Jogging Memories with Props
Out of all the props I spread out on the quilt for a Back to School theme, this toy school
desk prompted the most stories.
My first group was at the Community Center. We were ready to get started when Mary, one of the most upbeat in the Tuesday group arrived late, looking shaken and worn. "What's wrong, Mary?" I put a hand on her back and she felt clammy, almost trembling. "The bus didn't stop for me." I'd never seen this side of Mary. She looked broken, like she'd been abandoned. She winced as she carefully sat down at the table and began to talk about her morning. "Every day I wait by the window for the senior bus. I was watching today and I saw it coming." She described how the bus raced around the corner as if the driver were running late. Before Mary could open her door the bus roared on. This dear woman, whose voice usually booms out above the others, spoke almost in a whisper. "I called my son and he had to stop what he was doing and come drive me." I actually saw a tear roll from her cheek to the quilt. The wonderful group sitting around the table offered hugs and supportive words but they didn't seem to lift Mary at all. I was debating how to deal with this when suddenly the desk distracted Mary in a way that I couldn't. It was the oddest thing to see her face when she suddenly caught sight of the wooden desk on the quilt. Her watery eyes lit up and she pointed like a child surprised by an animal at the zoo. "I had a desk just like that!" Mary laughed. She sat up taller and studied the desk as she described the one she remembered in her one room school house. Before long the whole group was sharing and laughing and talking over one another. The desk managed to lift Mary from her miserable place...but it was actually a recording of Chuck Berry's School Day a few minutes later, that ended up getting Mary out of her chair dancing!
The School Bell
This wobbly old school bell helped conjure up some memories when I joined another group at the hospital. Genny picked up the bell and gave a couple clunky rings and told about her Sunday School teacher who had a bell just like it on her desk.
But it wasn't until Margaret mentioned an old TV show that my own memory surfaced!
The image of this smiling face, posing with the lifted bell had long been forgotten until Margaret mentioned Mrs. Frances of Ding Dong School! I vaguely remember her on a TV show, but mostly I remember the cover of an old child's 45 record. Her record was in a stack along with Harry Belafonte and Burl Ives, next to a portable record player that provided hours of entertainment when I as a child. Picturing the wood paneled family room I played in until I was 10 brought back memories of playing school. In our family room we actually had a set of antique desks that looked like the toy pictured above. I remember fighting over who got to be teacher. Being teacher gave you just about as much control as being leader for a game of Red Light, Green Light or Mother May I. If I couldn't get my siblings to play school I might be able to talk them into Rock School. The teacher in this game stood at the bottom of the stairs and only advanced students to the next grade (up a step) if they guessed correctly which hand held the rock.
I was surprised at how many of my own memories surfaced once we focused on that silly bell. I didn't have time to share them with all the other stories going around, but I found myself remembering those thoughts for the rest of the day.
Reminded by a Ruler
It was the ruler in a box of school supplies that steered our conversation with the Silverado group towards discipline. Luckily there were no horror stories of cruelty, but I had a moment of concern when the punishment discussion reminded Betty of a hospital school where she lived when she was quite young.
Betty's upbeat voice set me at ease as she talked about the hospital that cared for TB patients in a town called Sanatorium, Texas. "I was sent there for 6 months and slept in a ward with other children and we had school lessons in the day." She said she didn't have TB, but was sent for preventative reasons, possibly because she had spent so much time with a dear uncle who did. Although the thought of a child in such a place sounds eerie, Betty's face lit up as remembered her time there. She admitted her home life had been rigid, due to a very strict stepfather. She seemed amused by the notion that she could enjoy getting into a little mischief with other children thanks to the fact they were in a hospital with more gentle ways of disciplining children.
What I learned: Obviously I already know that props can trigger memories. That's why I bring them. But it was especially nice to witness how the desk prop not only triggered Mary's memory, but wiped out (at least briefly) her memory of her bad morning!
What I also learned: Some of the simplest props (a ruler) can bring up rather complicated or detailed memories. As I listened to Betty with her story of Sanatorium, TX, I didn't worry about how much was true or changed by dementia. I was only concerned that her sharing was a positive experience and it seemed to be. Curiosity did lead me to the computer that night and I learned that there was once a Sanatorium, TX (no longer) and a TB hospital that also cared for children who were at risk. Betty was pleased the next week to know I'd found a postcard picture on the internet!
For 20+ years children have called it the Magic Quilt. They've danced and pretended all over these colorful squares. I've dragged it to schools, shelters and studios where children have climbed on top to hear Magic Quilt Stories and to act them out.