When home was gone from our mother’s head, except as fragments of childhood memory, she set out walking to find it. She went at 3 am, in her nightie, past our sleeping father, through three doors, across the grass, and onto a North Carolina highway. Two kind young men managed not to hit her with their car and brought her home to a place she didn’t recognize, the retirement home where she had lived for five years.
Strapped in a chair, she angled her eighty pounds, slithered free and started home, was caught at the outside door and re-confined. She flew over the bars of her bed in the nursing center and headed for the outdoors. They imprisoned her broken wrist in a cast and tied her down.
These are the first two paragraphs of an essay my mother wrote in 1995 called “Walking Home.” She wrote it during an annual writing retreat she had with her two sisters. She says it came out in one sitting, essentially in a single draft.
Mom was still in her private apartment in assisted living when she decided late one night that she had to walk a few miles to a local park, a place she hadn’t visited in years, to retrieve a book she was sure she had left there that day. She was discovered on the highway near the facility and brought back. About a year later she once again left the facility in the middle of the night. When the staff found her, at the top of a hill behind the building—with her walker for once—she had no idea where she was, nor why she had left. At that point, it was clear Mom needed to go to the dementia wing of her retirement facility, known as the Courtyards.
Whether because of better information, or simply better funding, the Courtyards handle dementia patients better than was the case in my grandmother’s facility. Mom has never needed to be strapped into a chair, or tied to a bed, to keep her safe. The rooms are reached through a pair of double doors, accessed by a keypad code; it’s understood people lacking short-term memory will not be able to memorize a code, assuming they ever learn it at all. The semi-private rooms all branch off a large space drenched with light from windows and a skylight. An aviary of brightly colored, chipper birds sits at one end of the room. A resident cat and dachshund wander the space, accepting affection and surreptitious treats, visiting and napping with the residents. An outdoor space with raised beds is accessible to the clients at any time; all the doors lead back into the main room. Soft music from the 40s and 50s plays any time a classic movie musical isn’t on the TV. Every effort has been made to create an environment that is soothing, welcoming and bright. My mother loves the staff and many of the clients she lives with. Nonetheless, Mom still regularly announces her intention to go home.
Before her condition confined her to a wheel chair, she would circle the communal space, looking for a way out. This behavior is so common among people with dementia they have a term for it: ‘exiting.’ But Mom always walked, long before the dementia began robbing her of herself. Her essay about her mother continues:
Why did she walk? I believe it was because there is comfort in movement, whether or not you have a destination in mind. The Catholic faithful walk the Stations of the Cross, climb the holy mountain and end where they began. The Australian Aborigines sing and walk their circular journey all their lives, for hundreds and hundreds of miles, singing their souls into being. Their paintings reveal ancestral maps, family maps, of the earth and of the soul: each tuft of grass, each animal, a totem or way-station. There are no shortcuts; you must walk and sing all of the lines, to find your way home. Pilgrimage sends you away and brings you back. I like to think that my mother, far gone in Alzheimer’s, was on pilgrimage as well, though she didn’t know her ending place.
My mother also found comfort in movement. She walked twice a day with the dog, traversing a large circle around the college campus near her home. It was exercise, therapy for chronic depression and anxiety, and a way of anchoring herself to place. Ever since reading Bruce Chatwin’s The Songlines, she had loved the concept of singing and walking existence into health. It suggested a way to shape her own spiritual practice around the tasks of daily life, deepening them into ritual. She writes,
I know it nourishes me to walk and work and touch the house totems: dishwater, broom, bread dough, black dirt, seedlings, weeds. Sometimes I only pace in tight circles, but it is better to be on my way, along the songlines, totem by totem.
Mom was the person who first showed me that home is as much a set of routines and habits as it is a location. She, often in the face of derision, firmly claimed her status as both feminist and homemaker. Even when her writing began to get some of the attention it deserved, she always insisted writer take second billing to homemaker on her resume. She built a haven for her family through daily actions. She prepared tasty, nutritious meals, washed laundry, built book cases, performed basic carpentry and plumbing. She shared favorite books, music, television and radio shows, and in various ways kept us and the house in good health. Though we all loved that house, and did our part to make it a home, there’s no question Mom was the central animating spirit of the place, and that walking was vital to her work.
