How my mother's dementia helped us reconcile
When nine-year-old Katie’s family moves to Tripoli, Libya from their farm near Bakersfield, California, her life changes forever. As she struggles with homesickness and culture shock, she becomes alienated from her rapidly shrinking family as brothers go off to boarding schools, her father works in the desert for weeks at a time, and her mother becomes distracted by the glittery expat social scene.
Post Libya, thirteen-year-old Katie is sent to live with family friends, then to boarding schools in England and Arizona. Working summers on the family farm, she sweats, swears and suffers with her four older brothers, as their parents separate and divorce.
After Katie drops out of college her junior year, she works briefly as a nurse’s aide in a convalescent hospital, where her world view is shaken. Her mother, now living in Italy, extracts a fateful promise from her, saying “you must never put me in a home.” Katie promises.
Katie flounders through young adulthood, joining a commune then marrying a wildly inappropriate alcoholic sociopath ten years her senior, supporting him and his two children until awakened by a physical blow at age twenty-eight. Briefly licking her wounds, she soon meets husband number two, a merry, hairy sheep rancher. As she puts down roots and blossoms, Katie decides to remain childless, fearing she’d replicate her mother’s pattern of neglect and abandonment.
A cancer diagnosis followed by sobriety at age fifty upend Katie’s twenty year respite from chaos and turmoil as she leaves her second husband and confronts her demons. Meanwhile, her mother begins to show signs of what will later be diagnosed as dementia. Katie visits Italy more frequently, beginning the process of role reversal which ultimately redeems their troubled relationship.
When Katie's mother returns to the U.S. at age eighty-eight after living abroad for forty years, she suffers profound culture shock while her daughter hopes geographical proximity will translate into emotional intimacy. When her mother flounders at her retirement community, Katie brings her to live next door, initiating an unprecedented reconciliation as she reverses their historic patterns of abandonment, betrayal and familial fragmentation.
As her mother’s dementia progresses and she becomes increasingly unmanageable, Katie confronts a pivotal dilemma: does she choose freedom, as her mother did, or honor her decades-old promise?
"A book I'd share with anyone struggling with an aging parent, and the memoir I wish I could have read when I was caring for my own dying mother. I'll be recommending UNCLAIMED BAGGAGE to friends."
Andromeda Romano-Lax, book coach and author of five novels including THE SPANISH BOW, a New York Times Editor's Choice book and the travel narrative SEARCHING FOR STEINBECK'S SEA OF CORTEZ, an Audubon Editor's Choice. ()
"engrossing," "compelling," and "as riveting as a good novel."
beta readers for UNCLAIMED BAGGAGE
A “Bloated Genre?”
Last year, I joined our local writing association, hoping to meet like-minded writers. At a newcomers’ meeting, we introduced ourselves with brief bios.
“I write YA, though I’ve dabbled in poetry and suspense,” a middle-aged woman like myself offered. The president of the organization beamed. “I write horror,” a gaunt goth-wraith murmured, eyes downcast. He chuckled his approval.
“I’m Kate Sheridan, and I write memoir,” I said.
“Mem-wah?” Mr. President sneered, giving it the French pronunciation. “Such bloated genre.”
There was no un-hearing that comment, the connotation of decay married to excess. It lodged and festered.
Is self-publishing to blame? There do seem to be a surfeit of formulaic addiction memoirs with their requisite burning-bush bottoms, trauma memoirs in which horrific experiences are rendered boring by cliches, cancer memoirs so soporific I find myself rooting for the disease.
In my online dating days, I once agreed to meet a “property manager, wildlife rescuer, and published author” for coffee. Turned out he lived in a shed on his mother’s ranch and rescued feral cats. His book, available on Amazon, was “How Kittens Saved my Life.” OK Stupid, shoot me now….
The best memoirs combine a compelling story with first rate writing, but if I had to choose, I’d take the latter over the former. In my writing class, I’ve witnessed a nuanced, suspenseful piece about washing windows hold us spellbound, while a predictable treatise about dating evoked muffled yawns.
I’m not famous, or even noteworthy. I’m not a dominitrix, don’t have a kid with autism, haven’t served in the Peace Corps (unlike my fellow attendees at a recent workshop). Although I’ve had interesting things happen to me — a childhood in Libya, boarding schools, an abusive marriage, infusions of chemo — I don’t take credit for them. Even things I could brag about — doing farm labor, becoming a woman contractor, getting sober — are not what I want to write about.
What interests me in this genre is the interior landscape. The stories we tell ourselves, and believe, even after they’re proven false. The slippery interplay between perception and cognition. Our attempts to create sense from the senseless, to mine meaning in the meaningless. One’s sensibility.
Now that everyone who’s ever been told “you should write a book about that” can do so, I rarely divulge that I write. Especially, that I write memoir.
“Memoir? Is that like an autobiography? But what have you done?”
I haven’t told my family that I’m writing about them, either. Whenever I’ve sent them a piece, I inevitably hear “But that’s not how it happened!”
“So write your own darn memoir,” I tell them. It’s a bloated genre, after all.