Teresa H. Janssen , Spring 2014


I wear Aunt Martha’s shoes. They fit like gloves, which is rare because I’m a size ten-and-a-half. Years ago, you could hardly find a woman’s shoe in ten-and-a-half. The shoemakers of the world assumed that any woman with a foot larger than a nine didn’t need a half-size, as if we were anomalies of nature that didn’t deserve a proper fit. She had a bunion on her right foot. I do, too. She died two months ago.

Don’t forget Aunt Martha. Don’t forget she loved to laugh, especially at surprising twists of the ordinary. Don’t forget she loved rocks, little birds, and a perfect fit. Don’t forget it was Alzheimer’s.

Sometimes, dementia runs in families. Close relatives have three times the chance of carrying the mutated gene that makes one forget. I think of that at night. It’s one of the things that keep me awake. At three in the morning when I lie in the dark staring into the shadows on my bedroom ceiling, I am open to the energy of the universe. Once, in the middle of the night on the eve of my birthday, I felt my father next to me. His hug warmed every molecule of my being. Then he was gone. He’d been dead ten years. That’s what I mean. In the early hours when the things that cannot be seen become more tangible than what is visible, I think about death and forgetting.   

Don’t forget to make your bed. Don’t forget to put on clean underwear. Don’t forget to floss. Or feed the cat. Don’t forget it started when she was only fifty. Don’t forget she hid it for years.

Aunt Martha was attentive to details – the meticulously wrapped gift with hand-tied bow, the perfectly matched purse and shoes, the artful arrangement of blue glass birds on her windowsill, the row of beach stones on her dresser in the Alzheimer’s unit, the well-crafted will and final directives, the prepaid cemetery plot on a Seattle hill overlooking two lakes. She knew that God was in the details even when she could no longer remember what they were.

Once we talked about our size ten-and-a-half feet. I told her what an old obstetrician had told me – that shoe size correlates with the size of a woman’s pelvis. When it came to childbirth, Cinderella didn’t have it easy. We laughed and agreed that maybe it was not so bad having feet the size of water skis.

Don’t forget her apartment littered with scraps of paper scrawled with the date and time, the eight brooms in her closet, the nine staplers in the study she’d forgotten she’d bought. The day you moved her out. The look she gave you when you left her.

When we went to clean out her apartment, I discovered a closet of size-ten-and-a-half shoes, some still in boxes, seldom if ever worn. The only one who fit the shoes, I took them home while recalling images of the closet of Imelda Marcos. I had been in Manila that summer of 1986 after her escape from the Philippines with her jewels wrapped in Pampers. I had toured the ransacked palace and gawked at the rows of tiny colorful shoes she had left behind that the hungry revolutionaries had not touched. Corrupted by wealth and power, she had forgotten something else: where she came from. I kept some of Aunt Martha’s shoes and took the rest to Goodwill, imagining the delight of the women who would finally find shoes that fit.

Don’t forget the milk, the library book, your dentist appointment, the cake in the oven, the shopping list. Don’t forget to make one.

Dementia can be an escape from life. There is a beauty to living in the moment. Each time Aunt Martha looked at the painting of pansies on the wall of her room, she saw the exquisite brush strokes of blue as if for the first time. Each time I mentioned that her brother, my father, was no longer with us, she blinked with surprise and consoled me. She ate ice cream three times a day and didn’t worry about tomorrow. Sleep can be an escape from dementia. Escape from confusion, frustration, anger, pain, and the ghosts of memories. Don’t forget how much she slept.                 

I wondered how she got her bunion. A child of the Great Depression, little Martha had likely worn her shoes long after she’d grown out of them. Vanity was the cause of mine. The youngest of four girls, I grew up in hand-me-downs. In high school, eager to wear the castoff shoes of my idol older sister, I squeezed my size nine feet into size eight shoes. Perhaps I could be like her if I could walk in her shoes. By the time I realized the folly of wearing others’ shoes, it was too late. My foot had formed into a shape other than its own.  

Don’t forget when she wandered off, the time she looked at you with the clearest of eyes and asked how long she’d been there, and the day she no longer knew you. Don’t forget when she stopped eating, when she went to bed for the last time, when they called in hospice. Don’t forget her perfect skin, the twinkle in her eye, her laugh.

She was Irish Catholic. When we knew the end was near, hospice assured us they would notify the priest to administer the anointing of the sick. After her death, it came out that someone had forgotten to make the call. “Is it too late?” we wondered. “Can she still receive the Rites?” It turns out, she could. The young priest hurried in and anointed her five senses, as well as her feet. We knew she would chuckle at the unexpected, and we knew she was at peace.  

The night of her death, I was awoken not long after midnight by a sudden warmth. I felt a tingling pressure on the backs of my knees and neck. And then it was gone. How uncomfortable, I thought – not like the other time. I awoke again around three in the morning. I realized she had come to hold me in her arms, as she had held me when I was a baby. I felt cradled in her love.

Don’t forget your keys, or where you left them. Don’t forget their birthdays. Don’t forget the book you read, the film you liked, the restaurant with the pie to die for. Don’t forget why you walked into the room.

My three sisters and I took her ashes to Seattle for a Saturday burial the same weekend we had tickets to a Friday show. We walked the oak box onto the ferry, careful not to leave it unattended when we got our chowder, lest it be considered a suspicious package. After the show, we stopped to buy Aunt Martha’s favorite Frederick and Nelson mint chocolates. That night, we drank wine, ate chocolate, and all slept in the same hotel room with her box of ashes crowned by the golden hexagonal carton of mints. We knew she would approve.

The next day, on a hill above the city, the gravedigger gave us instructions as to the placement of the ashes and told us he shared our family name. We chatted and agreed that only an Irishman should lay her to rest. Everything was right that day. The November sun shone brightly, little birds twittered in the nearby cedar, the wind stilled when it was time for us to begin, our prayers flowed like poetry, and the one who helped us shovel the dirt had become like family.

I won’t forget Aunt Martha. I can’t forget I fit her shoes.