I Meet Mary

"In her early eighties, she began to repeat herself and forget things, like elderly people do, but then she took to shoplifting from the grocery store next to her apartment building."

Memoir by Joe ArtzSummer/Fall 2016


I woke to the sound of footsteps coming slowly up the stairs. The door opened. The overhead light flicked on, flooding the room white. 

A small, gray-haired woman, neatly dressed in black slacks, a white blouse with a ruffled front, and a black pin-striped vest stood in the doorway of my bedroom, her hand still on the light switch. The alarm clock read a quarter past midnight.

“I’m sorry to disturb you, sir,” she said, “but my name is Mary Ashmore, and I’m from Mulvane, Kansas. Can you tell me where I am?”

I stood facing her, wearing sweat pants and no shirt, eyelids heavy from sleep, blinking in the light. The adrenalin that had driven my startled leap from bed began ebb. 

She waited for me to answer, cautious, but unafraid, a step back from the doorway, turned slightly to one side so as not to seem too forward to a stranger. Her make-up was on, her hair was brushed, her eyes were steady, her expression composed. 

“You’re in Iowa City, Iowa,” I said. “I’m your son, Joe.”


I had always thought, because I’d always heard, that Alzheimer’s makes a person ugly. That it reveals every blemish on a person’s psyche, magnified to terrific, unrelenting dimensions. My father’s dementia was livid, tormented, hateful. My wife’s Great Aunt Elma saw faces at her windows and heard my wife’s teenage brother singing outside her bedroom at night. My mother’s Alzheimer’s was not like that at all. That was the kindest of its cruelties.  

In her early eighties, she began to repeat herself and forget things, like elderly people do, but then she took to shoplifting from the grocery store next to her apartment building. The store’s manager reported this to the front desk in the lobby of the apartment tower, an affordable housing facility for independent living. “She’s not really stealing,” he said. “She just picks something off the shelf and by the time she gets to the front of the store, forgets she has it.” 

He didn’t bar her from the store, just kept an eye on her. He’d call out, like he would to a child, “Mary, did you forget to pay for that?” She didn’t argue, didn’t take red-faced offence. If she was lucid, and meant to buy it, she would. If she wasn’t, or had forgotten her money, she’d be embarrassed and leave the item with him. 

“Who did you say you were?” asked the woman in the doorway. 

“I’m your son, Joe.” 

“No,” she said, searching my face. “You’re not my Joe.” 

“Yes, I am,” I said, smiling. 

“No,” she said, shaking her head. She glanced away, down the stairs. “I was about to call out to see if anyone was at home. I thought I might be in Council Grove, but I’m not. Where did you say I was?”  

“In Iowa City, Iowa.”

“You came yesterday with your other son, Dennis, and his wife, Jean.” 

“Well, you have the names right,” she said. “I do have a Dennis and a Joe, but you don’t look like my Joe.” 

“I am your Joe, and I live here in Iowa City with my wife Cherie, and my daughters, Lana and Emily.” I spoke in measured tones, sensing it was important to focus all my attention on my mother, even though I stood shirtless, feeling exposed and a bit chilly from the early June night air. 

“You came here yesterday,” I repeated, “with my brother Dennis, and his wife, Jean. They brought you from your home in Haysville, Kansas.” 

“No, sir. I live in Mulvane.” 

“You used to, a long time ago, but now you live in Haysville, and before that you lived in Council Grove. Dennis and I helped you move to Haysville, three years ago. You have an apartment there, on the fourth floor of Peach Tree Plaza.” 

“But where am I now?” 

“You’re in Iowa City, Iowa. I’m your son, Joe, and this is my house.” 

“I don’t know.” 

“Why don’t we go downstairs, where we can sit and talk?”

The T-shirt I’d been wearing that afternoon was by my feet, on the floor by the bed, where I’d let it fall at bedtime. I knelt, stood, pulled the T-shirt on. It was an ancient, threadbare souvenir from Wall Drug, South Dakota. 

“My Joe was wearing a T-shirt like that this afternoon,” she said.

Going down the stairs, she asked, “Who’s your wife?”

“My wife is Cherie.” 


“And Dennis’ wife is Jean.” 

“Yes.” She looked over her shoulder. “Where is your wife?”

“She is still in bed, up in the bedroom. Did you see her there?”



Why wasn’t I frantic, begging my mother to recognize me. Why didn’t the woman Mary run in terror from this half-clad stranger who claimed to be her son? Why didn’t Cherie get out of bed to help? Afterward, she told me she decided against getting up, because the two of us, this Mary and I, seemed calm and in control.

As for me, here’s how it was. When the woman in the doorway introduced herself, I recognized her as who she said she was,Mary Ashmore, from Mulvane, Kansas, a woman I’d heard about all my life, and imagined a thousand times, but never dreamed I’d get a chance to meet, much less help out of a tight spot. She was not the first version of Mary Ashmore that I would meet in the years ahead, the next one in the coming hour.


Downstairs, in the living room, my mother and I sat, apart, on the edge of the futon that Cherie and I had folded down to make her bed. 

“Where did you say I was?” she asked. 

“You’re in Iowa City, Iowa. I’m your son Joe, you’re in Iowa City, your son Dennis and his wife Jean brought you here.”

“Are they here?”

“No, they’re staying in a motel here, in Iowa City.” 

“And how did I get here?”

“They brought you here, you and they drove all day from Haysville, Kansas, where you live. Cherie and I made up this bed for you to sleep in.” 

“Yes, this is the bed I woke up in,” she said, “and the dog was here.” She pointed to the dog, Milly, curled up on her bean bag on the floor. “He didn’t bother me at all. But I knew I wasn’t home, because I don’t have a dog.” A pause. “And where did you say I was?”

