The Persistence Of Memory

A Sunday or two ago, I sat at the back of the church, where people with rambunctious and unpredictable toddlers tend to sit. I doled out Goldfish one by one as I waited for services to begin, occasionally looking up for familiar faces in the undulation of swarming believers.

A mother chased a runaway toddler. One row ahead, an old man leaned over the back of his seat and shouted a greeting to another old man who was less than a foot away. One little boy chased another in a flurry of Sunday school papers. The cacophony of human noise that precedes worship service reminds me of an orchestra warming up, a swelling of movement and sound that sets the stage, opens the senses and ripens anticipation.

It was in the midst of this jumble of activity that I caught sight of her bubble gum pink suit out of the corner of my eye.

She shuffled unsteadily towards me, taking tiny careful steps, watching her feet as she went. White soft-soled shoes scraped against the carpet. She clutched her white purse tightly to her chest with both hands. About every three steps, she stopped completely and looked around, bewildered. Her middle-aged daughter walked behind her, patiently and gently guiding her towards a seat.

When she was within hand shaking distance, she stopped and looked into me. Not at me, not beyond me, but into me. It felt oddly disconcerting to be the object of such an intense gaze at such close proximity. I gave her a smile. Her face remained expressionless. I could tell she was mentally flipping through page after page of blank Rolodex cards looking for my face. Nothing. Her daughter nudged her elbow and encouraged her towards a seat across from us and she turned away.

I stole glances at her over the head of my three-year-old as worship services began. She sat erect and still, here but not. A shell of human being, robbed of that which makes life meaningful.   

For some reason, I thought of the empty locust shells that I used to find in the summer time when I was growing up. I wondered about her, her life, the memories she had treasured up in her heart over a lifetime, faces and names and events that had evaporated and vanished as morning dew does in the bright light of day.

As the congregation began to sing “When I Survey The Wondrous Cross” I heard her trembling sweet soprano voice rise above the others — distinct and clear, word for word, note for note. I looked over at her, eyes closed, face turned upward. Not a locust shell. Her heart had not forgotten.

The magic of music had unlocked the dark prison of dementia if only for a few glorious minutes on a Sunday morning. 

I will sing to the Lord all my life; I will sing praise to my God as long as I live.
Psalm 104:33

50 thoughts on “The Persistence Of Memory

  1. Antique Mommy, I have been blessed with the link to your web site, and as an “older” lady, I have enjoyed your take on this world and children. I had 3 children as I was “supposed” to. Then had one when I was 40 and was taking up tennis and golf. I am now watching women moving exactly as you describe. I am not there as yet, may never be, but who knows. I will print out and save this for my kids, when it is needed I will give it to them. I have sent it to many friends and even some acquaintences. Who knows who it may resonate with. Thanks. Many thanks, Joan


  2. Oh, thank you! Bless you! Everyone who has ever had a grandmother thanks you. A reminder to teach my kids (and grandkids?) the old hymns that my grandmother taught me…


  3. Thank you. In the back of my heart, I can hear my grandmother singing Amazing Grace. I pray that today, someone in that nursing home reminds her of that grace, with a hymn or a scripture. If I lived close enough, I’d load up the kids and go sing with her this afternoon.



  4. Our hope is in the Lord — she still has hope. And I believe that in God’s eyes — she is finishing well. She still has the joy of the Lord.

    Another nudge to make sure I’m filling my kid’s minds with GOOD STUFF!! °Ü°

    Great post!


  5. Absolutely beautiful post.

    It brought tears to my eyes…and I’m okay with that. It’s okay for men to cry when they read something this wonderful.

    Thank you for sharing.


  6. You amaze me with your ability to “see” these kind of things. You really touched my heart. God bless.


  7. I’ve heard stories of people in later stages of Alzheimer’s who cannot have a conversation unless the conversation is sung to them.

    Music seems to hang in there longer for some people.


  8. How wise of God to give us the gift of song – and how wise of the woman to learn the song in her youth.
    Thank you for a lovely post.



