The Geography of Memory
A Pilgrimage Through Alzheimer's
By Jeanne Murray Walker
(Center Street, Hardcover, 9781455544981, 384pp.)
Publication Date: September 3, 2013
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Award-winning poet Jeanne Murray Walker tells an extraordinarily wise, witty, and quietly wrenching tale of her mother's long passage into dementia. This powerful story explores parental love, profound grief, and the unexpected consolation of memory. While Walker does not flinch from the horrors of "the ugly twins, aging and death," her eye for the apt image provides a window into unexpected joy and humor even during the darkest days.
This is a multi-layered narrative of generations, faith, and friendship. As Walker leans in to the task of caring for her mother, their relationship unexpectedly deepens and becomes life-giving. Her mother's memory, which more and more dwells in the distant past, illuminates Walker's own childhood. She rediscovers and begins to understand her own past, as well as to enter more fully into her mother's final years.
THE GEOGRAPHY OF MEMORY is not only a personal journey made public in the most engaging, funny, and revealing way possible, here is a story of redemption for anyone who is caring for or expecting to care for ill and aging parents-and for all the rest of us as well.
Jeanne Murray Walker's poems and essays have appeared in seven books as well as many periodicals, including Poetry, The Georgia Review, American Poetry Review, Image, The Atlantic Monthly, and Best American Poetry. Among her awards are an NEA Fellowship, eight Pennsylvania Council on the Arts Fellowships, and a Pew Fellowship in The Arts. She is Professor of English at The University of Delaware as well as a mentor in the Seattle Pacific University Low Residency MFA Program. In her spare time Jeanne gardens, cooks, and travels. Learn more at www.jeannemurraywalker.com.
"Alzheimer's and death of a parent is a journey that others have told us about but few with such penetration and humane wisdom as Jeanne Walker's. Her story is a map of memory with mythical overtones, by which I mean that while its shape is recognizable, its details are utterly unique. I read it, mesmerized, wondering my way through this deeply moving portrait of a mother, a daughter, a family. Against expectation we are invited to join their hilarious, daunting dance: a boogie of decline whose haunting music persists."—Luci Shaw, poet, author of The Crime of Living Cautiously and What the Light Was Like, writer in residence at Regent College
"With THE GEOGRAPHY OF MEMORY, Jeanne Murray Walker, a master wordsmith, takes us on a journey-dare I say sacred pilgrimage-into the inner world of Alzheimer's. While Walker does not flinch from the calamities and sorrows of this journey, she also provides us with fresh glimpses into hidden joys and startling surprises along the way. I commend THE GEOGRAPHY OF MEMORY to you."—Richard J. Foster, author of Celebration of Discipline and Sanctuary of the Soul
"In a kind of family alchemy, a mother's failing memory somehow excites the synapses of her daughter's. The result is a child-adult memoir of grace, poignancy, and rich compassion."—Philip Yancey, bestselling author
"As the lively, witty, energetic character who was her mother begins to become hopelessly lost in Alzheimer's, poet Jeanne Walker readily shoulders her share of caregiving, a commitment of love requiring three-hour plane rides: disrupting the rhythms of her own life as a wife, mother, and professor, disquieting her with grief, and taxing her relationship with her beloved sister almost to the breaking point.
Yet the narrative as a whole says much more. At some point, knowing so well the story of her mother's life, Walker begins to find her crazy communications intelligible-realizing that her mother is talking in metaphors and understanding them. The farther away her mother wanders, the closer their relationship. The love between them strengthens. Trying to follow the details of her mother's life as she recalls them, now, in fragments, Walker finds to her surprise that she is not only recovering her own childhood memories but also understanding them in a new way-a set of insights ranking among the most precious of her life.
In plainsong prose evoking her heartland roots, Jeanne Walker locates the gifts to be found in the darkest days of a loved one's decline and death, a story of redemption that will inform and encourage anyone caring or expecting to care for ill and aging parents-or anyone at all."—Peggy Anderson, author of New York Times bestsellers Nurse and Children's Hospital
"Alzheimer's is a word that strikes terror in most of us, particularly as we and our parents age. Poet Jeanne Murray Walker's memoir of her pilgrimage in her mother's illness and death doesn't gloss the difficulties, but it removes the terror. What remains is a sturdy witness to unexpected meanings and beauties and even humor that surface in lives of faith and suffering. A friend once told me 'Anything can be endured if you make a story of it.' This magnificently written story is the latest evidence."—Eugene H. Peterson, professor Emeritus of Spiritual Theology Regent College, Vancouver B.C.
