After The Forgetting
About After The Forgetting
This story started in my living room. I was teaching a youth radio class for the Vermont Folklife Center, and Greg Sharrow, my colleague and friend from the Folklife Center had agreed to a marathon interview with three high schools kids. I’d given the kids a few choice details about Greg’s life—of which there are many—and they’d each prepared some questions. Greg is perfect for anyone’s first interview. He’s completely open. He’ll answer anything. And he speaks in complete sentences. One of the kids had elected to talk with Greg about his mother who has dementia. It was a phenomenal interview. The kid dropped out of the youth radio project and I fell in love with the tape and decided to start working on a story about Greg and his mother.
I knew Marj. I’d met her at parties and eaten dinner with her at Greg and Bob’s. I’d sat in the backseat a few times when Greg drove her back to her assisted living place. I remember her exclaiming about the lights driving past Wendy’s, ‘Look at all that RED!’
Greg and I both did recordings at the dinner table, which was no easy proposition in a house with sixteen fish tanks and a cockatiel. Still, some nice stuff came of it. I started to think I’d frame the whole story around a single dinner. I spent a lot of hours making a cutlery track, which I thought I might run under the whole show…so when you were listening to an interview segment with Greg, for instance, you could still hear the dinner conversation in the background, and Greg would fade out and we’d come back to the conversation at dinner. Sort of like Glen Gould’s Idea of North. In the end it didn’t work. I didn’t have enough well-recorded dinner conversation to do it, and there wasn’t enough momentum in the story. I had to ditch the idea, and the cutlery track. Still, the dinner conversation is threaded through the story, and it starts and ends at the dinner table.
My favorite audio segments came from the interviews that Greg did with his mother on the couch at his house. They are the most relaxed and intimate; Marj’s mind is at its clearest, and some of the best non sequiturs happen in these conversations. ‘What would you like to do? Would you like to go on and on?’ I edited these sections pretty heavily and slowed them down a lot. I wanted it to feel like they were floating above the rest of the story somehow.
When the story was about an hour long, I sent it to SALT Institute’s Rob Rosenthal who had agreed to mentor me on this project as part of the AIR mentorship program. I had read about this mentoring program on the AIR website and jumped at the chance. Essentially, AIR offers its members four hours of advice time with a radio producer. I work alone and I don’t have any associates in radio. It was incredible to be able to talk with someone about this story at that uncomfortable stage of production when you’re wondering, ‘What is this? And who cares?’
Rob was incredible. He listened to the show and did two thorough paper edits, and his criticism helped me take a giant step back from the story and look at it fresh. He made excellent structural suggestions and I remember he pushed me hard to look for conflict. He was left wondering what was at stake for these people. I remember really studying the end of the show then, and noticing that it felt saccharin and bloated. In that initial version, Greg went on and on about all that his mother has taught him about being alive. At a certain time I really loved that tape. What he was saying seemed important and true. But I was also made uncomfortable by it somehow. It felt like a song that only I liked and that I was probably going to get sick of.
So I went back and interviewed Greg again. I remember we had kind of a snippy interview. I was really pushing him to tell me where the cracks were—what was hard or uncomfortable or maddening or even boring about having a mother who has dementia. He seemed put off by the questions and finally he became kind of exasperated with me and said, ‘I don’t care if she remembers me by name or not. I can’t imagine my relationship with my mother being any better than it is right now. There’s no loss here.’ And that became the end of the story. It summed up everything he’d said in the longer version, but it was short, incisive, and salty instead of sweet.
It seems that once your memory goes, what’s left are the basic beliefs you’ve carried around for a lifetime about yourself and the world. Both Marj and Greg approach their lives with a lot of passion and curiosity and it’s what Marj is left with now that her memory is gone. Her relationship with Greg continues to be deeply familiar and loving even though she can’t remember his name, and he’s still endlessly interested in her. After I spend time with them, I always feel like I’ve learned a lot about how to live well. I hoped that I could capture some of what I love about this family on tape, and also offer people a picture of how one family is managing dementia in a really graceful, loving way. I wanted to achieve this without ever using words like ‘loving’ or ‘graceful’. I wanted it to be simple, without any commentary or sanctimony. I hope I’ve managed to give listeners a sense of this family and how they live, and I’d sure welcome any feedback. Thanks so much for listening.
About The Music
I wanted to use ukulele in this story. It seemed like the right instrument to complement Marj, and I thought that old musical theater tunes would work well. Marj’s favorite song is Stardust. The only thing I really didn’t want the music to do was make me feel any particular, identifiable emotion. I wanted Marj and Greg and Bob to do that.
I don’t play ukulele but my friend Brian’s friend Karinne Keithley does. He introduced us via email and we hit it off and she started sending humming, strumming, singing, fast and slow versions of old classical musical theater songs. And some Bob Dylan. We’ve still never met in person. I love her music and I think it complements the story really well. She has a great website where you can learn more about her and she has a show at WFMU. You can find links below.
All the audio was recorded on Sennheiser 421 II’s. For the dinner table audio, Greg and I used two microphones. We tried hanging one from the ceiling and putting one on the table. We also tried putting one on a stand in the region of Marj’s mouth and one on a table stand. This last setup worked the best for the dinner table. I recorded into a PMD 670.
I edited the show with Soundtrack Pro, which is the audio editing component of Final Cut Pro. I used to use Pro Tools until a couple years ago, but when I had to pay for a PT upgrade because I’d changed my operating system, I gave up on it. I’d been teaching kids on Soundtrack Pro because it seemed a little more visual and intuitive than Pro Tools, and I decided to make the switch myself. So far I don’t see any limitations to the program.
About Marj and Greg and Bob
Marj is now ninety-two and lives at a residential care facility in Rutland, Vermont. She goes to dinner at Greg and Bob’s house two to three times per week, depending on the week.
Bob Hooker is the administrative assistant at the Vermont Folklife Center, and an abstract painter. Greg Sharrow is the director of education at the Vermont Folklife Center. Bob and Greg have been married since 2001. They live in Bob’s late grandparents’ home, which is a former auto garage.
About Erica Heilman
Erica Heilman is an independent radio producer and private investigator. She has done a lot of collaborative work with Greg Sharrow, the director of education at the Vermont Folklife Center. She’s in the process of launching Outpost Audio, a business that produces podcasts and website audio. Erica lives in Montpelier, Vermont, with her five-year-old son, Henry.
After the Forgetting was produced for Vermont Folklife Center Media.