My Mother’s Bookcase


This post originally appeared in another blog I write about my adventures as a non-traditional college student pursuing a fine arts degree at the University of Southern Maine. The name of the blog is mylatestart or my late start. My daughter noticed that is also reads as my latest art. How clever is that? Can’t take credit though, it was pure serendipity!

Because my mother is the main character in this post and I’ve written about her having Alzheimer’s disease on the Catching Health blog before, I thought it was fitting to share this story.

My Mother’s Bookcase

My mother, who is 88, has Alzheimer’s disease. What does that have to do with getting an art degree, you might ask. Well … in my Drawing 2 class at USM this past spring, we had an assignment that had my mother’s lost memories written all over it.

Using cardboard as a base, create a freestanding or wall hung work that involves multiple parts and the idea of the door or passage as metaphor. Along with this it should embody references, either through representation or non-objective means, to notions of change. These may be relative to place, personal identity or social history. There should be a use of symbolism and metaphor. Draw from personal memories and experiences and educational experiences. It must be made in a way that it can be relatively easily installed and transported.

I read over the assignment multiple times — the first time, I was like, WHAT DOES HE WANT US TO DO?? Second time, too! Once I grasped the concept, I couldn’t shake the thought of my mother and the hidden, missing pieces of her memory. Two metaphors immediately came to mind — a hidden door and jigsaw puzzles. I also pictured a bookshelf. She has always loved books, although in between raising eight kids and living the vagabond life of an army wife, she rarely had time to read any. And now, she might enjoy the act of reading a book, but each time she opens one, it will be like the first time, even if she just finished reading an entire chapter.

Cardboard picture frames

I decided that my work would center around a cardboard bookcase. My mother’s bookcase. On  the top shelf I placed pictures of  what she considers significant events and achievements — her marriage to my father and a family portrait taken a few years before he died.

Bookcase, bottom shelf

On the bottom shelf I created a row of book spines, some with titles that represented what I thought were meaningful memories and others with titles that represented her reality today. Not a full picture of her past or her present, by any means. Merely a glimpse.

The front of my mother's bookcase

On the middle shelf I glued down two jigsaw puzzles. Sometimes, when I see her struggle to grasp what’s going on, I imagine that the inside of her brain is like a puzzle that she can’t quite put together. When you tug on the two boxes, a hidden door is revealed.

Partly open bookcase

If you were to meet my mother you might not immediately realize that she has Alzheimer’s. She would greet you with a smile and probably admire something about you — your own smile, your eyes, what you’re wearing. In the moment, she is quite present. Before long, the signs come out of hiding. Ask about her day and she’ll tell you she doesn’t know what is going on from one moment to the next. If she and I had just returned from a long ride in the country that she enjoyed immensely, she probably wouldn’t be able to recall a single thing about it. She might ask you a question and moments later repeat it almost word for word. So many memories locked away. Hidden. Behind the door.

Portait of my mother

We had to include at least one drawn element in our project, so I decided to draw my mother from a picture I took of her while she was working on a jigsaw puzzle. About a year ago, I wrote about her doing a children’s puzzle — she was always a whiz at puzzles, but not so much anymore. She’ll pick up a piece and turn it over and over trying to figure out where it belongs.

I’m so grateful that  she still knows where each of her children belong  and can rattle off our names in order. Diane, Debi, Cathy, Bob, Bruce, Mary, Patrick and Becky. She mixes up our children’s names though and who they belong to sometimes. In our family jigsaw puzzle, a few of the pieces have gone missing.  I hold my breath waiting for her to lose the piece that is me.

Visit mylatestart to read more stories about going back to college to get an art degree.

Have you signed up for the Catching Health Newsletter yet?

Do it right now!

Diane Atwood

About Diane Atwood

For more than 20 years, Diane Atwood was the health reporter on News Center 6. She's now a regular guest on the Morning Report. Before she became a health reporter, Diane was a radiation therapist/dosimetrist at Maine Medical Center. In 2000, she left the world of reporting to manage marketing and public relations for Mercy Hospital. In 2011, she decided to pursue a longtime dream of being a freelance writer and launched her award-winning blog Catching Health with Diane Atwood.