A few years ago, I was chatting with my mother, who is now 97, at her house on Menemsha Pond in Chilmark. At that point, the egrets on the Pond and her dog Lizzie were her principal interests. Family, politics and the fate of the Earth have long since faded into the distant suburbs of her consciousness. 

Our conversations tend to be a bit circular due to her lack of short-term memory. That’s just how it is. But while challenged memory-wise, my mother is an accomplished time-traveler. She frequently asks about the whereabouts of long-departed loved ones or announces that she’s expecting them to show up imminently. 

If I gently remind her of the year, that only confuses her further. She can never quite believe it when I tell her how old she is. And when informed that these important people in her life are long gone, she expresses no grief or longing, only mild surprise: “Well then, who was I thinking of?” 

A hundred times, I’ve reminded her that my father is resting comfortably, as only ashes can, in Abel Hill Cemetery. Once or twice, just for a change, I’ve tried to play along with her magical thinking that it’s still the 1990s (and in many ways, I wish it were.)

This may or may not be the kindest response; I’m not sure. Personally, I find such flights from truth draining, however well-intended. Truth is simpler and lazier than invention, which is why I only write nonfiction. 

The first sign of her decline came after the 2016 election, when I tried to elicit her reaction to the news. She shrugged it off with the reply: “I remember riding around my parents’ apartment on my tricycle and hearing the noise of the crowd over the radio when Roosevelt was elected.” 

Talk about brushing off the apocalypse. Okay Mom, I thought, are you saying I should just hop on a tricycle and pedal my worries away? (She also has trouble remembering that I’m no longer in third grade). 

But on this particular and fateful day, as we sat on her deck overlooking the pond, something unexpected happened. She suddenly announced that she was lonely and would like to meet people. That was so not like her — not then, and not ever. 

Shocked by her declaration, I went out on a limb and suggested the writing group for seniors at Howes House, run by the Up-Island Council on Aging in West Tisbury. I’d heard it was wonderful. And she further shocked me by expressing an interest in attending. 

I couldn’t help wondering if our conversation was all about shocking me and nothing else. For one thing, like I said, she’s not into people. For another, she hadn’t written much since graduate school in the early 1950s. As an editor, she’s great. But editors aren’t writers and vice versa. Writers are delicate flowers. Editors are brutes with clippers. 

In past years she read and commented on drafts of my books, very helpfully. But for decades before that, she complained about the inadequacy of my college application essay, which I only showed her after submitting it. She thought it was awful. But guess what? I got into college. 

Anyway, I rolled with the Howes House idea and promised I’d check out. But when I arrived at Howes House a few days later, I was told there was no longer a writing group because the facilitator had left the Island.  

With reckless nonchalance, I immediately offered my services, and my oral application was promptly accepted. I wasn’t asked whether I’d ever published anything or spent any time in jail. The folks at Howes House just sized me up and saw a proverbial flower. Or maybe a clipper. 

On the appointed day, when I arrived to facilitate, I was terrified because I didn’t have a clue about facilitating. My mother couldn’t make it that day due to another appointment. And a good thing, too, because no one else showed up to be facilitated. A one-on-one writing tutorial with my mother would have been — what can I say? — a non-event. A literary black hole.

I returned the following week (by now my mother had lost interest) and one person showed up. We had a nice talk about, if memory serves, writing. But that was the sum of my facilitating career.

Howes House was advertising the writing group, so it wasn’t their fault that no one came. And I know there are older people on the Island with a lot to say — people who recognize that conversation is just so much hot air, whereas writing is deliberative, profound and for the ages. 

But maybe word got out that the new facilitator wasn’t exactly Henry Beetle Hough. Or maybe they somehow got wind of the fact that, when I offered a complimentary copy of my last book to the Chilmark Public Library, it was politely but firmly declined. My mother, in her better days, would have had something to say about that. 

But I’m okay with it. I can write from a place of shame. I can even facilitate from such a place. 

As a seasonal-plus resident of West Tisbury, I remain available. I love older people, including my mother. They provide a master class in aging, and in life. Helping them to write would be a privilege. Besides, I belong to a writing group in New York where I’m the only one under 80.

My mother is now beyond writing, let alone meeting new people. But I’m still here and can do both. So, Howes House, if you’re listening, I’m still here.

Jeff Scheuer lives in West Tisbury. He is the author of Inside the Liberal Arts: Critical Thinking and Citizenship.