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  • Writer's pictureLeann Shamash

Old Mama

Today I prepare to do a presentation at the Jewish Arts Collaborative. I'll be talking about the work with mom, the project with the elderly and some work I am doing now on the Nine Women project.

This week is also Parshat Vayeira, where the idea of taking notice of things is evident right in the first words of the parsha. Avraham sees three strangers approaching their tent. More than just seeing though, Avraham takes notice of them. He notices their thirst, their weariness, their need for shelter.

When I started the project with my mom, we had a wonderful relationship. I went and saw her each day and we spent time together. I didn't really "see" my mother until I did this photography project with her. Through the hours spent with her creating these photos she taught me to "see her," to really see her. To see her in her age and her dignity; to take note of more than just the surface.

I know now that my mother's parting gift to me were these photos. She gave me the gift of sight as we sat together and that gift remains with me now. The gift of seeing, the gift of noticing. Thank you, ma, for this gift.

It seems fitting that I share with you this story that I wrote for my grandchildren after mom's death. It is a story about dementia and aging, but it is also a story about being able to see past the wrinkles, past the imperfections of age to the person inside.


Ava’s great grandmother was really old.

Not just a little old like Ava’s grandma, but almost one hundred, wrinkly-crinkly old, so Ava decided to call her great grandmother Oldmama.

Oldmama had lips stained the colors of raspberries with just a bit of color spreading too high over her top lip. Oldmama’s nails were painted like ten dripping rubies. She wore big hats frosted with soft feathers and lace that rose from her head like the wings of giant butterflies.

On Sundays Ava would visit Oldmama at the home where other very old people lived. Some people slept in their chairs when Ava skipped into the cozy living room and others slowly lifted their heads and smiled but no one smiled wider or crinklier than Oldmama as she sat tucked deep in her blue armchair.

Ava loved her visits to Oldmama. Sometimes she jiggled Oldmama's clunky bracelets which circled her thin wrists. Sometimes Ava gently fingered the string of red beads that hung down on Oldmama’s chest while Oldmama stroked Ava’s long hair. Most of all, Ava loved to play with Oldmama's hands which were mapped with bumpy purple veins. Ava would press down gently on Oldmama’s veins and they would squish and squash underneath her fingers. Ava would sit on the arm of Oldmama’s chair and they giggled together.

At the end of each visit Ava would shout secrets into Oldmama’s ear because Oldmama didn't hear much, and no matter how silly the secret was, Oldmama would nod and smile her crooked raspberry smile. Then Oldmama would give Ava a gentle poke in the tummy and hand her a tiny bit of one of her hats. Sometimes it was a feather or a button, a piece of lace or ribbon. Oldmama finished each visit by saying one word in her crackly Oldmama voice, “Remember.”

Ava would go home and carefully put her treasures in her Oldmama remember box. Sometimes between visits she would open the box and look inside at the bits and pieces from Oldmama’s hats. She rubbed the soft feathers on her cheek and smelled the lace, which smelled like lemon and cloves, just like Oldmama. Thinking of Oldmama made her smile as she remembered playing and being silly together.

One Sunday when Ava came to visit Oldmama she wasn’t wearing her hat. Ava blinked not to see a big colorful butterfly hat on Oldmama’s head and instead to see her thin white hair sticking to her head. Oldmama smiled her crinkly raspberry smile and Ava smiled back at her. She still played with Oldmama’s hands and her clunky bracelets and her beads. After she shouted a secret into Oldmama’s ear, Oldmama took off her strand of red beads and put them over Ava’s head. Ava looked down at her beads and felt very grown up. When Ava left that day Oldmama gave her a crinkly raspberry smile and said in her crackly voice, “Remember.”

A few Sundays later when Ava came into the living room, Oldmama wasn’t wearing her hat. Her ruby red fingernails were chipped and uneven. Oldmama still smiled her crinkly raspberry smile and Ava smiled back, and this time Ava pushed on Oldmama’s veins and sang her a song in her loudest voice which made Oldmama close her eyes and sway in her blue armchair. When Ava left Oldmama gave her a crinkly smile, but forgot to say, “Remember.” Ava was puzzled. When she got home she ran to her room and opened her Oldmama remember box. She lifted up a piece of lace and smelled it and it still smelled like lemon and cloves, just like Oldmama. Ava whispered to herself, “Remember.”

A few Sundays later when Ava came to visit Oldmama her lips weren’t raspberry red anymore but her new thin lips still smiled a crinkly smile at Ava. Ava stood close to Oldmama. She sang as she played with her thin hair and massaged her purple veins. Ava shouted a secret in Oldmama’s ears so that she could hear her say, “Remember.” Oldmama lifted her head and smiled her crinkliest smile and her purple veined hand squeezed Ava’s little hand tightly.

One Sunday Ava’s mom told her that they couldn’t visit Oldmama anymore. Instead Ava’s mom took out something called a photo album and showed Ava photos of Oldmama when she was young. Ava saw Oldmama’s bouncing curls, bright raspberry smile and ruby red fingernails. Ava saw her Oldmama in colorful dresses, wearing hats and dancing and hugging and smiling her biggest, not so crinkly smile. Ava smiled because she knew that Oldmama had always been the happiest and silliest and most colorful butterfly hat person in the world.

Ava ran upstairs to find her Oldmama remember box. She opened up the box and smelled the lemony clove smell of her Oldmama. She held a feather in her hand and let it float slowly to the floor. Ava smiled her best crinkly smile and remembered.

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