Thanks for the memories
David Hyde Pierce ...
and Aunt Mary
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expanded PDF version of this
The Prayer Lines Behind the Bylines. Also,
CLICK HERE for an in-depth feature article about
David Hyde Pierce
written by Ann that appeared in
Winter 2000-2001 edition of
magazine (THEN Saratoga
- By Ann Hauprich
If there was a face from my past I was determined NOT to call to mind as I
loaded extra pens and rolls of film into the bag with my notepad and 35mm camera
on a crisp, colorful late September day in 2001 it was that of Mary Tiernan
I’d been invited by an Alzheimer’s Association
representative to cover a “Walk
the Miles with Niles” Memory Walk led by
co-star David Hyde Pierce in
the Saratoga Spa State Park and there was no way I was going to let
recollections of a relative who had succumbed to the disease a decade earlier
cloud my thoughts.
Alzheimer’s had been a vexing and perplexing invisible enemy about which I’d
known little when it began depleting the deep reservoir of my maternal
grandmother’s much younger sister’s brilliant mind. By the time Great Aunt Mary
passed away in the early 1990s, she’d become almost as much a stranger to me as
I had to her. Recalling the manner in which she had deteriorated as the disease
progressed inevitably evoked feelings of anger, guilt and shame as well as
angst, grief and remorse.
Widowed, childless and living alone in Arizona, my Great Aunt Mary’s condition
was brought to the attention of next-of-kin in and near her native Albany, NY by
concerned neighbors and a conscientious social worker in Phoenix.
Never able to turn a blind eye to any familial crisis, my newly retired parents
soon boarded a plane bound for The Grand Canyon State. The next thing I knew,
they were making plans to bring Aunt Mary back to the Capital Region where she’d
earned high marks as a NYS Department of Education employee in the 1930s and
A model of grace, dignity and decorum inside churches and funeral parlors, Aunt
Mary was anything but reserved in reception halls. Her witty insights were as
much a delight as her knack for chiming in with limericks or lyrics at just the
right time. Her long, limber legs were attached to nimble feet she’d clearly
inherited from her late Irish-American father, professional song and dance man
John Henry Tiernan.
Indeed it was a glowing letter of recommendation from the office of Dr. Ruth
Andress that opened doors of opportunity for Aunt Mary when health problems
plaguing her artist husband, Chester “Chet” Norris, prompted them to move to a
desert climate after World War II.
Despite the miles that separated us during my youth, Aunt Mary had stayed close
by sending hand-written letters filled with vivid accounts of her purpose-filled
life in Phoenix as well as tales of seaside vacations in California. Her letters
not only demonstrated perfect penmanship and a superb command of the English
language, but also a view of the world outside my upstate New York roots.
The letters also included passages that revealed a sincere interest in my hopes
and dreams. Upon learning of my early adolescent aspirations of becoming a
commercial artist, Aunt Mary and Uncle Chet sent professional art supplies and
instructional manuals my way. The packages wrapped in brown paper fastened with
strings that arrived with Arizona postmarks were tangible reminders of how much
they cared about my future.
When Aunt Mary did come home for weddings or wakes, she always looked as if
she’d stepped off the fashion pages Uncle Chet used to design for the Albany
Times Union. Impeccably groomed and attired, her beauty was enhanced by her
sparkling blue eyes and vivacious, engaging personality.
UNFORGETTABLE. That’s what Great Aunt Mary had been. Before Alzheimer’s. It’s
what had happened after that word first pierced my ears in connection with my
aunt’s name that I was hell-bent to forget.
Prior to arriving at the park in Saratoga Springs 15 autumns ago, my mind had
been focused on the questions I wanted to ask David Hyde Pierce during a press
conference that was scheduled to take place before the “Walk the Miles With
Niles” Memory Walk officially got underway.
The Emmy-winning actor had recently testified before Congress about the
devastating toll Alzheimer’s had taken on his own father and grandfather and
their caregivers as well as the need for additional research funding to try to
halt the prevalence of the disease that was becoming a global epidemic.
Time to once again clear my mind of memories of Aunt Mary. How could I possibly
formulate and articulate questions involving Alzheimer’s facts and figures and
such if I allowed painful personal memories to resurface?
Then came the sea of faces I encountered en route to the pavilion where David
Hyde Pierce was to interact with reporters. Not the sea of faces of those who
were briskly striding or effortlessly pushing strollers or pulling little red
wagons in which youngsters were seated, but the sea of faces immortalizing those
not present because Alzheimer’s had robbed them – or was in the process of
robbing them — of their lives.
