In Illness and in Health:

Daughters Storying Mothers' Lives

A Multimedia Installation

presented at the conference

Mothers and Education: Issues and Directions for Maternal Pedagogy

Brock University, St. Catharines, Ontario, 1999

Maura McIntyre and Ardra L. Cole

Ontario Institute for Studies in Education

of the University of Toronto


In the early spring this year an old friend came to Maura's house to visit her mother. Rick has known Maura's mum for over thirty years. They met in the 60's at a drop in centre for at-risk youth in North York–her mum was a social worker consulting to the program, Rick a public school principal working in the area. What began as a professional relationship turned into a close personal friendship: shared political values, a mutual sense of irreverence in the world, and a love of good clean fun led to a full bodied relationship.

When Rick saw Maura's mother this spring he was shocked by how diminished she is: his intelligent, vibrant, lively friend is now confused, disoriented and fully incontinent. Her mother was delighted to see Rick, although she couldn't locate his name, and wasn't able to articulate in words what they held in common. But at one point during lunch there was a moment of full recognition: she turned to him and delivered a perfectly timed, perfectly executed wink. Startled by the fullness of her presence in that moment we all laughed and Rick said: "You know Eilene... you're still teaching, and Maura and I... we're still learning."

The installation pieces that comprise this exposition are intended to capture the continuity of teaching and learning in the mother-daughter relationship, in illness and in health.

The memory loss that accompanies Alzheimer's is perhaps the most striking feature of the disease. Those stricken with Alzheimer's gradually lose touch with themselves, their loved ones, and their personal and social location. They forget. Those in primary caregiving roles can also experience a kind of memory loss as they get caught up in the immediacy of coping with the practical difficulties associated with caring for someone with Alzheimer's disease. In order to explain the personality changes and unpredictable behaviours that accompany the loss of memory it is often said that the person is gone. As daughters we feel a certain imperative to actively remember our mothers–who they were as healthy, vital women and who they became as women stricken with Alzheimer's. For us, the process of actively remembering our mothers returns to them their dignity and makes explicit their ongoing capacity and continuing role as educators in our lives. Our presentation takes the form of a three-part multimedia installation which we use as a metaphorical frame to remember and represent elements of our mothers' lives and to interrogate the constructs of illness and health as they relate to mother-daughter pedagogical and relational connections.

The installations are informed by our independent and collective remembering, reflection, and sense making of our experiences of our mothers in wellness and illness. Personal writing, journals, caregiving notes, photographs, personal documents, and a series of structured conversations helped us to identify points of connection and common themes in our experience. These, combined with the actual creation of the installations, helped us to explore the questions: Who were our mothers when they were well? What aspects of their identity is it important for us to preserve and why? How do the lessons learned from our mothers shift through illness? How do they stay the same? What do we continue to learn from them?

Installation 1: Still Life with Alzheimer's

Installation 2: Life Lines

Installation 3: Life Cycle

Installation 1:

Still Life with Alzheimer's

(Maura and Eilene)

materials: three fridge fronts, black and white photographs, colour photographs, magnets, wire

description: The fronts from three white fridges backed with wire are hung in "chronological" order on a wall. The first, a "Norge Customatic" circa 1950, has rounded edges and chunky chrome. Affixed to its front with magnets are photos, mostly in black and white. Mother, with horn rimmed glasses and red, red lipstick is young. Daughter is infant, is baby, is girl, is teen. The second fridge, an "Admiral Deluxe" circa 1965, is rectangular and sharp cornered, the chrome handle stream lined and pointy. It is covered with photos, this time in colour. Mother and daughter are both adults. The final fridge, a "Westinghouse" circa 1980 is so plain that it is nondescript. In the photos mother is ill, daughter is older.

