As memory fades, the hardest questions are ‘who?’ ‘what?’ and ‘where?’

     (<a href=Forget-me-nots image courtesy of " title="shutterstock_forget-me-nots_1200x675" width="640" height="360"/>

    (Forget-me-nots image courtesy of

    Not that long ago arthritis, cataracts, finances and grandchildren topped our worry lists. Today, spoken or unspoken, it’s this creeping new dread.

    Bap! bap! bap! went the round blue dots on the yellow paper. Caleb attacked the task with intensity — a frenzied almost-3-year-old, whose work might save lives, alter the course of planets. Then a quick change of painting pens and bap! bap! bap! again. Purple, green, deep red, orange. The dots swarmed over and around each other, a pure and dazzling display of accidental art. Then silence.

    “Shall I hang it up?” I asked him. A brown-eyed hesitation, then a colorful, outstretched hand.

    The art-center birthday celebration was in full swing, parents and grandparents oooing and ahhhing as I added Caleb’s masterpiece to the line of drying artwork. “This guy’s a budding … blank,” I told the Mom next to me. “You know who I mean. Blank. The artist who introduced stipples to impressionism.”

    Frustrated, I tried a couple other mothers. No one knew who I was talking about.

    “Oh well, I’ll think of it or I won’t,” I said, embarrassed, furiously remembering the luminous image of men in top hats and women in full skirts carrying parasols on the edge of a city lake. And I did think of it. Two days later. Seurat. Pointillism. Ah yes. Sure of your lines now, aren’t you, Jin? But no one is there.

    It happens often lately. I head to a closet purposefully to retrieve … a glass, a duster, my vitamins … and 10 steps later, can’t recall what I came for. I start the car and head for Wells Fargo or Trader Joe’s and zoom past where I should have turned, blank about where I’m headed. In these cases, if I stay calm, the answer usually comes back to me in moments. But sometimes, if I’m interrupted mid-conversation, the point I was trying to make evaporates. I’ve no idea what I was talking about.

    Last night, a friend I was chatting with on the porch noticed the DVD in my hand, “Travelling in Wales.”

    “Are you planning a vacation?” he asked, pointing to the title.

    “Oh no,” I said, “just reminiscing. I lived in Wales for nearly a year, just after I was married. We had two rooms in a fake chateau in … blank.” Covering quickly, I interrupted myself, “Do you know Wales? We were in the north of the country, only 20 miles from the ferry that runs from Holyhead to Ireland. It was a great adventure — if you like rain.” I laughed. I was fakin’ it, not really “makin’ it,” again.

    The next day it came to me in a deluge: Anglesey. Bangor. Menai Straits. Dammit! What’s wrong with me? And do I really want to know?

    I talk to myself more now, mostly swearing or reprimanding. “Of course,” I argue to myself and sometimes to others, “I’ll never know when I’m coming down with Alzheimer’s. I’ve always had a lousy memory. In fifth grade it took me three days to learn ‘Oh Young Lochinvar‘.” But I know this is different.

    OK, so I lost Anglesey for two days, so what? But next time will it disappear for a week? a month? forever? And how long will it be before that happens? Before I start caring if it happens? When do I holler help?

    The only consolation? My closest friends are going through the same thing. We confide in each other furtively, acting blasé. Not that long ago arthritis, cataracts, finances and grandchildren topped our worry lists. Today, spoken or unspoken, it’s this creeping new dread. Last week, my first-grade buddy Trudy and I went to visit her 93-year-old mother in the nursing home, a cheerful Catholic environment. When Mrs. Keeney asked for the third time, sweetly, “Now, Jinny, how’s your Mom doing?” — the woman had been dead for 40 years — Trudy and I looked at each other uneasily.

    “Name two books you read recently,” the course facilitator said, smiling. My turn was coming; my mind was blank. I read constantly and had enjoyed several books lately. Panicked, I paced mentally, Albee’s Martha, waving my chicken bone around and yelling at myself, “You know. The book. What’s the name of the goddamned book?!”

    Luckily, before I had to settle for “The Penguin Who Came in from the Cold,” something from months ago flashed on my mental blackboard.

    Flight Behavior. I loved it.”

    Virginia Alpaugh is a freelance writer and editor living in the Philadelphia suburbs. She spent much of her professional career writing for the in-house magazines of national corporations but is now happily occupied writing personal essays and memoirs.

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