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Five Questions with Marion Agnew By Susan Goldberg


arion Agnew is the author of the forthcoming Reverberations: A Daughter’s Meditations on Alzheimer’s and Family. She grew up in Oklahoma and lived in Arkansas, New Mexico, and Colorado before finally relocating to her true home in Canada—ten acres near Lake Superior, a summer camp that was part of her mother’s legacy. The Walleye: Who is this book for? Why did you write it? Marion Agnew: This book is a collection of personal essays about my family, during the time that my mother had dementia and the years since. I wrote it for me, because I wanted to document what I was seeing, so that I couldn’t look away

74 The Walleye

from my parents’ daily lives, or look back later and say, “Oh, that wasn’t so bad.” I also wrote it for other people who might be going through something similar, for anyone who has lost or is losing a loved one to dementia. TW: All mothers are, but your mother was pretty exceptional. MA: She was. She graduated from high school in Port Arthur, Ontario, at the age of 15. She went to Queen’s University and graduated with a BA and MA in mathematics and economics after four years, and she earned a PhD in mathematics from Harvard in 1941. During World War II, she researched neutron transport equations as part of Canada’s atomic research project. She was a distinguished mathematics professor. And she raised five children with my father. As I write in the book, the neuropsychological tests she took to help diagnose her Alzheimer’s disease may be the first tests she ever failed in her life. So, there’s a lot that felt ironic in her diagnosis. My mom for so long had been over-identified with her immense intellect. For her to lose that was very, very difficult. And so I also wrote this story for my mother, because she couldn’t bear witness to her own illness. I wanted to make sure she could be seen. TW: How did you negotiate the vulnerability that comes with sharing intimate details and moments?

MA: It does help that the main characters—my parents—have died. I wrote the bulk of it while they were living, but I don’t know that I could have ever published it then. And of course, I couldn’t have, because the story was still going on. In order to write it, though, I definitely had to pretend to myself that no one was ever going to read it. And then I took baby steps: I’d publish an essay, and then another one, in a small literary journal or anthology, and then worry about what people would say, or if people would hate me. And people were supportive, and the essays were well received. No one hated me. I tried to be as honest as possible—about, for example, how angry I was at my dad, and how unfair that seems to me now. And if that honesty and vulnerability can be a jumping-off point for other people to see themselves in my experiences, then that makes it more valuable. TW: When you lose somebody to a long illness, it can be hard to remember what they were like before they got sick. How were you able to remember your mom before Alzheimer’s? MA: I have my memories, but I also have things like my mother’s letters to me, as well as the letters she kept from people like former students. Some of her former students have given me letters she wrote to them. She also wrote a

memoir of her family’s camp on Lake Superior, and so I have those stories, in her voice. I can hear her in my head, and I remember what she was like before—I hope that’s evident in the book. I’ve been really pleased that I can see dementia and Alzheimer’s disease as a chapter of my mother’s life, not as her whole life. TW: Your family’s two camps— where you spent almost every summer of your life—and your subsequent, permanent home on Lake Superior play a huge role in the book. They’re essentially a major character. MA: My mother was a different person at camp. At home, she was so regimented: teaching mathematics full time, raising five kids, and running a home. When the movie The Sound of Music came out, I felt quite akin to the von Trapp children. But at camp, my mother was happy and energetic. She was fun. She talked about how she loved this place. I didn’t grow up with grandparents, but being at camp with my mom was like seeing her with her elders. TW: What’s next for you? MA: I’m completing a novel. It’s also set on the shores of Lake Superior. I don’t think I’ll ever be done telling stories about this place. This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

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2019-09-19 12:28 PM The Walleye 75

Profile for The Walleye Magazine

November 2019  

Music is a universal language. You know this, we know this. It’s the reason why every November we dedicate our cover story to the people who...

November 2019  

Music is a universal language. You know this, we know this. It’s the reason why every November we dedicate our cover story to the people who...