Walking is prayer. Walking, life flows up the leash from the dog to me. Here are my morning totems: the molefield, where eruptions of black dirt and mushroom circles make a mockery of lawnkeepers’ cosmetic hopes; a great catalpa with tree-sized branches and leaves as big as dinner plates; a many-mooded face in profile, carved by nature out of a cedar tree’s long-ago wound; beside the Quaker Meeting House: bronze Mary Dyer, hanged on Boston Common for walking her faith, now sitting eternally at worship; a field shared by killdeer and those benign monsters, the horses; the houses of friends and fellow-walkers; a continuity of school children waiting for the bus. At last I see the outside of home and then feel its embrace.
Until college brought a new routine, the morning dog walk was my responsibility and pleasure. The path I evolved overlapped with this one at many points, and gave my day an anchor I valued even as a teenager. It has been my good fortune to be able to return regularly to the home where I grew up, still inhabited by parents who loved the place, the rituals, and one another. Tagging along on the afternoon walk, as I did most afternoons when visiting, let me touch base with our shared totems and reconnected me to that anchor. I no longer thought of that house or walk as home, really, but returning to them always rejuvenated me.
Or at least it did, until my parents began to deteriorate. For both Mom and Dad, failing health began to erode their ability to do the work they had loved. Dad’s arthritis and failing eyesight eventually made reading, writing and traveling impossible. Mom’s failing memory and physical frailties attacked every aspect of her day; reading, writing, walking the dog, cooking, carpentry, gardening, all of it became impossible or dangerous. An unexpected consequence of this was the beloved home became a death trap. Stairs transformed into rickety ladders, sharp corners, pill bottles and dirty dishes sprouted like weeds, even the gas stove turned treacherous, waiting for a forgotten pot or Styrofoam container to wreak havoc. In the past, I had wondered how I would feel when Mom and Dad no longer needed that house. I assumed its loss would be wrenching, no matter how necessary. But without my mother’s animating spirit and tireless efforts, the house turned malevolent. Even now, when it no longer threatens my parents’ well-being, the house has ceased being the beloved haven; it mostly sits as a warehouse for possessions that have lost their purpose, and whose demand for attention will, I know, become increasingly shrill.
Again to my surprise, a similar process seems to have occurred with the daily walk. Over the last four years, Mom’s difficulties with moving slowed and shortened the walks until she was forced to abandon them all together. Fang, the last dog, designated herself Mom’s guardian at the first sign of trouble, and would leave her side only under duress. She was the first to decide that without Margie, the walk was simply not quite right, maybe not even worth doing. She’d drag along for the first half of the increasingly truncated trip, looking over her shoulder at the house. The return would be an Iditarod, one’s arm wrenched from the shoulder from her need to get back to her charge. Fang survived Mom’s move into assisted living only by nine months. She was thirteen, a good age for a big dog, and deeply devoted to the kind man who move into the house to care for her, but I wonder if she also felt that her life’s purpose was gone.
On my visits back to see family, I still make time walk the beloved old route, though not every day. I visit the giant catalpa Mom considered a friend, and continue her tradition of hugging it. I greet Mary Dyer in her old spot, and the horses in their new one. I pass familiar houses, filled with unfamiliar residents. It’s pleasant enough, but not the same. Maybe a dog would help, but I think what’s really missing is Mom. If I returned to live there, and took this walk every day again, I’m sure I would enjoy it. But I’d be building a new tradition, if I were lucky. The old song is gone.
I’ve come to realize that part of my trouble is, while the old places and paths are no longer home, I haven’t created new ones yet to replace them. My apartment of almost twenty years is a residence, and a pleasant one, but not home. Likewise, the many walks I take throughout the city are merely utilitarian or exercise. None of them have developed deeper resonance, and after more than twenty years, I don’t expect they will. Maybe the cause is my move away from any spiritual belief; maybe adulthood can never compete with childhood, especially one as nurturing and myth-making as mine; maybe it’s the simple fact that I don’t enjoy living in cities. (I’d say that what rituals I’ve developed here have more to do with the abundance of take-out food. Nice enough, to be sure, but not the same.)
My craving for home is strong, but vague. I don’t know how to build it, or where to seek it yet. Maybe it will form in some way independent of place. But I suspect walking will play a leading role. My mother’s example, in this and other ways, will continue to shape my approach to home. Her essay concludes:
But it isn’t enough to be home; one should always be going there. My mother is seven years dead, but sometimes I dream of attaching myself to her by an invisible line, unconfining but unbreakable, so I can keep her safe and follow her on pilgrimage. We’ll greet our totems, sing the journey, and rest at need, till we get home.