Maya Benjamin, Humans of Dementia Winner
Third Place, High School (Buckingham Browne & Nichols School, Cambridge, MA)Learn More About the 2021 Contest
After 102 years of an incredible life, Margaret O’Connor passed away on February 8th, 2021. Although she may have left this world without her memory, her memory lives on in all of the lives she touched. Read part of her story below:
She sits across from me at the table, legs crossed wrinkled fingers interlaced tightly in her lap. Her pale blue eyes stare intently into mine. Despite the soft smile on her face, her comfort is false. I can tell she has no idea who I am but, something in the tense composure of her face tells me she knows she should.
She starts the story the same every time as if this is the first time I’m hearing it as if it’s not routine.
When I was sixteen years old, I dropped out of high school and three of my girlfriends, the first love of my life, and I went on tour dancing all over the country and parts of Canada.
Even though I’ve heard the story hundreds of times, I still find myself at the edge of my seat waiting to hear what comes next.
I was born in the jazz era when Louis Armstrong ruled the radio. However, I was lucky enough to be able to sing on the radio as well with my father and uncle. Of course, we never lived up to the fame of the renowned Louis Armstrong, but singing was still one of my passions. I could harmonize with pretty much anything that could breathe and started taking singing lessons in my early teen years to fine-tune my skills. We started and ended every show by singing the same jingle: “To all our fans we’re calling you, we hope you’re all tuned in tonight. We are here to entertain you with the songs we think you’ll like. Your request will be considered if not now some other night. So again we’re calling you until it’s time to say goodnight.”
Something in my heart pangs as she sings these 91-year-old lyrics. Somehow these words never left her yet the face of her own great-granddaughter sitting across from her has. I smile at her, hoping that maybe if I smile hard enough it will force her brain to remember me.
I met Don when I was only sixteen, little did I know that he was the man who would one day change my life. Don had been traveling the country with another woman singing and dancing. Don had heard of my talent and, in an effort to expand his gig, approached me asking if I would join.
This Don she spoke of was my great-grandfather, a man I never got to meet. She describes him as I’ve never heard his name like I don’t know the type of man he was. I know Grandpa Don.
I was so young but what he was offering, the opportunity to do what I loved all across the country, was something I couldn’t pass up. So I got together three of my girlfriends and we set out to go with Don. From then on, we were no longer the naive Margret, Evelyn, Claire, and Dorothy with a strange mid-twenty-year-old man, but “Don Alvin and His Girls”.
I recite the girls’ names in my head as she says them out loud. I’ve never met them but I know their stories. I know of their families, I know of what an impact they had on my great-grandmother’s life.
I smile to show her I’m delighted by what she says, even though I know the story forward and back and could finish it for her. Seeing me happy makes her smile too, her remaining teeth protruding from her mouth. She doesn’t even know me.
Everyone says it’s hard to know if you’re in the good old days until you have left them. However, with me, I always knew these were my good old days. I knew no matter how old I got, I could never forget these moments we shared.
I’m selfish to wish that somewhere in her 101-year-old brain, my face would remain of importance. I’m selfish to wish that my name would cause her heart to warm. I’m selfish to wish that, with such an incredible life to look back on, she would remember me.
She doesn’t need to remember me. I can remember her.
She finishes the story and, as usual, I applaud and, as usual, she tips her head in a shy bow. I stand and reach my hands out to help her from her chair.
“I love you, Granny,” I say.
She looks at me like she’s drowning like she’s fallen deep into the cool, blue pools in her
“Granny?” she says.
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