still young-ish years are slipping away. I get panicky about it sometimes. Sometimes, I literally feel like I can't breath. And yet I love these people. As I said, "We're all in this together."

  5. Bless you, Charlotte, you are a kind soul.