Marcia Gay Harden on her new memoir about Alzheimer's: 'I do for my mother what she can no longer do. I remember.'

Marcia Gay Harden attends the Build Series at Build Studio on May 2, 2018, in New York City. (Photo by Rob Kim/Getty Images)

Marcia Gay Harden is known for being an Oscar- and Tony-winning actress and a mainstay on primetime TV. But before she was celebrated for her craft, became a mother, or got her MFA or first role, she was Beverly’s daughter. 

Beverly Harden is a mother of five. She’s the widow of a Navy captain, a bona fide Southern belle, and a master of ikebana, the Japanese art of flower arranging.

But now, most days Beverly doesn’t know who she is — Alzheimer’s disease has stolen her memory.

“In this book, I do for my mother what she can no longer do,” Harden writes in her newly published book, The Seasons of My Mother: A Memoir of Love, Family, and Flowers. “I remember.”

Harden spoke with Yahoo Lifestyle about about motherhood, memory, the gift of beauty, and her new memoir. 

Yahoo Lifestyle: Why did you decide to write this book?
Marcia Gay Harden: I remember feeling really angry that [my mother] had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. She was forgetting how to do things, from ikebana to cooking dinner. She was losing her ability to create beauty. I thought, “I do not want her legacy to be this hideous disease.” So I thought, “I’m going to write that freaking book if it’s the last thing I do.”


Why did you incorporate ikebana as a theme in the book?
When I think of my mother, the first word that comes to mind is “ikebana.” There was always an incredible flower arrangement in our house. It was a live sculpture. It’s having something in the home that is superfluous but not. It was her gift to the house.

Ikebana was also her gift to the world, right, through her work with Ikebana International?
Exactly. That’s what it became. They were hosting dignitaries and ikebana masters. I think, through the arts, we grow closer together as cultures, and that’s what Mom’s goal was — through the arts, to bring our cultures together. And she did.

 

As a Navy wife living in Japan and Greece, your mother taught you the importance of adaptability — being able to change and flourish in any environment. How has that informed your work as an actress?
I wonder if my love of acting came with this love of moving to different places and being able to be a different person and leave your past behind — not that, at 7 years old, it was such a tawdry past. But to start fresh — that was the journey of a military brat. And Mom’s journey and Mom’s lesson to me was to immerse myself in that culture so I could more fully grasp it. So I guess I do the same thing with roles.

She taught me a certain kind of bravery — a can-do-ness. It was sort of disconcerting because my mother is dainty and proper. But underneath it is this spirit of: Go get ’em. Why not? You can if you think you can. And she’s given me that strength.


How do you describe the link between memory and identity?
Memory — as we grow older and throughout our lives — is a companion. I describe it as a compass. It tells us who we are. It’s the way we tell stories. It’s the way we hand down history. It is at the core of the human experience. And that my mother is losing hers is an absolute tragedy. It’s a lonely road.

What’s the most important thing your mother taught you about motherhood?
Mom said she loved all her children individually because they were all individuals. And I understand that completely. It’s about acceptance. My kids are each very different. My son is openly gay. And, of course, I accept him. I love him unconditionally. My mother had acceptance and unconditional love for all of us.

The second one is make your home beautiful. I really try to do that. I like when I come home or my kids come home, and it feels good. It feels fresh. There’s an ikebana arrangement — not a great one, but it’s there. It’s a gift.

 

What was the hardest part of writing this book?
Finishing it. The early chapters were all about the past and stories. Then there was about a year that I stopped. I couldn’t tackle the part about Alzheimer’s. I wanted to make sure that I represented her in a way that my brothers and sisters would be OK with. But I kept saying, “It’s my book. It’s my memories. Just go ahead and do it.”

I wanted her to be able to see it and feel something, even if she won’t remember it. And I wanted to make a difference. It is infuriating, and there are 5.7 million Americans and 44 million people worldwide who don’t remember who they were.

How has your mother’s illness changed the way you live your day to day life?
We are cutting out a lot of sugar. And I have 14-year-old twins, so try cutting out sugar! Another thing they say to do is exercise — and not just walking happily on the treadmill for half an hour. You’ve really got to sweat. And I don’t like that. Now I try to pump it up. So the science of Alzheimer’s has really affected how we live.

You write that your mother understood the importance of standing still. Do you find yourself doing that these days?
Yes, I do. I’m anxious a lot. I think about her a lot. I wish I could take it away. I wish I could cure her. I want it to be back the way it was, but it won’t be. In that, I just have to be still. But also just to be still and recognize what I have — the miracles and beauty and blessings around me.

What would your mother think about your book if she could somehow read and understand it?
If the book made a difference in the Alzheimer’s world, if the book helped a caregiver, if the book helped a daughter understand her mother, if the book is bringing beauty to people, I think Mom would be proud. I think she would have a tinge — like a high violin string — of sadness that she had lost her memory.

But she would also be proud that the essence of her is so incredibly graceful that it can’t be taken away. There’s this stillness and beauty and kindness, and a little bit of wit. And that’s who she is.

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