In presenting the images Maura felt that she needed to find a way for the medium and the message to intertwine. She realized that she wanted to recapture that feeling of movement, of the everyday, of ordinariness in the mother-daughter relationship over time. And what could be more everyday, more ordinary than a refrigerator? Refrigerator fronts are not for posed family portraits. Fridge photos are not framed and finished but full of movement and vitality. Fridges are where we put snapshots, those fleeting moments caught by the camera. Fridge photos, themselves, are not permanent: they might get wet, stained, or lost. They hold the indelible yet ephemeral images of everyday life.

interpretive text: On the first fridge, Maura's mother is young and vital. She is "getting into the car", she is "working in the kitchen", she is "a young professional". Maura is "baby in the bath", she is "toddler running on the grass", she is "irreverent adolescent sitting on the kitchen table". Together they are "beside the wading pool", they are "at the table eating", they are "walking through the snow". Life.

On the second fridge, Maura's mother is middle aged and vital. She is "travelling in Japan", she is "costumed and outrageous", she is "naked holding grandson". Maura is "travelling to France", she is "on a ladder roofing", she is "sitting naked with son in wading pool". Together it is "Maura's university graduation" and her mother has just hooded her, they are "deep in conversation", they are "laughing together on the couch". They are enjoying being adult women together. Still life.

On the final fridge, Maura's mother is older and ill. She is still "costumed and outrageous", but what we know is that someone has helped to dress her up. It is "her birthday" and Maura's daughter has presented her with her diabetic jello "cake". She is slumped over, "sleeping in the easy chair". Together, they are "in her wheel chair bike" but Maura is driving; she is "being bathed" and Maura is bathing her; "she is eating" and Maura is helping her. Still life with Alzheimer's.

The images on the three fridges represent both the changes in Maura and Eilene as individuals and the changing roles they have assumed in each other's lives. The images also reflect how little they each have changed and the continuity in their relationship. Taken together these images form a narrative of teaching and learning in a mother-daughter relationship, in illness and in health.

Still Life with Alzheimer's

(Ardra and Marie)

materials: photographic images on foam core; narrative text on paper

description: The photo-narrative depicts, through visual and literary text, how, while relational roles may shift through wellness and illness, the fundamental nature of the mother-daughter connection transcends time, circumstance, and context. Also illuminated is the history that is often forgotten when a vital, active woman becomes just another resident to care for. The photographic images and the narrative texts each tell a separate but interrelated story. They can be read as parallel or corresponding texts.

The visual images, selected from family photograph albums, were chosen because they so clearly signify the mother-daughter connection over a life span and poignantly elucidate the role reversal that inevitably occurs when Alzheimer's interrupts, confuses, and redefines a relationship.

The texts contained within the books are modified excerpts from personal reflections written as part of a larger memoir. The books were created to frame the text because books, like photographs, exhibit a permanency that reminds us that, regardless of human capacity, a life has a history and is a rich text. The selections exemplify the elemental nature of a mother-daughter relationship and how, regardless of location, the depth of that relationship is expressed through attending to the most basic human physical and emotional needs. The stories themselves also prompt us to remember the person inside the fading mind and body of someone with Alzheimer's disease.

interpretive text: One of several narrative threads joining the images is physical connection. The movement from mother holding daughter, to close but independent physical proximity, to daughter holding mother portrays the cyclical and reciprocal nature of relational interdependence. Metaphorically, the holding of daughter and mother signifies a reluctance to let go–of the other, of roles, and of that relationship.

The brief narrative excerpts each tell a human story of relationship. They are presented in small word clusters or meaning units to encourage readers to hold onto and be thoughtful about each word on each page of text–to pause and remember, to engage in the creation of a personal narrative. The ambiguity in the text created by the undefined use of the pronoun "her" highlights the role reversal of mother and daughter in health and illness. It also creates a level of discomfort brought about by the acknowledgement of the close association between independence and human dignity.

