Nothing lasts forever so ‘Remember Me’

Published 8:04 pm Friday, June 19, 2009

Journeys are not always as expected.

Lesley Graham journeyed to a place that she never expected to go – to a place that she didn’t really know existed. The journey was a bittersweet experience. It changed the way she looks at life – now with more compassion and understanding.

“Nothing lasts forever, but somehow I thought it could.”

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Those are the words of Lesley’s grandfather as spoken through her in her book, “Remember Me.”

Lesley and her grandfather were as close as physical distance allows and as distant as the ever widening sea of dementia.

Lesley’s journey began with a thesis.

“The idea for my senior thesis exhibition at Troy University in May was originally just a book about the process of memory loss,” Lesley said. “But, when my grandfather died in October 2008, it became more than that.”

As Lesley was looking through a box of photographs that her grandfather had stored, she realized that the box contained a lifetime of memories – memories that had faded as her grandfather’s dementia invaded his life and eventually took them all from him.

“Nothing lasts forever, but somehow I thought it would.”

“I realized then that the story I needed to tell about memory loss should be a real story,” Lesley said. “I wanted to tell the story of my grandfather and how dementia had erased his memories and how it was up to me to keep them alive.”

The stories would have to come mainly from others. Her grandfather and grandmother had lived in Texas for many years where he ran a Dairy Queen after he retired from the pulpit.

“It’s not like I didn’t see my grandparents often because I did,” she said. “But they lived in Texas and we lived in Birmingham and, then my grandfather was sick when I got old enough to really want to know and understand.”

Lesley struggled with how to tell her grandfather’s story – a story that was almost as blurred to her as life had been to him when dementia stole his memories.

When she began to ask family members about her grandfather, most of the stories they told were funny stories, “cute things, not emotional.”

A ten-page letter that Lesley received from her grandmother helped with the emotion and it also gave a personal touch to the book that Lesley titled, “Remember Me.”

The story was to be told from Lesley’s grandfather’s point of view through her, but she wanted the printed words to be as personal as the story itself.

“I didn’t want to ask my grandmother to write the words for me so I scanned in her letters and created a handwriting font from her letters so the lettering is in my grandmother’s handwriting,” Lesley said. “But the biggest thing was that I didn’t want the story to sound like a woman, and I had to work hard so that the story was told from a manly point of view.”

Over a three-month period, Lesley put herself into her grandfather’s place in time – the place where he had been and the dark place where he came to be.

“I guess, the pictures helped the most,” she said. “As I would look at them, I tried to think what he might be thinking and feeling at the time. The stories that I had been told helped a lot and the letter from my grandmother.”

As she was “cut from the same cloth,” Lesley was emotionally affected by the photographs, and the words came as if from her grandfather himself.

Of her grandmother, “he” said, “She loved me each day with a greater love than the day before, and I couldn’t ask for more than that.”

“What I would do is get away from everything and the pictures would kind of place me in the moment,” Lesley said. “I would really focus on the photographs and what the feelings and emotions might have been. I would dig down deep and try to feel what my grandfather would have been feeling at that moment and what he might have said. Then, I would come up with a story.”

Lesley’s book, “Remember Me” is a journey that begins brightly and sharply but fades away at the end.

Lesley’s grandfather grew up on a farm in the Anniston area and spent a lot of time behind a mule and plow.

“He and my grandmother ran away and got married when they were 16 years old, and they moved to Michigan where he decided to become a preacher,” Lesley said. “The first church he served was in Anniston. Then, they went to California and back to Michigan and then to Texas. My grandfather loved to travel and to hunt and fish. He loved nature, especially birds. But he never forgot his days growing up on the farm.”

When dementia faded most of his memories, Lesley said he would often speak of the farm and plowing the field.

“What I tried to show with the book is how memory fades, how life becomes a blur and loved ones become faceless,” Lesley said. “At the beginning of the book, the images are sharp and clear. Toward the ending, the art becomes more abstract and dark and less descriptive until there is just a blank page. Nothing else to remember.”

Lesley said “Remember Me” is a journey that has taught her a lot about herself and her family.

“I’ve learned a lot about where I came from and why I’m the way I am,” she said. “I’ve learned a lot about my family. It was an enlightening experience. I wish I had known my grandfather better. I wish that I could have heard the stories from him. I wish he could have told them to me.

“But now I know stories about my grandfather and, when I have children, I can pass the stories on to them and to my grandchildren. I know now how important it is to share our stories with others, especially with family because ‘Nothing lasts forever.’”

*Editor’s note: Lesley Graham’s grandfather was Albert Bowman and her grandmother was Dorothy Dot Bowman.