Alzheimer’s and Adele

Adele and Phoenix010

Adele in her late 70s

My mother died recently.

It was to be expected, I suppose, at her age of 91 and because of the fact that she’d been sick with Alzheimer’s for more than a decade. Knowing all of this, her death still came as a knockout of a shock to me. I’d been fooling myself for years that I was prepared for the end… I was not.

At the time that she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, the doctor told us that the disease starts long before the symptoms show. My best guess is that it began about 19 years ago, after she was in a terrible car accident – she was never the same after that.

She lived with me and my family – my husband and two girls, for most of those 19 years – except for the last four years that she spent in a nursing home, in a locked ward.

My family watched her lose herself and tried to keep things normal for as long as possible. It was frustrating that neighbors and distant friends and relatives, didn’t see the changes that we did. Frustrating that no one, except the Public Health Nurses who came and went, understood the toll it took on us. It is an unforgiving and terrible disease, and leaves the person you have loved all your life, unrecognizable. Through each agonizing stage of its progression, there are no clear guidelines, because every patient is different.

There are major milestones of the condition, however, that are relatively the same across the board. It was about a year ago that her doctor took me aside, and explained to me that my mother was in the end stage of the disease. She didn’t think that my mother would live out the year – the clearest indicator of the end, she told me, was when the patient stopped swallowing. I wasn’t surprised to hear this back then. I had clearly seen her decline become precipitous in the previous few months. Then, when she was put into a Broda chair and was no longer walking, it was obvious that she was not just mentally failing, but physically failing as well.

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Adele: young and happy in the 1950s

Just two days before she died, we got a phone call that she was pocketing her food. In my ignorance, I thought she was literally putting her food in her pocket, which she had done on many occasions before. My mother was very smart, even with Alzheimer’s, and was frequently getting away with things like that – like when she managed to figure out how to unlock her seat belt on her wheel chair and suddenly stand up – a real danger to herself and to others, believe it or not.

But no. Pocketing food means that the patient can no longer swallow and the food accumulates in the cheeks of the mouth. It was the signal that she was near the end, and I didn’t realize it til too late.

There are many books on the subject, but I don’t want to read any of them. I have lived it in all its unpleasant and hurtful details. Nor do I want to watch dramatic films about it – perhaps they help to edify people, but I can’t think of anything I’d rather forget.

And that is the challenge – to forget all those years of decline and loss, and remember the whole and complete person, who is gone.

The doctor at the nursing home is a wonderful, caring person; the kind of doctor you want especially for the elderly who are sick with dementia. To comfort me, she told me that she’d seen many people lose themselves to the disease, and from this personal experience, she knew that we are more than what we say or do. What is left after the ravages of Alzheimer’s, is the core of the person in the purest form. She told me that even though my mother had lost all her ability to remember or speak or put a thought together, she still was a warm and loving person inside.

In the end there was little left of her – even her radiant core had gone out. She was rail thin, and slept almost continually. It was a relief for her to go, I am sure.

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Adele and her second baby c 1961

She wasn’t afraid to die. She had talked to me many times about it over the years. She had had a near death experience when she lost her third baby in childbirth in the early 1960s. She saw a beautiful light at the end of a long dark tunnel and went towards it and felt eternal peace. She told me that it was so beautiful that she didn’t want to come back, but she suddenly remembered her two little girls, and had to return. That experience stayed with her her whole life.

If you believe in heaven or an afterlife, you can say she is now with her baby and her husband, her sisters, and her parents, and all of her ancestors, somewhere up there. It’s a nice thought. But I am more comforted to know that she lived a full and adventurous, brave and creative life – never wasting a moment of it for as long as she could.

Even as she lost herself to the disease, she still got up every morning and smiled at the sun.

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Happy Birthday Adele

On this day January 18th, in 1926, my mother Adele was born.

Baby Adele with her sisters Joanne (L) and Barbara

Baby Adele with her sisters Joanne (L) and Barbara 1926

She is now 88 years old.

Like her entire generation, my mother Adele lived through the depression, WWII (she made airplane parts in a factory during the war) – the Korean War – the Vietnam War – the Gulf War – the War in Iraq and Afghanistan and every other horrible violent human endeavor perpetrated through most of the 20th century and the first years of the 21st.

