The Memory Caretaker

Memory is a funny thing.

You think that your memories are accurate, but the passage of time takes the edges off a memory, leaving only the soft and shining centre.

You forget the sadness or the pain that might have led to that memory, forget the joy. You just…remember. Remember it your way, and that’s that.

All of which would be fine, of course, if you could rely on your memory to stay intact until the end of your life. But you can’t. You can’t be sure that what you remember today will still be there tomorrow. Or in six months’ time.

I’ve always known that memory was unreliable. Since I was a small child, I’ve known that memory can trick you, con you, betray you.

My childhood home was a large house by the sea, which I shared with my parents, my grandparents and twenty dementia patients who were all in various stages of forgetfulness. I grew up in halls of remembrance, thinking nothing of reminding old ladies where they were going, and finding myself narrating the day like it was my inner monologue spilling out of my mouth. “We’ll go to the drawing room, have a cup of coffee, I hear Jane has chocolate biscuits today, and then the Brownies are coming to sing…”

Old ladies, eased by age into knots of aching bones and flickering memory, lined the halls and the walls of my living room. I watched children’s characters frolic on the TV whilst holding the hands simultaneously of my teddy bear and Mrs Wilson. Mrs Wilson wasn’t quite as forgetful as Mr Wilson – who thought the enemy were always coming and sometimes used his walking stick as a cudgel if you didn’t keep an eye out – but she missed her grandchildren and she allowed herself to blur the lines between what was real and what was wanted.

She’d tell me she had a granddaughter ‘just like you!’, and stroke my hair, slip me York Jelly Fruits and call me “sweetheart”. I remember that I liked the sweets, didn’t like the hair stroking, but only cared if she messed up my ponytail.

Other ladies, like Miss Flanagan, used to walk constantly from room to room, looking for help. They were in no danger, safely contained within the heavy wooden doors and thick stone walls of our sanctuary, but they were lost. Their memories did not contain this place, no soft and shining disc floating in their mind’s eye, reminding them they chose this for their own wellbeing. So they looked, looked, looked for ways to escape. “Can you call me a taxi?” “Is my son coming to get me?” “Could I borrow a car?” “Where’s the cat gone?”

I learned to gently lie to them all, the same way I learned to walk, by copying everything the adults around me did. “Taxis don’t run on Sundays.” “He’s coming tomorrow.” “We don’t own a car.” “The cat is playing outside.”

The cat wasn’t outside. It was dead. We had a car, two, in fact, and tomorrow or Sunday were always the answers to “when, when, when”.

I remember my grandmother, straight-backed, steely-eyed, in command, marching through the house and telling the staff what to do. She remembered things then – names, birthdays, children, likes and dislikes, of everyone she came into contact with. She remembered everything. She held it all in the centre of her memory – every visitor, every relative. She remembered and asked after everyone.

I learned it from her – the little mistruths that kept those whose memories are ambling away from them happy and feeling safe. It turned out to be useful, when her memory spluttered to a halt, no longer reliable, just a little faded and fuzzy at the edges.

I learned it from her – how to talk to everyone, to remember the things that make people feel special, to keep the staff on side and keep the clients happy. I visited her, broke bread, shared stories and kept her memory playing the stories she needed to survive.

I learned it from her – how to tell people that their relative was slipping away into that land of gentle forgetfulness, that the shining films of memory that played in their mind were starting to dull, to splutter, to split apart.

I learned it from her – how to soothe a troubled soul until they rested, to still the wandering of mind and hands and feet and it turned out to be a blessing.

Because she wandered at first, fretful, from room to room in her home, hands never at rest, always looking for something to fold or straighten or correct, until we could distract her. Then she sat still – looking around herself confused and dislocated. She wasn’t exactly lost, but she wasn’t exactly present. I could see her, flicking through the files of her memory, trying to find something familiar.

When she asked the questions – where? When? Why? How? – it was easy to blend the narrative to suit her, to soften the edges of a memory blasted into smithereens by time.

I told her tiny untruths, told her tiny little stories, used fictions like shields to keep reality at bay. The whole family did – all of us coached to perfection by her example, like she knew what she would need.

Now she wanders in the same sanctuary she used to stride through, which is comfortable and familiar still.

And it’s no hardship, thirty years later, to sit by her, to hold her hand, accept the York Jelly Fruits, and let her ramble on.

“I used to have a granddaughter, just like you.”

I know you did.

“Ever so sweet, you know.”

I know I was.

“Oh, she was my favourite. But you’re my new favourite.”

Oh Grandma. You’re my favourite too.