“Iowa City, Iowa.”

“And you’re my son Joe?”

We continued the cycle, over and over, like horses patiently pulling a plow, back and forth, over the same field. 

I became aware she was holding car keys in her hand. 

“Those are your car keys.”

“Yes, I looked outside and didn’t see my car. Where’s my car?”

“It’s in Haysville, at Peach Tree Plaza, your home.”

“And how did I get here?”

“Dennis and Jean brought you.”

“And Dennis and Jean were here?”

“Yes, they were here for dinner last night. Do you remember what we had for dinner?”


“We had chicken.” I said. “Cherie was grilling it on that big, black, round grill.” I remembered Cherie lifting the lid as Mom and I watched. How a great cloud of fragrant steam billowed up, revealing eight chicken breasts, basting in barbecue sauce, hissing and popping over white hot coals. 

“Yes, I remember. Yes.”

“And then later, we went to Lana’s graduation. Her high school graduation. Let me go get something. I’ll be right back.” From the kitchen, where we’d left them on the table, I brought Lana’s red graduation gown and my digital camera. “Do you remember? Lana was wearing this.”

“Yes.” She felt the fabric. “Lana wore this.”

“And we took pictures of her with this camera.”


Thoughts crossed her face the way thin clouds cross the moon. She sighed, a deep, old, worried sound. Her arms and hands began to tremble.

“Oh, what have I done?” she said. “I’ve been failing lately, but I’ve never done anything like this.” 

She told me about memory problems she’d had, and how the doctor thought it might be Alzheimer’s, and gave her pills, but she thought she might have run out of them. She spoke with clarity about waking up and not knowing where she was. She told me she got dressed and went outside, “but not far,” came back in, and decided that before calling out to see if she was alone, she’d check upstairs. There, she said, she’d found a man, and because the man was smiling, she’d thought he would probably be able to help her. 

She sat up straight. 

“Well, I’m going to put on my pajamas and go to bed. And you should go back to bed too. I’ve kept you up long enough, Joe.”

“Good night, Mom,” I said.

I kissed her cheek. She said, “That helps most of all.”

She lay down on her side, her head on the pillow. She said, “I sleep on this side, so that my good ear is up. I want to be aware of things.” 

At 3:30, the dog erupted from her bean bag, barking furiously, as she always did when the morning paper arrived. I dashed downstairs. My mother was sound asleep, her good ear against the pillow. 


The next morning, Mom apologized a couple times, and asked me not to mention the previous night to Dennis and Jean. The day went as planned and that evening, we all went out to dinner, then the girls left for a party, and Dennis and Jean went back to their motel.

I was still awake, reading in bed, when I heard Mom downstairs, talking. I found her lying wide awake on her stomach on the futon bed, her head at the foot of the bed, her chin propped on crossed arms on her pillow. She looked like a teenager at a slumber party. She was talking to the dog, who listened, cocking her head this way and that. 

I sat with her. Like a three year old, reassured by repetition, she rehearsed over and over that the girls were at a party and would be home at 10, and they would turn off the porch light, but they would leave the bathroom light on, and enough light would come under the door for her to see if she needed to go to the bathroom, and at nine in the morning, Judy would come to pick her up and drive her home, to Council Grove, and the girls would get home at ten and turn off the kitchen light but leave the bathroom light on, and at nine, Judy would come. 

She was confused. Judy, her niece, wasn’t coming to get her, my brother and his wife were, and they would drive her to Haysville, not Council Grove, but I accepted this. Three year olds don’t always get it right, and there are times when a good parent just lets it ride. 

Eventually, I said to her, gently, as I once said to my own three-year old daughters, “It’s time to stop talking. It’s time to put your head down and sleep. I’ll sit here a while and read, but it’s time for you to sleep.” 

The small child, Mary, lay down her head and slept the rest of the night. 


Four years later, I spooned runny oatmeal into her mouth. She lifted her chin and leaned forward for the nourishment, closing her lips to draw the oatmeal off as I pulled the spoon away. Little bits clung to the corners of her mouth. I collected them on the tip of the spoon and, when I pressed her lip with the spoon, her mouth opened to take the morsels. I raised a lidded plastic cup with a straw to her lips so she could drink, dabbed away a loose droplet with a napkin. After the attendant took her tray, I rolled her in her wheelchair up and down long halls. She made murmuring noises from time to time. “Muh, muh, muh, muh,” she would say, and once when I accidently bumped the chair against the wall, she murmured faster, in alarm. Paintings hung on the walls between rooms. She fastened her eyes on the most brightly colored ones, and I stopped so she could look. 

“You like that picture?” I asked. “Those are apples. They’re very red.” 

When we tired of hallways, I rolled her back to a table in the dining room just to hang out. The nurses kept her arms wrapped in thick gauze, to keep them from bruising if she brushed against something. Her fingers, which she no longer used, curled into the hollows of her palms, like a baby’s, but gnarled with age. 

She lifted a hand ever so slightly and bopped me on the forearm. I turned my head, and we locked eyes. Afterwards, I told my brother I was sure she had recognized me, but all I really know is that I recognized her. Cataracts clouded her eyes, and age had yellowed the whites to the color of the smoke that comes up from a pile of burning leaves, but through the pupil, deep in the eyes themselves, I saw Mary, her eyes full of mischief, I saw her familiar, what’re-you-going-to-do-about-it-buster squint. 

I bopped her back. She bopped me again. We boxed ever so gently, a mother and her son.   


Joe Artz, raised in rural Kansas, lives in Iowa with his fellow archaeologist and wife of 32 years, Cherie, His fiction has appeared in Prompt Press, the Wapsinicon Almanac, and on his blog, https://joeartz.wordpress.com

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