Captured in photographs being proudly displayed in collages mounted on poster
boards or imprinted on t-shirts and helium balloon were the many faces of
Despite the misery the disease had inflicted on those afflicted with Alzheimer’s
and their caregivers, this was clearly a celebration of lives that would have
made my Aunt Mary jump for joy. Before Alzheimer’s.
Because the Memory Walk took place so soon after the terrorist attacks of
September 11, 2001, nearly everyone participating in the event was either
wearing patriotic colors or had a miniature American flag or button affixed to
their backpacks or lapels. The adage “Lest we forget” reverberated in my head.
Lest we forget the victims of 9/11 and their families. For if we do, the
terrorists will have won. Lest we forget the victims of Alzheimer’s and their
families. For if we do, the disease will have won.
While I vividly recollect receiving a hug from David Hyde Pierce and having my
photo taken with him after he autographed a magazine I’d brought along that day,
I don’t recall what questions – if any – I ultimately asked him during the press
conference. I do remember that on the way home from the park, I allowed memories
of Great Aunt Mary to gently meander back into my mind. Not only memories of how
she had been in her prime when I was so proud to be seen with her, but also long
quashed memories of how disoriented, frail, helpless and hopeless she had become
near the end.
Founded in 1980, the Alzheimer’s Association was still in its infancy when the
disease began to ravage my Aunt Mary’s brain later in that decade and word of
the organization’s vast resources and support networks had yet to reach our
family circle – perhaps because the Internet was also in its infancy when Aunt
Mary was first diagnosed a quarter of a century ago.
Though Mom and Dad found a lovely private group home in close proximity to
theirs where Aunt Mary could reside in an idyllic country setting with a nurse
trained to deal with Alzheimer’s on hand, the age of assisted living centers
specializing in the care and treatment of those afflicted with this form of
dementia had not yet come to be. Support for caregivers was also virtually
nonexistent and blockbuster movies like The Notebook had yet to be made.
Had I known more about the Alzheimer’s Association or seen
Aunt Mary had the disease, it might have been easier to cope as her downward
spiral began. Though Aunt Mary continued to accompany family members on weekend
outings, including to Sunday Mass, and even danced Irish jigs on my kitchen
floor as Adirondack fiddler Vic Kibler played tunes linked to her past until
several weeks before her passing in 1992, the twinkle in her eyes had long since
Attempting to have a coherent conversation was an exercise in futility as Aunt
Mary sometimes confused me with her late mother or fretted that her father, who
by then had been deceased for half a century, might be worried about her being
in the company of strangers. The fear and confusion in her eyes frightened me. I
felt powerless to help her.
With no hope of a cure, all I could do was hope that when the end came, it would
be merciful and that she would recognize her parents when they came to greet her
on The Other Side.
Worst of all, however, were the feelings of guilt and the shame. I’d heard
genetics might play a factor in the odds of one being stricken with Alzheimer’s.
Overnight the genetic history I’d once been so proud to share was one I feared
might include an incurable disease my mother and I might already have inherited.
One that could be passed along to my offspring.
The September 29, 2001 Memory Walk had been a Godsend not just because it
demonstrated that my family and I were not alone in experiencing a roller
coaster ride of emotions while attempting to care for Aunt Mary in her final
years, but because it provided rays of hope that the disease might one day be
As I was typing this story on the morning of September 5, 2013, I felt compelled
to turn on the TV – which I rarely do any more because BEFORE 8 a.m. is my prime
writing time. Well, it must be true that there are no accidents in this universe
for what to my wondering eyes should appear but a segment on MSNBC’s TODAY show
called The Age of Alzheimer’s.
Watching Maria’s Shriver’s riveting segment about the heavy crosses borne by
many caregivers motivated me to visit the Alzheimer’s Association’s web site, a
virtual life raft for those searching for answers while struggling to stay
afloat during such storms of life.
The latest statistics reveal that over 5-million Americans (the majority of them
age 65 or older) now have Alzheimer’s disease. Barring the development of
medical breakthroughs to prevent, slow or stop the disease, that statistic is
projected to skyrocket to 13.8-million individuals by 2050.
A Silver Lining behind this dark cloud is that David Hyde Pierce was
instrumental in helping to win Congressional support for the passage of the
National Alzheimer’s Project Act — which was signed into law by President Obama
in 2011. The legislation includes plans to fund $50 million for Alzheimer’s
research and to provide another $130 million to include caregiver support and
Thank you, David, for leading the way in the “Walk the Miles with Niles” Memory
Walk of 2001 — which, in turn, paved the way for recollections of my Great Aunt
Mary to gradually resurface in a healthy, healing way.
Your ongoing quest to shine the spotlight on the importance of assisting
caregivers and funding research is truly worthy of a standing ovation.