Hi Sally, welcome to Café Cala,
I’m delighted to have you visit Café Cala. I really enjoyed The Things We Keep and now I’m looking forward to reading your first novel. I’ve been making a fig cake this morning. Would you like tea or coffee with yours?
Thank you for having me. Fig Cake! I think I’ll take tea. English Breakfast. Milk, no sugar.
1 Where did you get the idea for The Things We Keep?
The seed for The Things We Keep was planted several years ago, when I watched a TV segment about a young woman—a newlywed—who was pregnant with her first child. She had also recently been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease at 31 years old. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I had no idea that people so young could have this disease. And I wondered: what must it be like to lose your memories when you are supposed to be making them?
Then, only a year or two ago, I was having coffee with a friend who is a nurse at a dementia facility. She told me about an elderly man and woman who held hands in the communal living area of the centre every day. They were both non-verbal and their memories were less than five minutes long. Yet every day, they sat next to each other and held hands.
It got me thinking about that TV segment I’d watched years earlier. And about the relationship between love and memory. I thought to myself: maybe, just maybe, this is a book.
2 What have you found most rewarding about your writing?
Seeing your book on the shelf of a bookstore is enormously rewarding. It has a way of magically erasing all the hard times that came before it. Of course, the actual writing process has its joys, and I do rather enjoy the process of dreaming up a new story … but nothing beats seeing your book on the shelf for the first time.
3 How did you start writing?
Well, I learned to write when I was five … and ever since then I’ve been writing stories. Before that I made-up stories in my head. But I started writing with a view to publication while on maternity leave with my son (who is now 6). Since then, I have written 4 novels—3 of which have been published, the other will be published next year. (my first novel, Love Like The French, was published in the German language only).
4 What would you say has helped you most?
My writer friends have been amazing. I have a great network of author friends, and we all read each other’s work and provide a sounding board for each other in what can be a solitary business. I honestly do not know where I’d be without them.
5 What are you working on at the moment?
I’m doing a final read through of my new novel, By Myself with You. I’ll be sending it off to my editor in the next few days. Eeeek!
6 What advice would you offer aspiring writers?
Arm yourself with the mechanics of novel writing (through short courses, or reading some of the many books out there). Some writers believe this can stifle the creative process, but I find it better to know the rules and consciously break them, than to not know the rules at all.
7 Which authors do you enjoy reading?
I read a lot of women’s fiction. My favourite authors are Sue Monk Kidd, Liane Moriarty and Jodi Picoult. Lately I’ve also been partial to a psychological thriller. Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, Girl on a Train by Paula Hawkins and Pretty Baby by Mary Kubica were all fantastic.
Anna Forster, in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease at only 38 years old, knows that her twin, Jack, has chosen Rosalind House because Luke, another young resident is there. As if, Anna muses, a little companionship will soften the unfairness of her fate.
Eve Bennett also comes to Rosalind House reluctantly. Once a pampered wealthy wife she is now cooking and cleaning to make ends meet.
Both women are facing futures they didn’t expect. And with only unreliable memories to guide them, they have no choice but to lean on and trust something more powerful. Something closer to the heart.
The Things We Keep is the product of my desire to tell a story about love defying all odds.
No one trusts anything I say. If I point out, for example, that the toast is burning or that it’s time for the six o’clock news, people marvel. How about that? It is time for the six o’clock news. Well done, Anna. Maybe if I were eighty-eight instead of thirty-eight, I wouldn’t care. Then again, maybe I would. As a new resident of Rosalind House, an assisted-living facility for senior citizens, I’m having a new appreciation for the hardships of the elderly.
“Anna, this is Bert,” someone says as man slopes by, clutching the handles of his walker. I’ve been introduced to half a dozen people who look more or less like Bert: old, ashen, hunched-over. I suppose this is what they’ll all look like.
We’re on wicker lawn chairs in the streaming sunshine, and I know Jack brought me out here to make us both feel better. Yes, you’re checking into an old folks’ home, but look, it has a garden!
I wave to Bert, but my gaze is fixed across the lawn, where my five-year-old nephew, Ethan, is having coins pulled out of his ears by a man in a navy and red striped dressing gown. My mood lifts. Ethan always jokes that he’s my favorite nephew, and even though I deny it in public, it’s true. He’s the youngest of Jack’s boys, and definitely the best one.
Once, when he was four, I took him for a spin on my motorcycle. I didn’t even bother asking Brayden or Hank; I knew they’d just say it was dangerous and then tell their mother. As far as I know, Ethan never told. Brayden and Hank know what’s wrong with me—I can tell from the way they talk to me. But Ethan either doesn’t know or doesn’t care. I really don’t mind which one.
“And this is Clara.”
Clara wanders toward us with remarkable speed (compared to the others). She’s probably in her eighties—but portly, more robust looking than the rest. With a cloud of fluffy yellow-gray hair, she reminds me of a newborn chick.