Installation 2:

Life Lines

materials: concrete blocks, clothes line wire, aluminum clothes line reels, "s" hooks, nylon rope, clothes pins, clothes pin bag, astro turf, folding lawn chair, sprinkler, fan, overwashed white female undergarments

description: A free standing clothes line about 20 feet in length is held up by ropes and secured by concrete blocks at each end. Astro turf carpeting represents the grass below; a chair invites the viewer to sit and relax. The clothes on the line are blowing in the breeze. The undergarments are ordered from left to right according to the time in the life cycle at which they are worn.

interpretive text: The female undergarments represent a life line of feminine learning. By airing our laundry in public, we are bringing into view what have traditionally been the private spaces of learning between mother and daughter. As our eyes move along the line from baby diaper to lace garter belt to adult diaper we are reminded of the shift in personal power over the most basic and private elements of a woman's life that occurs over a life span. The undergarments move differently in the breeze with varying degrees of liveliness–symbols of the changing nature of dependence along the life line. Our responses to each of the garments on the line, from the adorable baby's undershirt and plastic pants, through to the multi-hooked nylon brassiere and extra-large size plastic pants gives us information about each of these stages in the life cycle as a site of learning. Do we want to take the baby plastic pants off the line and see if they smell like powder? Or slip off with that padded push up bra and see if maybe it might fit? Do we want to take the adult diaper off the line and touch it?

Installation 3:

Life Cycle


Life Cycle is comprised of several installations of objects grouped in sets of three. The theme is education: what we learn from and then try to re-teach our mothers. Each set of objects contains a symbol of childhood, adulthood, and Alzheimer's hood. We have chosen two installations from Life Cycle–"reading" and "writing"–for our presentation at this conference.


materials: 3 wooden stands, books

description: Each of three books is lying open. The first, baby's first book (made out of hardened cardboard) is colourful, cheerful, and well worn. The second, the doctoral thesis is well kept, plain and serious. The third, a book of poetry, shows signs of disrespect and disrepair. Pages are ripped out, the margins have been written in and words underlined in crayon. Emerging out from between the pages are a packet of denture cleaning tablets, an emery board, and scraps of paper.

interpretive text: Baby is proud of her first book. She has mastered the alphabet. Her sturdy cardboard book is touchable proof of the solidness of her achievement. She likes to carry her book around and show it to people. She recites the alphabet and shows what a good learner she is.

Woman is proud of her thesis. She wrote it and she defended it. This solid hard bound book with her name embossed on the spine is touchable evidence of the solidness of her achievement. She feels proud when she thinks about it sitting on the shelf in the library.

Older woman won't be separated from her book. She likes to carry her book around and show it to people. She writes in it with crayons, with eyeliner, with anything that will make a mark and sometimes rips out the pages and puts them altogether in the toilet. She "reads" passages to show that it is her book.


materials: plain black picture frames with glass, childish handwriting sample, child's crayon drawing, postcards, stamped passport pages, sample of Alzheimerhood handwriting attempts

description: Three separate "collages" hang on the wall. Framed in the first is the confident printing of a little girl who knows her name and her place. She has accompanied her written work with a crayon drawing. The second frame holds a series of postcards and passport pages. The cursive writing is clear and fluent. The text indicates that the author is a world traveller who has strong family connections. The final frame holds an enlarged photo copy of an attempt by a woman with Alzheimer's to write name and address.

Interpretive text: Girl is proud of her first writing. She prints her name constantly, everywhere, in big block letters. Soon she can write her address too!

Woman loves to write home when she travels. She wants to share everything that she sees, hears, thinks, feels–all the places, all the people. She is constantly excited, she is constantly learning.

Older woman writes her name constantly, everywhere, in small tense handwriting. Soon her last name is too long, too difficult to get all the way through. Soon she can't write her address either.

In each of the Life Cycle installations, the sets of three objects tell a story of teaching and of learning. Girl is a proud learner; her reading brave, her writing bold. Woman is confident and independent; her writing lively, her reading significant. Older woman continues to seek access to these places of power in her past.

Please visit other examples of artful representations presented in this section. These can be viewed by clicking on the 'Projects/Artful Representations' page (at bottom) and then again on Projects/Artful Representations.

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