If you’re an aging boomer like me, chances are you have experienced one of the following: (1) forgotten the name of an acquaintance who greets you in the supermarket, (2) “misplaced” your sunglasses on the way out the kitchen door, or (3) drawn a blank when asked to name the last book you read (a book you remember liking). I get particularly irritated when I cannot recall the title of a story I wrote six months ago. Are these “senior moments”—normal memory losses associated with aging—or something more serious?
The woman in Raymond Carver’s “Where the Groceries Went” has something more serious. She cannot remember phone calls with her son; she cannot remember shopping with him for groceries. She knows enough to tell him the cat may have jumped into the washing machine; however, she fails to make the logical connection between the knocking sound she hears and the cat being tossed about inside. She is confused and shaken, like the cat in the machine. Both lives are upside down.
And yet, honest emotion shoots through the chaos and confusion: “Honey, I’m afraid. / I’m afraid of everything.” The reader begins to understand that she is more than her dementia. She is a woman and a mother, a fragile person who is scared and needs help. She seems to be saying to her son, and to the reader: Forget about the crazy person in front of you; imagine the frightened person I am. Hear me, help me.
Her son hears her. He urges her to take iron pills. He prays daily that iron might make a difference. He takes her grocery shopping. He tries to stay cool when she bitterly complains about “nothing to eat in this goddamn house.” Though he appears calm, the subject of food brings nothing but grief. Food is a metaphor for the mind she’s lost (Where did the groceries go—where did my mind go?); a symbol for the person she once was. If she could just find the groceries, she would be healthy and whole again. The groceries are out of sight—just as she is out of mind.
The mother is ambivalent about wanting assistance. She asks for help from her son, but stubbornly insists on her independence. Help me, she says, and then go back to whatever it was you were doing. Go away, but don’t leave me. It’s not hard to imagine a teenage son giving a similar command to his mother 35 years ago.
Then she fires a zinger at him: He owes his life to her, a jab intended to provoke guilt and to manipulate his behavior. He’s stuck with her, or so she wants to him to believe. Her comment is hurtful; the reader knows the son to be devoted and caring. It takes empathy for him not to lash back. He absorbs the verbal blow because he remembers: His mother is ill and demented. She deserves his compassion, the same compassion she likely delivered years ago to a rebellious, teenage boy.
Carver’s poem helps us to understand the complex emotions that arise, and occasionally erupt, in a mother–son relationship when a mother intellectually declines. The son surely wonders, How much time and energy should I devote to my ailing mother, the one who gave me my life and much more? How much should I live for myself? Similar questions a mother might ask herself when raising difficult teenagers. This unsettling poem has no answers, only remarkable words and images for us to remember. In the noisy room of dementia, we hear the frightened words of a woman in need—words we ourselves may utter one day.