Sparked by Words

 

This is the story of how a book about World War II sealed the friendship between me and the woman who gave me the courage to write Where Did Mama Go?

It begins with The Caves of Perigord by Martin Walker. I read it because it describes some of the prehistoric cave art discovered in France, a topic this artist and art teacher has always found fascinating. The exquisite shard of ancient art is only a part of the story, as the novel reveals the dangerous work of the French Resistance during World War II. When I finished the book I gave it to my friend, Madeleine Nussen.

I was a novice Hebrew teacher, barely two weeks ahead of the kids in skills. Madeleine was experienced and fluent at the same temple school, and she graciously mentored me when I got stuck, which was about once a class. After she read the book, she told me something I hadn’t known.

The book tells in part how the Nazis forced French citizens to sit on the front and top of reinforcement and supply trains in order to deter the French Resistance from bombing them as the invaders subjugated France. Allowing the trains to pass meant a more likely victory for the Nazis, but sabotaging the trains meant certain death for those who rode the trains as hostages.

Madeleine quietly relayed her personal story when she returned the book. She was a Holocaust survivor, her father a fighter with the Resistance. At least once, teenage Madeleine sat on the actual train, exposed and vulnerable. Her father saw her and did not bomb the train.

I knew of course the historical foundation of the book. But that moment when she described her part as a hostage, the enemy trains stormed around us. The wind roared like a cyclone, the acrid steam burned my face. A story that would have made me screech in fury, she relayed with her trademark composed dignity.

A few years later the temple held a dinner my husband and I attended with my parents. My father had quietly told me a family secret I was forbidden to share. I kept the promise. My mother, always a gregarious showstopper, made instant friends with the four other guests at our table, which included Madeleine. My mom loved the limelight and the event gave her the chance to perform. Mom chattered as deftly as if holding court, the other guests enchanted by her. My father expressed irritation after a while, and mom quieted down.

Months later, I noticed Madeleine looking weary, an emotion she rarely conveyed. When I asked if everything was OK, she told me about her beloved husband, also a Holocaust survivor and a renowned cantor. Now he was living in a facility for those who suffer from Alzheimer’s disease, losing more and more of his identity and sense of presence every day. Madeleine was devastated because his most recent decline meant he no longer knew who she was – nor who he was. The Nazis had not defeated him, but his illness had.

It must have been because of Madeleine’s dignity that I felt comfortable enough to tell her my secret, despite my promise. “My mom has Alzheimer’s.”

“I know,” Madeleine said.

In the hallowed quiet between us, I realized she had spotted my mom’s illness at the dinner party. What my father and I thought was hidden as long as we told no one, was easily detected by Madeleine with her long experience in dealing with her husband’s disease.

Over the next years, Madeleine was a willing listener to my concerns and worries. Sometimes she gave great advice. Sometimes she just listened and let me vent my frustration, confusion, and rage. Always, she was a friend who kept my confidence and my mother’s secret.

My dad died nine years ago, my mom’s disease still so well hidden that some family members didn’t detect it. At his death, it became obvious that mom could not live at home, and I made the heartbreaking decision to place her in a memory care residence.

I regret my action every day of my life because it forced my mother out of her home overlooking the Pacific Ocean into a locked facility. There was no other way to keep her safe, to have her needs met 24-7 by a compassionate, professional staff.

I was already writing novels long before my dad passed, but my stories had nothing to do with Alzheimer’s. It took all my strength to deal with my mom’s mutable and fractured condition. I often drove to the residence in tears, knowing the woman I headed to visit was losing parts of herself as if she were a pillow ripped open, feathers strewn to the heavens. I often drove home sobbing about how the disease attacked my mom and left her tattered. I was too close to the volatile situation to be able to write about it, so I never tried.

Madeleine passed away about three years ago. Her death was painful for her family and friends, her loss palpable as a burn on flesh.

About two years ago I realized I knew more than many other people who needed, sometimes desperately, to find a safe place for mom or dad or husband or wife to live. Their loved ones who suffered with Alzheimer’s. I consoled, gave advice, and listened to the newbies, all of them wondering if they had made the right and the best decision.

Eventually I thought of Madeleine’s courage. A survivor of the Holocaust who had started her life again in a new country, a loving daughter, wife, and mother, a talented musician, a gifted teacher, and a compassionate confidante, she modeled for me that not only could I tell this story, I could show that living with this disease is miserable but possible. That being an involved advocate for the one you love is more important than making the perfect choice because there is no perfect choice.

Madeleine never knew I wrote a story about Alzheimer’s, but without her friendship I might not have done so.

Madeleine Nussen, zt’l. May the memory of this righteous person be a blessing. Thank you for giving me the courage to write Where Did Mama Go? I miss you but I carry you in my heart.

 

Note: I’ve written a novel, Where Did Mama Go? about the devastation Alzheimer’s disease inflicts on families. It’s in the process of being edited. Then I’ll start querying for an agent to represent my work. My credentials for writing this story are eighteen years of assisting my mom through the labyrinth of this illness.

