Rhyming Memories


I am three years old and can’t even read yet, but my grandmother can. She is sitting with me on the black, floral, sectional couch in her living room, holding a green book that hasn’t had a dust cover since my mother was young. It’s a grown-up book – no pictures, just words – but I don’t need illustrations because the words create their own images in my mind.

I have a little shadow that goes in and out with me,
And what can be the use of him is more than I can see.
He is very, very like me from the heels up to the head;
And I see him jump before me, when I jump into my bed.  

“Say the words with me,” my grandmother coaxes, and I do, sing-songing the rhyming couplets. I know what a shadow is – it’s a silhouette image created by the angle of the light. What I don’t know then – what I didn’t learn for decades – is that there’s another shadow, a long one, looming in our future. It’s called dementia, and my grandmother will be mostly lost to it by the time I’m twenty-five. 

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I am seventeen years old, a senior in high school, and we are visiting my grandparents for the winter holidays. My grandmother has always had issues remembering names. A frequent occurrence is the sight of her wearing a long nightgown, standing under the balcony hallway where the bedrooms are, calling a list of names “Suzie, Patti, Stacie, Melissa – oh, you know who I mean!”

We’ve always found it faintly amusing – one of Esther’s eccentricities – , sort of the way we found if amusing when she lied about her age so much that we all missed her 75th birthday – but on this trip, it seems more pronounced. She is slipping – forgetting things we’ve just discussed, giving people wrong names, losing track of dates.

One evening after dinner I find that green book on the shelf over the bed in my room, and Grandma lights up when she sees me with it. “I used to read the poems to you. Do you remember?” And she starts to recite.

The funniest thing about him is the way he likes to grow—
Not at all like proper children, which is always very slow;
For he sometimes shoots up taller like an India-rubber ball,
And he sometimes gets so little that there’s none of him at all.


I am married and living in South Dakota with my husband, and my parents have brought Grandma with them to visit over Thanksgiving. My grandmother loses track of tasks, forgetting that she’s supposed to be pricking holes into chestnuts, and keeps asking for people who aren’t around.

I talk about the fact that I’ve given my nephews (aged three and five) an illustrated copy of the green book – A Child’s Garden of Verses, by Robert Louis Stevenson – and that I remember reciting the poems with me.”How do you like to go up in a swing?” I begin, choosing another favorite poem from that book. “Up in the air so blue?”

Grandma can’t remember her tasks, but she pipes up with the next line with zero hesitation: “Oh, I do think it the pleasantest thing ever a child could do.”

It hasn’t occurred to me as a recent bride living halfway across the country, that there’s a reason she can retain poetry when she can’t remember names or dates. It doesn’t even occur to me to wonder. I just smile, and enjoy the moment, trading lines with her until we’ve finished the piece.

He hasn’t got a notion of how children ought to play,
And can only make a fool of me in every sort of way.
He stays so close beside me, he’s a coward you can see;
I’d think shame to stick to nursie as that shadow sticks to me!


I turned thirty a few months ago, and my parents retired to Mexico. My grandmother is in a care home about fifteen minutes from my house, and it’s my responsibility to visit her on Sundays. Sometimes we bring our dog, and we bundle her into a wheelchair and take her for a walk around the block.

“Let’s get ice cream!” she asks, as giddy as a small child. “Merrell loves ice cream.”

Merrell is my uncle, her only son, who died of lung cancer when I was sixteen. I know better than to tell her that, though. I just say, “He did. We all love ice cream. What flavor do you want?”

On the way back, in between bites of a child-sized cone of soft-serve chocolate from the ice cream shop on the corner, she spies her shadow and asks, “Do you remember that poem, ‘I have a little shadow?’ Say it with me.”

While my husband guides the wheelchair I hold my grandmother’s hand and we recite the rhyme in unison.

One morning, very early, before the sun was up,
I rose and found the shining dew on every buttercup;
But my lazy little shadow, like an arrant sleepy-head,
Had stayed at home behind me and was fast asleep in bed.


I’m fifty-three years old, around the age my grandmother was when she first taught me about poetry and encouraged me to memorize rhymes. I’ve grown beyond Robert Louis Stevenson. My favorite poets now are Naomi Shihab Nye and Mary Oliver. I’ve also learned that poetry in general, and rhyming poetry specifically is a powerful tool in memory care. Poems learned as children stick with us through our lives, and reciting a favorite poem can help people with dementia connect to other, related memories.

Grandma died over twenty years ago, but for some reason, the couplets of “My Shadow” come back to me as we’re sitting around the table at Easter, and I ask my mother, “Do you remember Grandma making you recite poems from a green book when you were young?”

“Oh, yes. A Child’s Garden of Verses. She gave you an illustrated copy when you were about four, and then gave a copy of the same book to Alisa (my childhood best friend) and wrote the wrong names in both of them.”

“I loved that book,” I tell her. “I loved the one about the swing.”

“I remember that one,” Mom says. “But your grandmother’s favorite was a different one.”

“‘I have a little shadow…” we recite together, the echo of my grandmother in our faces and voices, the memory of her almost tangible, “‘… that goes in and out with me.”

I will forever credit my grandmother with my love of poetry the same way I credit my grandfather with my love of fiction. I wish I had learned sooner how powerful verse can be when it came to memory care – maybe she would have retained more of herself for longer – but I recognize that such hindsight is always twenty-twenty, and being in each moment with her was the best I could do.

My grandmother’s other favorite poem was one that she found around the time we celebrated her fiftieth anniversary of marriage to my grandfather. None of us intended to memorize it, but after her funeral, as we gathered to reminisce, we began to recite:

When I am an old woman I shall wear purple,
With a red hat which doesn’t go, and doesn’t suit me.
And I shall spend my pension on brandy and summer gloves,
And satin sandals, and say we’ve no money for butter.

I think Grandma would be proud.

April is National Poetry Month in the United States. “My Shadow” and “The Swing” are by Robert Louis Stevenson. “Warning” is by Jenny Joseph.

2 thoughts on “Rhyming Memories”

  1. Melissa, you bring tears to my eyes with your writing. Beautifully written bringing sweet memories of my own grandmother. Caring for a loved one with dementia is a difficult task in many ways-thank you for this piece.

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