She witnessed the discovery of vaccines and antibiotics and the development and use of rockets and nuclear bombs and nuclear power plants. She had one of the first television sets. She saw the first satellite go round the earth and watched the space program and space exploration unfold. She watched all the Star Trek TV shows and movies – but loved the first series best. She watched the development and ubiquitous growth of computers and eventually got one in her 70s.

Adele (L) and her little sister Coline c1937

Adele (L) and her little sister Coline c1937

And don’t forget all the social changes – the fight for women’s rights and the advancement of civil rights – watched the population explosion, the use of genetically modified crops, the move of populations to cities, the building of high rises and sky scrapers, hippies – disco – punk … and on and on.

And through all of this she remained curious and excited by new ideas and new opportunities to learn. Anything and everything she wanted to know about – so she read continuously and watched documentaries and news shows, took classes and joined clubs, and she even took a couple of the Great Courses in her 80’s.

All of this would be enough to fill one life but she did more. She was an artist first and loved to paint in oils – she painted more than a hundred portraits of children alone.

Adele and Hightop

Adele age 18 and Hightop

She was creative beyond painting and art too – she made all of our family’s clothes using Vogue patterns and most often the designer line which can be very challenging in terms of tailoring and sewing technique. She hand pieced quilts and for a time was president of the Jolicure quilting club. She reupholstered furniture and one time not only made a new slipcover for a big old armchair but embroidered the whole thing with sunflowers. She did other needlework too – including designing and producing needlepoint kits with her sister Joanne (also an accomplished needleworker) and made beautiful and elaborately smocked dresses for her children and grandchildren. And as I wrote about earlier – she hand made books with calligraphy and linoleum cuts and used beautiful silks and Japanese papers to bind them.

Adele Safran c 1964

Adele, my beautiful mother, in one of her couturier suits c 1964

When I was little during the 1960s she taught me all about the stars and planets and we would go out at night in our little suburban backyard and gaze at the little patch of visible sky and see all we needed to see.

When the Apollo mission went to the moon I joined the NASA space club and she and I read everything together and made a beautiful scale model of the lunar lander and of course watched all the TV broadcasts of the mission together. And when we moved to the country in Canada, the sky was enormous and we were able to see the Andromeda Galaxy, and star clusters and planets and the northern lights…

The Black Pony by Adele Safran, oil on masonite

The Black Pony by Adele Safran (oil on masonite).
My mother won the blue ribbon for this work at the Calgary Stampede.

She was a great cook, and learned how to decorate cakes with frosting roses and flowers. She ground her own flour and baked her own bread – never ate store bought till she was too old to do it herself about 2 years ago. She grew and pickled and froze and preserved her vegetables (did I say she was also a gardener?). She made her own wine from raisins and bananas. And if anything needed fixing – well you just fixed it – no need to replace it.

She taught me to explore the natural world and learn about it and to love animals and plants and trees and to be free of fear but respectful of all of them.

So in short – after this long blurb, I guess I just want to say that she gave me a wonderful gift – her curiosity of the world and her fearless joy of living every day in it. And for that I am eternally grateful.

Adele Safran with her sisters Coline (center) and Joanne c 1988

Adele with her sisters Coline (center) and Joanne c 1988 in the backyard of the Red Farmhouse in Jolicure, NB, Canada


Please Note: Adele is now ill with advanced Alzheimer’s – this is a tribute to the woman I remember and love.

I will be writing in more detail about her remarkable life in upcoming posts.

The Great White North

It was mid January 1973 the day the giant moving van showed up at our house in Bronxville, NY.

The moving guys first loaded all the heavy stuff from our house into the truck – boxes of books, boxes of records and the Encyclopedia Britannica set – some wardrobe boxes and a couple of mattresses and some paintings – but then there was no more room for all of our furniture and other belongings. A second truck had to be sent for.

Ford Maverick c 1971

The Safran family car by this point was a Ford Maverick c 1971. I had no idea we were driving around in what is now considered a muscle car. The one shown here is a bit souped up compared to our blue model.