  9. Beautiful story.
    A friend of mine told me a similar story about her time as a volunteer at a nursing home. These women whom she ministered to and cared for 2 times each week could hardly remember her name from week to week. But they could recite scripture word for word, verse for verse.
    Isn’t it amazing that theses “old timers” retain what is truly important when their memory otherwise, fails them?
    This is why I drill my boy on scriptures. I want them embedded in his heart so he can recall them when he really needs them.


  10. This is beautiful. It reminded me so much of my Dad, who had dementia, and passed away back in October. It reminded me of a post I had written about his dementia.

    Stop by and check it out if you have a moment.

    Thanks for this post. Your heart is so tender.


  11. When I was small, I went often with my dad, who held services for the older folks in a rest home every Saturday. The first day we went, the nurse saw his song book and said, “I hope you don’t try to use that! they can’t sing.” My dad said, “We’ll see!” He started with “Jesus Loves Me”. At the end of that song every single person present-exept that nurse-was singing along, even men and women who hadn’t spoken in years. Their lips were moving along to the words, and they were smiling. Many were weeping. It is something I will never forget.

    Beautiful post!


  12. My grandma is in her 90’s and she has pretty advanced dementia. All the years she spent hiding God’s word in her heart continues to bear fruit. She can pray and quote God’s word beautifully, even when she can’t think of anything else to talk about. I’ve used that as a lesson for my boys to realize the long-lasting value of memorizing scripture.


  13. Truth sets us free. And that hymn is truth, pure and simple. It opened the doors of her mind, if only for a minute.

    Beautiful. May God’s truth run that deep in my soul, that even when I have lost everything, I still know I have Him.


  14. What a beautiful post. That is why I find it hard to separate God and music. Music speaks to the very depths of my soul in a way mere words can’t. I love the thought that when my body and mind give out, I will still have song.


  15. It is amazing the things that even an Alzheimer’s-ridden brain remembers- hymns, and how to pray. I used to work at an assisted living home, and this always amazed me, how even the ones who couldn’t remember if they ate lunch 10 minutes ago could remember the words to their favorite hymns. Thanks for your post!


  16. What a lovely post. It reminds me of the sweet children’s book by Mem Fox entitled “Wilfrid Gordon McDonald Partridge.” It is one of my favorite books to read to my girls.

    By the way, I am really enjoying your blog. You are so enjoyable to read.


  17. My grandpa had a brain tumour that very quickly took almost all of him away from his family – but the day he died, his daughters were surrounding him, singing his favorite hymns and he died singing along, still himself someplace within.


  18. Beautiful post.

    I’ve also noticed this. The older folks might forget your name or how they knew you, but start reading the Bible to them or singing a hymn to them — or even better, ask them to share their testimony — and their eyes light up and they come alive again. I love that.


  19. Oh, AM that was beautiful. I am so often in a hurry on Sunday mornings trying to get two little ones to their preschool classes on time but I always try to make time for those white haired ladies. “Most” of them are so sweet and kind- always giving an encouraging word and telling me about their grandchildren or great grandchildren. They tell me that they will pray for me and my family and you know, I am sure that they do just that.


  20. I think that young mothers with small children are like magnets for little white haired ladies. There is something so sweet about their interest in the young. It’s like for a fleeting moment, they are reliving their our young motherhood days…..or……..they are thinking..thank goodness THAT part of my life is past!!!
    I always tried to have alot of patience with them when my kids were babies. Kinda hard since I live in a retirement town!


  21. My Dad has dementia. Many times all he can remember to talk about are the horrors of WWII in the South Pacific. I still just love to hear him talk, even if I do have to hold his hand while he relives the death of some friend.


  22. Locust shells… good imagery. My mother taught me long ago that the songs remain steady in memory and the memories of youth are the last to go.

    During my grandaddy’s last years we would sit on his porch and I would sing his Phi Delt songs with him… that is about all we could converse about.

    You write so well. This post is beautiful.


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