My 82-year old Mother has a lifelong gal pal named Susie. They are about the same age, however Susie looks decades younger. In fact, she is positively ageless. Susie was a fixture in our home during my childhood, and after all these years, they are still inseparable.
My Mom’s voice is strong and she is very conversational and pleasant. Susie may have retained her girlish appearance, however her voice is weak. You have to listen closely to hear what she says, and frankly, her vocabulary is pretty limited.
Susie’s given name was Mary Ann, but my Mom has always called her Susie. While she is not a blood relative, there is a strong family resemblance. In fact, she has my Grandmother’s hair. Seriously…..she literally has my Grandmother’s hair. Ten inches of auburn tresses, that were once Thelma’s crowning glory, have remained sewn onto and fairly neatly coiffed on Susie’s head for almost 80 years. Yes, it’s true, Susie is a doll.
As freakish as it may sound, dolls with wigs made of human hair were not uncommon in the early part of the 20th Century. Plastics hadn’t expanded to the toy industry, so many dolls had yarn for hair. Knowing how creative and artistic my Grandmother Thelma was, I can imagine how tickled she must have been when she was able to use her own hair to give her little girl’s doll a head full of luxurious, real hair. It was a “locks of love” gesture of a different kind.
The novelty of Susie’s hair is what saved her from the trash or donation bag as my Mom grew older. Susie even spent a few years in my bedroom with my Raggedy Ann, when I was a girl. Many years ago, long before the onset of my Mom’s dementia, Raggedy Ann made her way cross-country to me, along with the pink antique doll bed from my Mom’s childhood. Susie wasn’t in the box. I was surprised she hadn’t made the trip, but Mom wasn’t ready to part with her.
Two years ago, as her dementia started to progress, my Mom was in perpetual motion, cleaning closets and drawers, and purging clutter. Her lovely assisted living apartment, tidy by anyone’s standards, was constantly “just a mess” as far as she was concerned. Dementia patients sometimes react to the clutter in their mind, by trying to de-clutter their surroundings. She had lost the ability to recognize the monetary or sentimental value of her possessions. It was stunning to hear about the items recovered from her trash, by a sharp, honest, and caring member of the housekeeping staff. Despite all the “clean sweeps,” somehow, Susie survived.
Eight months ago, Susie made the move with my Mom to the Care Facility where she now resides. My mom enjoys walking down the hall to happy hour and playing bingo. She used to enjoy listening to music; was a self-professed news-junkie; enjoyed watching her “story” and always tuned into whatever the current major sporting event happened to be. Now she spends a lot of time in her softly lit room without the background music of Frank Sinatra or the TV tuned to current events on CNN.
Yes, sometimes the television is off because she’s hidden the remote control in a drawer and has forgotten about it. More often, it is because the noise of life is too much stimulation for her brain that is working hard to sort out things. As sad as it can be for me to think of her sitting quietly in her room with the draperies closed on a sunny day, I know that sometimes, this is how she is most comfortable. When I call my Mom on the telephone and ask what she is doing, sometimes she says with a chuckle, “Oh, I’m just awfully busy!” She’ll continue, “Not really. I feel like I should be doing something, but I’m not sure what that is. Until I figure it out, I’m just sitting here relaxing. It’s just Susie and me.” So there Mom sits in her favorite chair, with Susie over on the sofa.
After my last trip to the Midwest, I thought Susie needed a new dress and shoes. I couldn’t remember what type of doll she was. I dispatched my brother (recently celebrated during Jubilee Week) to do some investigating. I knew the pertinent info was somewhere on Susie’s body. A few days later after having lunch with Mom, he reported back: Mission accomplished. Susie is an Effanbee Lovums Mary Ann doll. Thankfully, no one saw him examining Susie, so there won’t be rumors circulating amongst the nurses and aides about Lois’s son: you know, the pervy one who plays with dolls?
I should clarify that my Mom isn’t actually playing with Susie either. In her words, she hasn’t “completely lost it!” I believe Susie is much more than a toy, anyway. Susie is a symbol of a mother’s love for a daughter. She is a link to the childhood years that are clear in memory, amid a lifetime that is sometimes forgotten. She is a source of familiar reassurance when things seem confusing. She represents family (well, they do share DNA) when she feels disconnected.
For me, Susie reaffirms that while aging and dementia may have changed my Mom, altered her behavior and the way she is able to interact with us; dementia doesn’t change who she is. Dementia has already taken much from her, but it can never steal her heart. When I look at a photo of a young Lois Ann posing with Susie, I easily recognize a familiar mannerism of my Mother’s. Her arm is wrapped around the doll, and her hand is relaxed with her thumb tucked between her index and middle fingers. My Mom surely sat this way with her children, as I have seen her as Grandma Loie sit this way with her grandchildren. A lifetime of dogs sat in that spot and received countless pats on the head as well. The little girl in the old photo, and the 82-year old Mother I know now, share the same heart as the smart, funny and oh-so-wise Lois who raised me.
When I look at the old photo I also wonder what ever happened to that cool rattan settee.
Even knowing Susie’s pedigree, it has been difficult to determine her dress size. A few days ago, my sister took a tape measure with her when she went to see Mom. Mom asked her what she was doing, and my sister explained that I wanted to know how long Susie is. My mom corrected her, “You mean how tall she is?” As my sister wrapped the tape measure around Susie, Mom again asked what she was doing. My sister explained she was measuring Susie’s chest. “That’s her waist!” Mom interjected. In my sister’s defense, Susie is a petite gal. She may be a bit short-waisted as a result of her 22″ stature.
So, the hunt for a new, age appropriate outfit for Susie continues. It will be a well-deserved rejuvenation to match her renewed importance. In the circle of my Mom’s life, she once again refers to herself as Lois Ann, and her little corner of the world is once again only a bedroom. I am so thankful that Susie and her angelic little face are still around to finish the journey. It is at once miraculous, blessed, and magical.