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In the windowless Brain Centre the doctor sits across from us.
“You had an appointment for a memory test two years ago. Why didn’t you show up then?” he asks.
My mother, a Glaswegian, the research subject, replies, “Well, I am never late. I always keep my appointments.”
“I guess you forgot,” says the doctor. We smile just to be polite. He stares back coldly. (No irony in the brain world.)
The doctor says, “I am going to say three words. And then I am going to ask you a question. Do you understand?”
“Yes,” my mother replies.
The doctor says, “Shirt. Honesty. Brown. What is the middle word I just said?”
“Oh, well,” says my mother. “It is a very good personal quality to have. Sorry, I cannae remember. Emm . . . Honesty is the best policy?”
The doctor tries it another way. “Humility. Honesty. Modesty. Please name the second word.”
My mother lowers her eyebrows. “Ach. I wouldnae choose. I believe in all of them.”
The doctor frowns. He makes a note. I take out my own notebook and make a note. The doctor makes a note of this too.
The doctor asks what different parts of the body are for. “For example,” he says, “what are the arms and legs for? How are they similar?”
My mother moves her arms, in simulated jogging. “Aye. They both get yehs moving. They get yeh oot and into the world. They’re not the main body. Not near the heart.”
The doctor frowns again. He makes a note. I make a note. He points to my mother’s hand. “What are these?”
“Oh!” she says, laughing. “Yer knuckles.”
He lets this one go, leans closer. “How are crying and laughing the same?”
She laughs again. “Ha! Well, I donnae understand that question. I mean, I wouldnae want to put it that way in the first place.”
“But how are they the same?”
“Well, they’re not. They’re not the same. One’s when yer sad and the other’s when yer happy.”
He writes in his notebook again. My mother remarks: “Ach. Guess I’m not doing too well on tha test!”
Another question. “How are eating and sleeping the same?”
“I really don’t look at it like tha.”
“But how are they the same?”
“They’re not the same.”
The doctor tells my mother to take a piece of paper in her left hand and fold it, using only that hand.
She takes the paper and begins folding. “Ye have to fold it right. Make the edges meet. I used to wrap presents in a department store when I was a shopgirl in Glasgow. And then in London during the war. I was promoted to supervisor. Ye have to use both hands.”
When the doctor asks about her family, my mother replies that she has one sister and a brother who died in the war. Another brother lives downtown.
“What does he do?” the doctor asks.
“He sings into the phone,” my mother replies. “Mostly Hank Williams. He knows twelve songs and can yodel two.”
The doctor makes a note. He asks how far my mother went in school. She answers, “Grade 8. Then I had to go to work in the pop bottle factory.”
“Where else did you work?”
“In department stores.”
“Which one? The Bay? Woodward’s?”
“No, it wasnae in Canada.” My mother looks at me like the doctor is losing it. “I was a shopgirl in London. At Woolworth’s.”
After a pause, he says, “Boat. Train. Car. What do these three words have in common?”
“That’s how I came to Canada. Ho! And in that order.”
“Boat. Train. Car. What was the first word I said?”
My mother replies, “The Lady Nelson.”
“Mrs. Gaylie,” the doctor says firmly. “What was the first word I said?”
“The Lady Nelson,” my mother says firmly. “That was the name of the boat I came to Canada in. It used to be a banana boat in the Panama Canal. I can still see it sitting there waitin’ fer us at the dock in Southhampton. Ach.”
He asks my mother to draw circles and boxes as three-dimensional shapes. She draws dotted lines for the inside and the back of the box, the parts she can’t see. The pencil meanders around the page a little bit. It looks like a cartoon box, but it’s good.
“I’ve never been an artist,” she laughs.
He asks my mother to write a sentence. I tell him that when we were growing up she wrote shopping lists for nine children, wrote our names on paper lunch bags every day, managed the household finances, wrote letters to us when we went to camp, wrote letters to her cousins in Glasgow. I tell the doctor that apart from lists and letters, her literacy was talking.
The doctor says, “Okay . . .”
“Oh no,” my mother says, with a laugh. “I can do this one. Em. A sentence.” She begins reciting a poem. “Do you know the one, Oh take me down to the sea and sky, Oh take me down to the sea . . .?”
The doctor says he does not know the poem.
“It’s a good one,” my mother says to the doctor. “Yeh should write that one down. Poetry can really cheer yehs up.” She smiles at him encouragingly.
He tells us the test is over.
As we walk out the door, she gives the doctor and everyone in the waiting room a big wave. “It was nice to meet yehs. Thank you very much. Take good care of yerselves noo!”
The door closes.
In the parking lot at the Brain Centre, my mother says, “Yeh see. Yehs have to boost them up a wee bit. Ach. They’re bored stiff. They donnae like their jobs. Just give them a few things to keep them goan.”
“Yes,” she adds, getting in the car. “An’ remember I said tha.”