How is it that poetry can stir such strong memories? I accompanied my mom to her monthly poetry class where they read and discuss poems on a specific topic—this month, work and occupations—with sources from the Torah, medieval Jewish poetry, Robert Lewis Stevenson, Walt Whitman, D.H. Lawrence, Seamus Heaney, Philip Larkin, and Philip Levine, among others. It was clear from the British participants, as opposed to the Americans in the room, that a greater emphasis was placed on learning poetry at a young age; their facility with and their memory of great works was impressive. To hear “The Lamplighter” by Stevenson read in a lilting British accent is to understand the nuances of the poem, the playfulness, the yearning.
Mom leaned towards me several times, concerned that I was bored. Perhaps she was projecting her own emotions. She lost her place or muttered angrily at some of the language that escaped her. But when she was asked to read A.A. Milne’s “Cherry Stones,” her voice rose and dipped as if she knew the poem by heart. You probably know the first line, too: "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Sailor, Rich Man, Poor Man, Begger Man, Thief."
Many of us remember poems we learned when we were young. The New York-based Alzheimer’s Poetry Project tries to use our long-term memory for the written word to facilitate creativity in Alzheimer’s patients. As they explain on their website, “We engage people navigating memory loss in a…call and response performance [of poetry]. The session leader recites lines of classic, well-loved poems and the group joins together in echoing the words. During the second half of the workshop, the poems serve as inspiration and models for a communal creation of an original poem. Each session ends with a performance of the group’s newly created poem, giving recognition to the lines and words the participants have contributed.”
Yes! This is a great way to reach someone with Alzheimer's. I still tingle with awe when I recall how two years ago at a performance of Macbeth, Mom recited Macbeth’s soliloquies along with the actor. Nothing could hold her back, certainly not the nasty looks from the audience.
The Alzheimer’s Poetry Project holds workshops in other languages, too, including German, Spanish, and Yiddish and Hebrew. For some Alzheimer’s patients, especially those who immigrated to another country, when all is stripped away, they are left with their mother tongue rather than their chosen country’s language.
Let’s hope Mom remembers more than words this week because my brother arrives today from California. He was here about six months ago. Simon talks to my parents every day, but a voice can be easier to identify than a face, especially as Mom has no concept of age or even what year it is. Simon’s goal is to spend as much time as he can with Mom before…well, before she really does forget.
Rosh Hashana is fast approaching. I feel as if I don’t have time to breathe, let alone start preparing for the holidays. But they’re coming whether I’m ready or not, and I’d better start getting ready. If you’re looking for an alternative to gefilte fish—the taste of the old country—try these mildly spicy Moroccan Fish Balls.
Moroccan Fish Balls
“Don’t make them Ashkenazi,” instructed my youngest. I laughed. Yes, we live in Israel, and our tastes have become more Middle Eastern. But was I ready to go full Moroccan? Here’s the compromise: fish balls with a little kick.
1 lb white fish
½ cup matza meal
¼ cup parsley chopped
4 cloves garlic diced
1 tsp cumin
½ tsp coriander
1 tsp paprika
Salt and pepper to taste
1 onion sliced
1 red pepper sliced
¼ cup chickpeas
2 Tbsp olive oil
1 cup crushed tomatoes
3 Tbsp tomato paste
¼ tsp hot pepper flakes (more for a hotter taste)
2-3 cloves garlic chopped
½ tsp cumin
Salt and pepper to taste
Steam fish in a small saucepan until tender and flakey, approximately 10 minutes. Let cool. Combine in bowl with eggs, matza meal, and spices. Set aside. In a large pan, sauté garlic, onion and pepper. Add crushed tomatoes and paste, spices and chickpeas. Reduce heat to simmer. Form balls with fish mixture and drop gently into sauce. Bring to a boil then simmer on medium heat until fish is cooked through, about 15-20 minutes. Let cool before transferring to a serving dish. Serve on a bed of rice.