We had a schedule of some sorts, and we couldn’t wait – so we left my Nanny in the house to make sure the rest of our stuff got loaded onto the second truck, and we got into our car with our cat and drove away.

I remember sobbing hard in the back seat – the sight of my Nanny waving goodbye was too much for me – I knew deep down I’d never see her again.

At least we had Babby with us in the back seat in an old green wooden crate. If Babby hadn’t been there I’d have been histrionic – as it was my father yelled at me to shut up and stop crying.We drove out of our neighborhood in silence and onto the highways that took us north to Canada.

We drove all day and late into the night, till it was dark and snowing – I’m guessing we were somewhere in Maine when we stopped. We pulled up to a dark, cold looking motel and got a room for all four of us and then smuggled the cat and his litter box inside and spent the night in there in misery. I don’t remember what we ate but probably cold sandwiches that my mother brought.

Adele Safran, Lorne and Joanne  Bell and Luke the dog

My mother Adele, my Uncle Lorne and Aunt Joanne Bell, and Luke the dog – one of my bestest buddies ever.

The next day was more driving – more roads and endless forest. We arrived at my aunt’s house in Jolicure, New Brunswick, Canada before dinner and it was a relief to be out of the car and into a warm and welcoming home. It was my mother’s birthday the next day  – January 18th.

We spent a couple of days at my aunt’s place as I recall, waiting for the moving trucks to arrive. That was alright by me because they had a barn and a house full of animals to visit including a horse and a goat, cats and a big fluffy dog.

One of the moving vans eventually arrived at my aunt’s farm one day during a heavy snow storm. We all piled in our vehicles and drove along with the van to our new home about three miles down the road into the woods.

The road to our house was a dirt road and deeply rutted and covered with ice and snow. The moving van wasn’t prepared for this and slipped and ditched itself suddenly just below our laneway. The rest of us stopped in horror and stood helplessly in the middle of nowhere in the freezing cold and heavy snow, wondering what would we do? The house was situated up a very long narrow drive up a hill – were we going to have to carry everything out of the truck and lug it there? How was the truck going to get out of the ditch?

The abandoned house down our road

This is a shot taken from our road looking towards the abandoned farm nearby. It was the only house visible for miles. Beyond that were woods – and in the other direction were woods.

Luckily my uncle had it all covered – he drove out to the crossroads and enlisted a few neighbor farmers to come along with their tractors and they managed to pull the truck out of the ditch. (The first of many times the local farmers pulled us out of ditches). The moving truck then actually made it up the lane to the farmyard and unloaded our stuff into the house. Only the first truck had shown up – the second truck didn’t arrive for weeks…

The Red House in Jolicure at dusk

The Red House and its barns in Jolicure at dusk. You can see that the buildings are located on the top of a rise. If you walked over the rise to the other side you’d see Long Lake and forest.

By nightfall we were alone in the house with the kitchen stove burning and the furnace kicking in to warm things up. Thanks to the moving company, we had tons of boxes but little in the way of furniture. So we sat on boxes of books and ate mac and cheese from a mix made in one pot for dinner.

My father sensed that some levity was needed on this night of drama – we had landed in a centuries old house isolated in the woods with no other house or light in sight for miles – the cold was oppressive, as was the darkness outside. So he pushed aside some stuff from the living room floor (the front parlour) and found some old LPs and the record player (which was a big heavy piece of furniture and so had been included in the load) and played records and taught us to fox trot. It is a brilliant memory – the golden light of the only lamp in the room; the 1940s music playing; and dancing with my father in this old farmhouse in the middle of nowhere.

We were in this together now for better or for worse.

Jolicure: temporary mailbox for the Safran family

A breadbox became our temporary mailbox when we moved to the red house in Jolicure. It wasn’t long before the postman refused to go down our road to deliver mail and we had a real mail box put up at the official corners of Jolicure proper.

Adele Makes a Book: Part II

Adele Safran's book of poems, front page c 1967

Adele Safran’s book of poems, front page c 1967

The first book that my mother made by hand was a book of poems.