 

Prehistoric art, Bison, Altamira Cave in Spain, courtesy CCO Creative Commons

 

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Comments on: "From Art Caves to Alzheimer’s" (29)

  1. Shari, I was captivated by your friendship with Madeleine, your closeness and realise how much you shared and supported each other. I was shaken but not suprised by her story of being used as hostages to try and keep the trains safe…harrowing. Imagine being her father, seeing his daughter on top…Her courage and strength has rightly given you the ability to write your mother’s story … painful beyond words. Good luck with the final edits and finding an agent – you have one eager reader already! Me! hugs xxx ❤️

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Annika. My friendship with Madeleine Nussen was serendipitous but genuine. She was one of the most sincere, gentle, and loving people I’ve ever met and I looked forward to seeing her every chance I got. What she and her husband, also a Holocaust survivor, endured can only be imagined. Yet he became a great cantor and she a gifted musician and teacher. The human spirit is amazing and I saw it reflected in Madeleine.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Your friend sounds like she’s been a wonderful person and I’m not at all surprised that she inspired you to write your new book. Friendships like these are to be treasured and not often found. I never knew about the hostages, one more evil thing to add to a terrible long list.
    The caves and the art found in them are just incredible, aren’t they? So far I’ve only visited one in Andalusia and the experience was breathtaking and chilling – it’s surprisingly cold in this caves even in hot summer!
    I wish you good luck and lots of strength for the editing process, Shari!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I counted myself very fortunate to have known Madeleine Nussen. She was a wonderful person and I miss her.

      And I’m a bit jealous that you’ve been to see the caves in Andalucia – I’ve read that they are spectacular. I always wanted to see the caves in Lascaux or Altamira or anyplace where I could see prehistoric art. I’ve visited a few places here in the Southwest US and am always spellbound by realizing how profoundly spiritual and artistic ancient people were.

      Thanks for the pep talk about editing – I’ll need more for the query process, about to begin soon.

      Liked by 1 person

      • The caves at Altamira where the ones I visited. 🙂 Should you ever go there don´t forget to pack in a jumper an some woolen socks!! I had to do with some tissues wrapped around my toes because I feared they might get frostbitten! 😉 Apart from that it was a fantastic experience of course. really magical and a bit frightening too, because it´s absolutely dark inside if you don´t have a lantern. The paintings were stunning and the colors unbelievable rich and so well preserved. I really hope you get to see some cave paintings one day yourself, Shari!
        Have a lovely weekend!

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      • Were you able to enter the actual Altamira caves or a model in another area? The Lascaux caves cannot be entered except by qualified researchers, and even then, only for very short periods of time. The exposure to germs from everyone breathing started to destroy the paintings so they created a reconstruction several miles away for tourists to get an idea of being in the caves. Your warnings are well heeded, should I ever get the chance to go to Europe. Thank you for great advice based on your experience.

        Liked by 1 person

      • ‘Only’ the model built about 500 meters away from the original site but that was still worth it. They stopped letting tourists in in the 1980s I believe due to building up of mould created by the visitors’ breathing. It’s a very sensible precaution I think.

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      • So, a similar situation to what’s been built for the Lascaux caves and for the same reason. That makes total sense. I would still visit, were I able.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. I can’t wait to read your book, Shari. The pieces you’ve shared are stunning. Put me on the list to review it for my blog!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I hope you’re not offended by this comment, Shari.

    I envy your friendship with someone who gave you so much support, encouragement, advice, and friendship. Notice I said “envy”, not “jealous”, which would be a whole other matter I shrink from at all cost.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Glynis, I’m not offended by anything you write, ever. You always have a unique point of view and I value learning how you experience the world. You open my eyes, a good thing.
      And I certainly understand the difference between envy and jealousy. I try to tamp down the jealousy hyenas while allowing more rein to the envy meerkats.

      I do know how special was the friendship I had with Madeleine. I think I even envy myself because I doubt something like it will happen again.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. dear Sharon, I continually marvel at your courage, strength, & generosity of spirit…

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    • Thank you so much, Daal – have been a bit down, as you can imagine, so your comment means a lot to me.

      Liked by 1 person

      • as writers, we’re fortunate to be able to hope that our challenges might help others…

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      • You bring up an interesting point, Daal. I think writers try to figure out the values that challenge them in their real lives and engage their readers in the exploration of those challenges through the quests of their main character. Although I always know the endings of my stories before I begin to write, I don’t know all the doubt my main character will face nor all the miseries she’ll inflict on herself through her own failings. The real story for me is not getting from one place to another, but getting the main character to recognize her flaws and begin to intuit the path to personal redemption. She might just be at that threshold of setting things right when the book concludes, but it’s only the plot that concludes. The character lives on, in my mind, and hopefully in my readers’ minds.

        Liked by 1 person

      • so well said, Sharon — it’s why fiction is so valuable & why it frustrates me that people often only read non-fiction

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      • I read everything, and frankly, I’m glad people read anything at all. Statistics show that most people never read a book after leaving school. There’s much to distract and entertain and reading demands time and attention to sustain it. But I certainly agree with you, Daal, that fiction is valuable.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. May your book eventually get published and bring delight and insight to readers as much as your blog posts Sharon.

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  7. Your writing is captivating, Sharon. And you have much more courage than I, to write this important book. I hope you find publisher soon for your important book. It will help many who have to face the horrible decisions…. Please keep us posted. ❤️

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  8. Madeleine sounds as though she was more than a good friend to you and I’m glad she was there for you and I’m sure you were also there for her. This post was a lovely tribute to her and the amazing life she led. I’m glad she gave you the freedom to right your manuscript. I too am looking forward to reading it.

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  9. I am so inspired by what you have done – it is an extremely personal and intimate experience you are sharing with the world, and for you to have carried it so far is amazing!

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    • Relationships with grandchildren are very intimate which is why I changed their names and selected photos that don’t show their faces well. But I did let readers into the hearts of what makes these little people tick. Thank you for reading, Julyn.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Sometimes, when we are going through our darkest periods, we need to look at courageous people like Madeleine to seek the courage within ourselves to take the necessary steps.
    This was an amazing write. A pleasure to read and an inspiration. Thank you for sharing this.

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