“I’ve been looking forward to meetin’ you, honey,” she says, then gives me a whiskery kiss. A burst of fragrance fills my airspace. Normally I don’t like to be kissed, yet from her, the gesture feels oddly natural. And these days, I make a point of respecting people who are natural around me. “If you need anything at all, you let me know,” she says, then wanders off toward a huge oak tree. When she gets there, she kisses the man in the navy and red striped dressing gown full on the mouth in a way that feels vaguely territorial, like she’s staking her claim.
Beside me, Jack is to talking to Eric, the centre’s manager—a paunchy, red-faced man with a thick Tom Selleck mustache and a titter of a laugh that, by rights, should belong to a female in her eighties. Every time I hear it (which is a lot, he seems to chortle at the end of just about every sentence), I jerk around, looking for a ladies’ auxiliary group giggling over its knitting. He and Jack talk, and I listen without really hearing. “We do a lot of activities and will keep her active . . . twenty-four-hour care and security . . . experience with dementia . . . the best possible place for her . . .”
Blah, blah, blah. Eric has a certain desperate-to-please manner about him, but all in all, he could be worse. When we arrived, he spoke directly to me, asking my advice on an old knee injury that had been giving him some trouble. He needed a doctor not a paramedic, and I explained this, but I appreciated the question. These days, the most interesting conversations I have are about my favourite colour or type of food. I like it when people remember that I’m a person, not just a person with Alzheimer’s.
Jack seems to have forgotten that. Ever since I went to live with him and Helen, he’s stopped being my brother and started being my dad, which is beyond annoying. He thinks I don’t hear when he and Helen whisper about me in the kitchen. That I don’t notice they exchange a look whenever I offer to walk the boys to school. That I don’t see Helen trailing me in the car, making sure I don’t become disoriented on the way there.
Jack’s been through this before—we both have—and I know he considers himself a expert. I have to keep reminding him that he’s an attorney, not a neurologist. Besides, the situations are very different. Mom was in denial about her disease. She fought to hang on to her independence right up to the point when she burned down the family home. But I have no plans to fight the inevitable.
The upside of this place, if I’m choosing to be positive, is that not everyone is nuts. Jack and I looked at a few of those dementia-specific units, and they were like Zombie City, full of crazies and folks doing the seven-mile stare. This place, at least, is also for the general aging community—the ones who need their meals cooked and laundry done, or a reminder to take their medication—kind of a hotel for the elderly (the wealthy elderly, judging by the zeros on the check Jack wrote this morning).
Still, I’m not exactly thrilled to be here. It was bad enough when Jack sent me to “day care.” Seriously, that’s what it’s called. A day program for people like me. Also for people not like me, because with only 5 percent of Alzheimer’s cases occurring in people under the age of sixty-five, there aren’t a lot of people like me. That’s what makes this situation all the more unusual. I’m not checking into just any residential care facility—no sirree. We’ve travelled all the way to Short Hills, New Jersey, from Philadelphia so I can live in a facility with someone like me. A guy, also with younger-onset dementia, someone Jack heard about through the Dementia Support Network. Since learning about the guy, Jack has been hell-bent on getting me into the very same care facility, which is weird. As though having two young people in a place filled with oldies makes it spring break instead of residential care.
“Would you like to meet Luke, Anna?” Eric asks, and Jack nods enthusiastically. Luke must be the guy. Apparently, they’ve been saving him for last. Maybe he’s going to rappel down from a tree or something? It will have to be something impressive if they think it’s going to make a difference.
“No. I just want to go to my room.”
I stand. Jack and Eric exchange a look, and I feel the wind leave their sails.
“Sure,” Jack says. “Do you want me to take you there? Anna?”
My vision starts to blur. I don’t want to look at Jack, but he stands up, too, gets right in my face so I can’t look anywhere else. His eyes are full and wet, and I catch a glimpse of the softhearted man he used to be before his brushes with dementia and abandonment hardened him up.
“Anna,” he says, “I know you’re scared.”
“Scared?” I snort. But I am scared. The funny thing about being a twin is that all your life, someone is right by your side. But in a moment, Jack’s going to leave. And then I’m going to be alone.
“Get lost, would you?” I tell Jack finally. “I have a pedicure booked in half an hour. This place has a health spa, right?”
Jack laughs and gets to his feet, shooing a drop from his cheek. When he was younger Jack used to sport a golden tan, but now his skin is pale, almost as white as my own. I suspect this may be my fault. “Ethan! Come and say good-bye to Anna.”
Ethan thunders across the lawn to us and tosses himself into my arms. My little blond nephew, I notice, still has a tan. He strangles me in a hug. “Bye, Anna Banana.”
When he pulls away, I take a long hard look at the large white bandage covering his left cheek and try to remember the angry red burns and welts underneath. I need to remember them. They’re the reason I’m here.
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