"Jeanne Murray Walker's story of a mother with Alzheimer's, like reports from other recent conflicts, is disorienting. How could it be otherwise? There are no "front lines," no clear distinctions between friends and enemies. How did this war even get started? How will it end-and what would "victory" look like? Maybe, she suggests, we need to see this disease with fresh eyes. "As I spent thousands of hours with her," Walker says of her mother, "I began to recover my own past." There's nothing syrupy about this book, but it's full of joy as well as sorrow. What a gift she has given us."—John Wilson, editor, Books & Culture
"Jeanne Murray Walker has written one of the most elegant, tender, and intelligent memoirs of Alzheimer's I have read. At once heart-wrenching and richly rewarding, intimate and objective, coldly cutting, and full of clear-eyed promise, THE GEOGRAPHY OF MEMORY is a beautiful gathering of moments: an artful mosaic of shards that build to a portrait of faith and hope and love."—Bret Lott, author of Letters and Life: On Being a Writer, On Being a Christian and Jewel
"In describing her mother's long passage into dementia and its reverberations through a family, Jeanne Murray Walker has given us a powerful tale of loss but also renewal, pain but also love. In simple yet beautiful language, she shows how the light of hope and grace can illuminate even the darkest journey. For many, many readers THE GEOGRAPHY OF MEMORY will be a treasure."—Alan Jacobs, author of The Narnian
"Those of us who've accompanied a beloved parent through the valley of the shadow will instantly recognize the terrain in this lyrical and profoundly wise account of aging unto death. Jeanne Murray Walker's THE GEOGRAPHY OF MEMORY is, hands down, one of the most beautiful books I've ever read."—Paula Huston, author of Simplifying the Soul and A Season of Mystery
"This book is not about "silver linings," though the author believes "the news about Alzheimer's is more hopeful than what we hear on the street." Fully acknowledging the anxieties, frustrations, bewilderment, and tensions that arise in caring for a parent with dementia, Jeanne Murray Walker manages to lead us through those rocky passages to a place not only of acceptance but of fascination and gratitude for the way that such caregiving brings her to new terms with her own memories, with the legacy of stories that are now hers to tell, and with shifting roles that offer rigorous lessons in humility and compassion. The way her own stories mingle with her mother's mirrors a striking truth about how what we call our own life stories are composites, our materials recycled, and everything we call "ours," a gift from those who continue to shape us even as they take their leave."—Marilyn McEntyre, author of Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies
"If you believe there is only darkness and loss in caring for a parent with Alzheimer's, you clearly haven't read Jeanne Murray Walker's book, which sets us straight. This page-turning memoir, fastidious in detail, delivers surprise and wit on nearly every page, teaching us about the immutability and transcendence of human personality, worth, and love. I needed this book."—Leslie Leyland Fields, author of Surviving the Island of Grace: A Life on the Wild Edge of America
"This deeply humane memoir is at once a memorial to a mother whose memory failed before her body gave way, a poignant reflection on the sister who lived close by while the author flew in repeatedly from afar, and an insightful exposition on memory itself. With a poet's eye for the apt image, THE GEOGRAPHY OF MEMORY is also a case book of spiritual disciplines taught by what Jeanne Murray calls "the ugly twins, aging and death."—Mark Noll, Francis A. McAnaney Professor of History, Notre Dame and author of American Evangelical Christianity: An Introduction
"A beautifully written memoir of a daughter's journey with her mother over the changeful, perilous landscape of Alzheimer's. The author's compassion, humanity, and humor shine through a chaotic, if not amazing, kaleidoscope of family plans, places, and emotions. What powerfully winds through the narrative is a poet's wonderful reflections on her own history and the nature of memory, identity, and self. A dazzling, engaging story of the grace of holding on and letting go."—Dr. Myrna Grant, faculty emerita, Wheaton College, Illinois
"There is so much more to this book than the subtitle indicates. Yes, it is a pilgrimage through the Alzheimer's that befell Walker's mother, told with unflinching yet compassionate honesty, and invaluable for any reader wrestling with a loved one's parallel journey. But the telling of the story involves the connections between mother and daughter, and both with family. It evokes reflections on memory, the nature of the human person, and love itself, that should endlessly engage your soul. It is one of the best memoirs you will ever read, period. A masterpiece."—Warren Farha, owner of Eighth Day Books, Wichita, KS
"Jeanne Murray Walker's loving account of caring for her Alzheimer's-stricken mother is also the occasion for the author to reflect on her own memories of growing up as a fundamentalist. She engagingly relates her own journey in leaving that heritage even while remaining a Christian and also intensely loyal to her memorable fundamentalist mother."—George Marsden, author of Fundamentalism and American Culture
"Jeanne Murray Walker elegantly affirms the value of memory while mourning its loss in her mother's life. She untangles complex threads of family, illness, and faith in a way that sheds light on the aging and dying process-much needed in our death-phobic culture."—Hannah Faith Notess, editor of Jesus Girls: True Tales of Growing up Female and Evangelical
"Walker offers an irresistibly candid account of her mother's slide into dementia and the challenges of helping her in her final days. As her fragmented memory becomes a mosaic of the family's history, her children are forced to confront issues from the past as well as crises in the present. Walker, a poet, creates a rich texture of remembered physical detail that not only lends beauty to the narrative but anchors events and emotions in the reader's memory even as they were anchored in her own."—Stephanie Kraft, journalist and author of No Castles on Main Street
"THE GEOGRAPHY OF MEMORY is as brave and poignant a tale of a mother's passage into Alzheimer's as you are likely to find. But what truly sets it apart is the way it triumphantly disproves our worst fear about this disease: that it robs its victims of their humanity. Like one of Shakespeare's late tragi-comedies, this book moves through loss and discord to discover, by the end, wellsprings of unexpected grace and reconciliation."—Gregory Wolfe, editor of Image magazine
"A moving honest, and often surprisingly hopeful account of a writer and her sister accompanying their mother as she experiences dementia."—Sojourners Magazine
"When I opened The Geography of Memory by Jeanne Murray Walker, I expected beautiful writing.... What I wasn't prepared for was how much in the book is hopeful, loving, how much, in the end, is balanced, is gained."—The Philadelphia Inquirer
"Walker's book stands out for several reasons. For one, the writing is superb. ... This isn't just a tale about an elderly parent or a frazzled caregiver. It is also, and equally, a coming-of-age story, and Walker's deft juxtaposition of her own story with her mother's is its genius."—Christian Century