“A Mother Speaks, A Daughter Listens: Journeying Together Through Dementia” by Felicia Mitchell

A profound and poignant collection of poems, A Mother Speaks, A Daughter Listens: Journeying Together Through Dementia (2022) by Felicia Mitchell can be read as a daughter’s memoir in verse or as a mother’s partial biography. Their merging stories are captivating and heartfelt, moving, and above all else, genuine. Anyone who has cared for a mother, father, or spouse with dementia will recognize the territory crossed in these vibrant, tender poems. Those who have not faced caring for a parent or other loved one in decline should still find the poems resonating because their core themes are about human connections. These are exceptionally well-crafted poems: evocative, accessible, and touching. They are able to touch emotional depths using images and metaphors we will all recognize. But don’t think they ring only with despair. They capture the grace and the love involved in the journey this mother and daughter take together. In the final analysis, these are beautiful, uplifting poems.

Divided into six parts, the collection headings include “remember all our stories,” “why things so complicated,” “what it is,” “let me miss my mother,” “waiting to find the words,” and “stranger than fiction.” Deeply private—and yet universal—the poems use the mother Audrey’s name as well as the daughter Felicia’s name. The use of these and other names, combined with personal details, creates an impact much as if the reader has been invited into an intimate visit with friends or family.

The recurring theme is the need and value of human connections and, of course, the mother and daughter relationship which anchors the collection. Yet these poems reach beyond that. In the first section, “remember all our stories,” focuses on the love between the mother and her late husband. In “Photo of a Debutante, Winnsboro Cotillion,” the poet writes, “…my mother learned to love, by loving our father, / …never settling for less than happy-ever-after. / Oh, how the two of them loved to dance.”

Just as the father has his due in some poems, so does the poet’s brother. In “Intimation Ode,” the brother and sister have a secret language: “We were so young / we did not need words / other than eyes and sighs, / but one day we talked. / We talked in a language / invented by angels / and understood by only us / and perhaps God.” This brother’s fate is disclosed and referred in other poems including “Mama,” where when he died, “his hand still held hers. / She had to pull it off.”

Section II of the collection, “why things so complicated,” includes poems in the mother’s voice. The decline in the line’s coherency reflects the mother’s own deterioration. Initial poems in this section, titled with dates like “1990,” are signed “Love, Mama,” and reflect ordinary family matters—babies, cooler days, a funeral. Toward the section’s end, even the titles such as “March 1, 3004” reflect the mother’s growing confusion. In “February 10, 2000,” the mother complains “Don’t understand why things / so complicated / when it should be don simple—”

Audrey’s mind declines and her daughter confronts hard facts and decisions in section III, titled “what it is.” This section contains some of the most poignant of the poems—and also some of the most uplifting and hopeful. In “Round and Round,” the daughter describes going to a park with her son on a day she felt overwhelmed thinking of her mother’s cancer “and chemotherapy treatments / I would not understand / until I went through my own.” In the last stanza, her two-year-old son lifts her up with a simple child-like action:

When he saw me burst into tears

the day I felt overwhelmed,

he ran over and took me by the hand

to drag me onto the playground.

With his two-year-old arms,

my son spun me on the merry-go-round

until I was laughing again,

like him, my life as open to wonder

as the road to Virginia was to melting snow.

Confronting her own grief over her mother’s decline, the poet in section vi, “let me miss my mother,” addresses the day-to-day realities of having a loved one in such a situation. In “At the Nursing Home,” the daughter recognizes it is “all relative.”  / Audrey talks funny, / but she can tie her shoes.” Felicia’s recognition that it is all relative is why “I can share my secret / with someone who won’t remember what I said / a day from now, but who will hold my hand, / and let me miss my mother.”

In “My Cheating Heart,” the poet again returns to the uplifting gifts of children. In “Round and Round” she describes taking her mother out of the nursing home for coffee. Her mother is in a wheelchair and clutches a stuffed animal. A young girl in the line trades her own “small plastic purple horse with sparkling hair” for the stuffed animal and this makes “my mother’s eyes light up.” And, in “Fate,” the daughter discusses the other women in the nursing home who reach out to touch her physically and thereby also emotionally. She describes how she and her mother “hold hands like sisters, / …We are so close, the two of us, / she can read her future in my palm.”

Mitchell returning to writing in the mother’s voice in section v, “wanting to find the words.” She imagines what the mother is thinking and feeling, especially as she nears death. The poems’ titles convey the scope and themes, ranging from “Second Childhood,” “I Am Still Here,” to “Regrets” and finally “Coda.” The mother notes in “The Talk” that “Everyone keeps having the talk with me, / …/ as if I need prodding to cross over.” In “Coda,” the mother faces her death:

As happy as I am,

somebody gave me a pill

to calm me down.

I overheard her on the phone with you

explaining why,

telling you to get right over.

She thought I was thrashing,

fighting against the dying of the light,

but I was reaching out

to grab hold of my own mother—


and she was reaching back.

The final section of this fine collection is “stranger than fiction.” It returns to the daughter’s voice as she reconciles herself to the mother’s death. In the poem “Beaufort National Cemetery,” she visits the graves of her father, mother, and brother. Afterwards, she runs to a water sprinkler and she begins to “dance like a child in the mist, / not quite ready to leave.”

In the concluding poem, “Bedtime story,” Felicia recalls a story her mother Audrey told her. She then ends “Everything from Auschwitz to Audrey is there in somebody’s memory. / You—we—just need to remember to pass it on.”

With this gripping, tender, lovely collection of poems, Felicia Mitchell does indeed “remember to pass it on.” While the situations, language and images in the poems might be ordinary at times (and therefore relatable), Mitchell creates something unique and transformative. Both grace and beauty weave through these poems, with a kind of soothing comfort found in their layers and nuances.

Born in South Carolina, Mitchell holds both her BA and MA from the University of South Carolina and completed a PhD at The University of Texas at Austin in 1987. She now lives in rural southwestern Virginia. She taught English, including linguistics and creative writing, at Emory & Henry College before retiring with emeritus status. Her poetry collections include Waltzing with Horses and a chapbook, The Cleft of the Rock. In recent years, she has blogged about experiences with cancer for Cure Today.

This poem, “Fate,” is printed here in its entirety with the poet’s permission and appears in section IV, “let me miss my mother,” in A Mother Speaks, A Daughter listens.



Marge always wants to hold my hand,

Paula too—but she wants to caress it,

to run her fingers across my fingers

until she smiles and lets go, unlike Marge,

who never wants to let go and holds too tight.


With Paula, I feel like rosary beads.

With Marge, I am a life buoy

bobbing in rough water.


Bonita always reaches out when I walk past,

her hand poised to turn into a wave

if I don’t reach right back and hold it.

Gerta rubs my hands if they are cold.

She would like to be my mother.


Audrey and I hold hands like sisters,

even though she is my mother

and I still feel like her daughter.

We are so close, the two of us,

she can read her future in my palm.


I can read my future too, in hers,

and in all these women’s hands.

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