My Mom’s work room was in the basement of our house. The stairs down to the basement divided the space in equal parts. On the left was a card table that my mother used to do all her work; on the right by the furnace was where my father had a darkroom set up. The rest of the basement was for drying laundry and storing the usual tools and things.

My mother was very patient with me. I used to go down and hang around her while she did whatever she was doing. And when she was doing calligraphy I must have really tried her patience… one distraction and an entire page could be ruined – and I am sure I was enough of a distraction to destroy many pages…

Mom I'm bored, Betty Safran with little braids and bows

Mom I’m bored…. I’m told that I bounced and danced everywhere, a bad combination when someone is trying to do calligraphy on a shaky card table. It must have been exquisitely hard for my Mom not to yell at me.

… moving the table as she worked, leaning in to see what she was doing (my nose under her nose), playing around with her linoleum tools and calligraphy pens.

She never yelled at me, but would patiently ask me to leave if I was too much. More often she’d give me something to do along side her or in my room so that I would be engaged and quiet(er). She even let me use the super sharp cutting tools to make my own linoleum cuts on small scraps.

Mom used our Betsy McCall Designer light table to do her calligraphy (it was meant for designing paper doll clothes). She’d tape a darkly lined paper onto the area that lit up, and then place her good paper over top so that she could see the lines through it and make her words and sentences straight.

She made three copies of the book all by hand: one for my grandmother, one for my sister and one for me. That meant she had to copy out three exact pages for each poem. (3 times the difficulty of doing it when I was around – no doubt she worked most of the time when I was at school.)


She illustrated every poem with a unique lino cut. I had my favorite pictures when I was a kid, and obviously my favorite poems.


I was less inclined to like the poems about death and sadness – but the book wasn’t meant to be a child’s book – it was meant to be cherished throughout my life.


And I do cherish it.

Trick or Treat – Queen and Doggy

By the time I was in Grade 4 I was already immersed in Egyptian art from my many hours spent at museums.

Egyptian musicians Dynasty 18th Metropolitan Museum of Art

Nice outfits, Dynasty 18

I also read a lot about ancient Egypt, and like most kids found the art and culture fascinating and beautiful. So when I was finally old enough to wear the Safran Egyptian Queen costume I was thrilled.

My mother had originally made this Halloween costume for my sister several years earlier.

The wig was made from strips of thick hair-like wool fabric and it sat very comfortably on the head. I liked it especially since the ladies of ancient Egypt also wore wigs that looked a lot like this one (to me anyway).

Betty Safran as an Egyptian queen

“Hail to thee oh Cleopatra my Queen” – that’s what the school janitor said to me as he bowed… and that’s when I discovered what it must feel like to be revered…too bad it only lasted one short moment.

I chose to wear a red cloak. We made it from a bed sheet that we dyed with Rit dye in the bathtub – a very exciting process for me.

Once it was dry and pressed, I had to stand still while my mother figured out how to sew and form the sheet into some kind of garment that I could walk in and keep secure around my neck.

I made the golden “beaded” collar under my mother’s direction – I stapled bits of paper onto a sparkly piece of fabric – a lame, but effective enough substitute for the real thing.

Getting the thick black eyeliner put on was difficult and uncomfortable but it made me feel glamorous and exotic.

And what a triumph when I went to school on Halloween and the janitor bowed down to me in the hall!

In 1970 my mother decided for me, that Grade 5 would be the last Halloween I would celebrate. I guess she had tired of the whole thing and she was ready to retire from costume making.

I still feel a touch of bitterness and disappointment about my last Halloween; me being only a mere child of 10 years. However, we are talking about my costume here in this post not my feelings – and I have to admit the costume was pretty cool.

I went as a Dapper Dog –

Dapper Dog costume083My mother spent some time creating the head-covering mask that made me look like a dog with nice floppy long ears. On top of this I wore a hat and for the rest of my costume I wore what looked like a suit. I seem to recall that I also had fuzzy mittens from the same fabric as the head gear.

As you can see in the photo I have a suitable 1970’s Flower Power necktie on too.

…So that was it for me for Halloween.

It was a good run while it lasted.

(next year I’ll have to dig up the rest of my childhood costumes to show you)

Steinlen black cat