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Counting crows

A daughter recounts her mother’s memory loss—and mounting fascination with crow figurines

My mother loves crows.

She is 73 now, but she was 55 when my father died of cancer. I was a sophomore in college. When we buried his ashes six months later, crows pecked at the gray ground around the gravestone. They were on our heels, indifferent to our task, quick to do their work.

At the time, my mother was in the midst of finishing a Ph.D. in English literature, the final step in a plodding path away from her first career as a psychiatric nurse—the only profession she had been told was available to her in 1962. After the burial, she wrote a poem about the crows in the cemetery. The birds became portents. Whenever she saw them, there was my father. Her grief was cloying. I let her have it. I went back to school and crawled into bed between classes.

But it wasn’t until my mother began collecting crow figurines that I became alert to their presence. If I were my dog, I would have gently torqued one ear toward the disturbance. The crows started to show up in my mother’s 1890s Vermont farmhouse at an exponential rate. Every time I came home for a visit there were more. Silk-screened prints, magnets, pillows. My teeth hurt when she asked me what I thought about her new acquisitions in a voice that peaked in a kind of delight I wished she was getting from a new novel, or a lecture at the college up the road.

The house in Vermont is not the house I grew up in. It is the house my mother purchased several years after my father died, claiming ghosts—his, our former lives’—were haunting my childhood home in Western Massachusetts.

It was true that he still seemed to sit in his corduroy-upholstered reading chair, twitching his skinny ankles, and reading the New York Review of Books. If the neighbor’s car were blocking the shared driveway, I could hear him rant: “I’m a physician! I should have my own driveway!” To me, his ghost was life-giving; he was still alive in the curve of his roll-top desk and the floor-to-ceiling built-in bookshelves stuffed with oversized World War II histories and Saul Bellow. For my mother, these were objects of an afterlife—and the house was a tomb. She loved my father, but their relationship was fraught for reasons that eluded me. She had never lived without a man and expected she would have another relationship.

Though my heart broke when she decided to move 45 minutes north across the border of Massachusetts into Vermont, I visualized sweeping the shards into a tidy pile and putting them away without protest; I didn’t live at home anymore and was well into my second job after college. Who was I to deny her a second chapter? She packed up my father’s books in a pair of white cotton shorts, her tanned, long legs lean with new muscles from the work of moving. In Vermont, she continued to teach literature at a small liberal arts college. But she never had another serious partner, a fact she bemoaned with circling, multiplying repetition that enraged me. She focused on the crows in the absence of romance. When the birds came to pick up dinner scraps on her new Vermont lawn, she’d say they were my father, coming to tell her she had picked a good house.

The crow collection didn’t begin to accumulate until my mother retired from teaching several years ago. I worried about what she would do with her time, but she insisted she was done. She was losing words in class; everyone was texting behind their copies of Maus; the female students refused to cover their midriffs; adjuncts were expected to attend meetings on their days off.

Not long after, every time I came home there would be more crows in the house. “Isn’t it wonderful? I just couldn’t resist!”

It wasn’t that my mother was a minimalist. The walls of my parents’ house were hung with art. Oak antiques anchored oriental rugs. But my parents were meticulous. My memories of the seasons align with cycles of cleaning: storm windows hosed down on the yard in spring, the soapy rivulets killing ants in the driveway; porch furniture scrubbed, stacked, and stored in the basement for winter. I don’t remember dust, probably because, for my father, vacuuming produced the same serenity as his other cure-all: half an Ativan under the tongue.

So the crows were increasingly disturbing. They were at odds with my mother’s impeccable taste. The only things she had “collected” previously were Bakelite kitchen tools and green-and-white diner china—each teetering stack a vignette waiting for Joel Meyerowitz to snap a photo. She’d been wearing Flax and large sterling silver statement pins since the ’80s and used the word “epaulets” without blinking.

The growing collection of birds—and a failure to discern the artistic merit of one crow print over another letter-pressed crow greeting card—was out of place with her perfectionism, her linen skirts, her mise en place, her vocal disdain for anything “silly.” At the same time, her always specific and refined speech deteriorated. Words were lost or oddly placed. Emails sometimes looked as if they’d been run through cheap translation software. I would squint as I read them, as if that would better help me mine their meaning, and then become flushed with fury after I confronted her about alcohol or drug use or growing confusion, and she wouldn’t, or couldn’t, acknowledge what was happening, let alone tell me why.

Now, years from the beginning of the crow collection, my mother’s life was growing narrower, at once singularly focused and blurry around the edges. Her attention was elliptical, siloed. When she stopped teaching, she stopped doing most everything else. Friendships fell away. So did gardening and taking long walks and writing poetry. She drank and lied about it. Crises began to dot the landscape of my sleep, calls coming in after midnight: Two DUIs, a broken femur with no memory of how it happened, a month in physical rehab, a trip to the emergency room after a paranoid vision at 3 a.m., and finally, a diagnosis of dementia, likely to become Alzheimer’s. Like the crows at the cemetery: all of this arriving too early.

If we are lucky enough to have parents who are our home, where is home when they abandon themselves? On visits to my mother’s house during this time, I clung to the myth that its methodical order was a mirror of her mind. But she was a danger to herself, and because she was drinking and driving, others, too. And even if I didn’t need rescuing or protecting anymore, the realization that she couldn’t do either made me feel, more than ever, that I was my own home. The idea was a new heartbreak and a strange, freeing relief.

Last fall, I moved my mother to an independent living facility three hours north of her house. She’d be closer to my older sister, and at least she’d be under some kind of surveillance. She’d be forced to socialize. I told her she didn’t have a choice and that we wouldn’t sell her house. I told her this was an experiment. I didn’t tell her that this was an intervention.

Her one-bedroom apartment has cream-colored, wall-to-wall carpeting and new marble countertops. I picked it for her because the windows face a vast lawn, a line of trees, and Lake Champlain beyond. My mother is the youngest one in the “residence,” but she is frailer than many, hunched over from her repaired femur and not enough physical therapy.

I moved some of her furniture and art into the apartment, so now there are blank spots in her house, as if someone took an eraser to panels in one of the graphic novels she loves. Her apartment, by contrast, is a weird, unfinished facsimile of our home—or our collective homes.

In addition to her knock-off Corbusier lounger and the bed she and my father shared, my mother also brought two of her crow figurines to the new apartment. They are black, iron, about 5 inches tall, and heavy as urns. She’s placed them on a windowsill, their heads bowed toward each other.

An email came from her this week. The messages are clearer now without alcohol, if still fractured. “P.S.,” she wrote. “Gorgeous clouds across the length of the entire lake. I saw my nearly beautiful, graceful 100 crows (I counted them) as they passed again heading east, just as they were last night.”

Laura Raskin lives and runs in Brooklyn, writes about architecture, and has been accused of taking too many photos of her dog.