Windsor man writes book about mother’s life, with her help, before she succumbs to Alzheimer’s
May 7, 2018
When Maxine Premer turned 77, her son, Gary, presented her with a guide on how to write an autobiography for Christmas.
The real gift, he told her, was writing her story together.
His mother was reserved, even shy, and Gary of Windsor knew she didn't really want to write down her life. But he also knew she had a heck of a story to tell, or at least he thought she did.
Maxine grew up dirt poor with an alcoholic father who spent some time in the slammer for stealing to pay for his addiction. Her life was scattered, lived in parts of Weld County, in Sterling and all over Nebraska.
The problem was not only his mother's shy nature. She'd repressed those memories in order to live with them, and she didn't know if she wanted to unearth all that pain. However, Gary really wanted her story to come out. He pushed her in a sweet way, the way some kids ask for candy. She agreed to meet with Gary in his financial planning office on the weekend, where it was quiet. At least she would get to spend some time with her son.
Gary's plan worked. After a couple tries, she unlocked those memories, and they presented themselves dressed in great detail, the kind found in the best novels. Maxine had an even better story than Gary thought, and he asked for it at the right time. As it turns out, her history could have been buried for good.
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Maxine's story is now a book, "Time Would Tell," and it's a way to tell her story, Gary's thoughts about his life with her and fight a disease that has swept through his family.
Gary had a goal of finishing the book in three years, and so they met in his office most weekends, starting with the years she barely remembered and working up from there.
A year later, they began to talk about when she was 7, and her father moved her and her five siblings out to Nebraska during the Great Depression. They lived in a broken-down farmhouse, and eventually, her drunken father was sent to prison. School wasn't much easier, as it was a hard time, and hard times make hard people, and she was bullied a lot. But there was one place she found solace in a schoolhouse in Nebraska where a young teacher, Ms. Cummings, didn't allow the bullying. She gave her a place to feel safe. She nurtured her.
Those were the basics. Maxine struggled to recall much else. They were some of the most painful moments in her life, and once again, Maxine had stuffed the memories deep into the recesses of her brain. Gary suggested a way to unlock them: Let's go to Nebraska.
Their first stop was in Auburn, the "big city" hub among all those tiny farm towns. At the bed and breakfast during check-in, after they arrived, Gary mentioned to the owner the book. Almost as soon as they set their bags down in their room, the phone began to ring with residents who could help Maxine fill the gaps in her story.
They spent time in those residents' living rooms, many who told her, "It wasn't your fault." Even at her advanced age, Maxine needed to hear that.
Gary drove around searching for spots in Nebraska that marked her time there. This was in 1998, so smartphones didn't exist. They didn't have Siri telling them where to go. They just had a map. Somehow, they still found everything, including the nursing home where Ms. Cummings was still staying.
When they arrived, Maxine walked into Ms. Cummings' small apartment and fell to her knees and grabbed her hands.
"Do you remember me?" Maxine asked.
"Of course," Ms. Cummings answered. "You were one of the Premer kids."
Maxine cried, and so did Gary. They spent two days with her. Two weeks later, Ms. Cummings died. There were many special moments like that one.
"It was just a miraculous trip," he said.
By 2001, Maxine was 80, and Gary had a good rough draft of her story. He just needed another year, or maybe even just a few months.
But then he noticed she became quieter during their weekly lunches. She used to talk the whole hour, enough that it was difficult to finish the meal. Gary thought her hearing was going. It wasn't her hearing.
She was diagnosed with Alzheimer's a year later, and then, a month later, she suffered a stroke. She worked hard to recover from it, but the disease and the affliction were too much to overcome. She never left the care center, and two years later, she died.
Gary stops the book at age 16, and he continues with his own thoughts about her to finish it off without her. Gary finished the memoir in 2015 after his retirement.
Gary planned to keep the book in the family, but Alzheimer's wasn't done. It took Doug, his brother, in 2015, and his sister, Darla, was diagnosed in 2016. Gary decided to publish the book and donate the proceeds to the Alzheimer's Association. It came out this year.
Gary thinks about what he would have lost had he not pursued and even pushed his mother to write with him. He's thankful she finally gave in. She told him that she found the book to be a healer. She was glad she did it.
His family loves the book. They talk about her stories over holidays. Gary, for his part, finally got to hear the story that he hoped would come out, and he got to spend some of the best years with her, before things went bad.
He meant the book to be a gift to his mother. It was, ultimately, a gift to himself, as well.
— Dan England is the Features Editor for the Tribune. His column runs on Tuesday. If you have an idea for a column, call (970) 392-4418 or e-mail email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @ DanEngland.