Refreshing A Mother’s Memory With Love, Read by Zoe Saldana–The Podcast from NYTimes Modern Love


Wow. It was pretty incredible for me to hear this piece read brilliantly by Zoe Saldana. She is amazing. And so is Mom, still, two years later. Recently, she said to me, “I don’t know who your parents are, but they did a really fine job.” Yes they did.

Brian Rea for The New York Times
Brian Rea for The New York Times
(Fabuloulsy produced by Caitlin O’Keefe)

Dementia can alter someone’s personality and change how how they interact with the world. But sometimes, it can also lead to moments of profound connection. Jenny McPhee writes about one of those moments, in her piece, “Refreshing a Mother’s Memory with Love and Stories.”

It’s read by Zoe Saldana. She has starred in “Avatar” and “Guardians of the Galaxy,” and you can see her next month in “Missing Link.” And she’s also the founder of the new media platform BESE.

Where Are They Now?

Jenny McPhee’s essay came out in 2017. Since then, her mother’s dementia has progressed further, and she doesn’t recognize Jenny anymore. And her mother has also lost her sense of the passage of time.

“Most of the time she thinks she’s about eighteen. But then she’ll be 35 the next minute. She’s very rarely 82,” Jenny says. “So it all shifts. And you, as her interlocutor, are just trying to keep up. It’s also spatial. She doesn’t recognize that she’s in her own home. She often thinks she’s in her childhood home. So what is the brain doing there? It’s just going all over the place, to memories, or stories, or thought, who knows what it is? But it has very little what we call coherence. And I try to just be with her in it.”

And there have been other changes, and, in some ways, an unexpected silver lining.

“I’m going to be brutally honest: she’s a much nicer person,” Jenny says. “She was always lovely and everybody adored her, but she had a side to her that had an edge, and she could be very manipulative. She cannot be manipulative now at all. So she’s just lovely. And I feel really lucky because I know with dementia that it can go many different ways. But she went soft.”

“Every time I walk into her house in New Jersey she comes up to me and she just throws her arms around me and says, ‘Oh, I’m so happy to see you.’ She has no idea who I am. But she knows something that gives her that impulse to do that with me, and it makes me feel like the most beautiful, important, wonderful person on earth.”

And Jenny still thinks about the moment she wrote about in her piece.

“This experience is heartbreaking from beginning to end. But mom, in this experience with Joan that I then wrote about, kind of showed us how to be with her,” Jenny says. “I feel like she really just wants us to be present with her in the moment. And it’s an incredible gift. At the same time as it being really difficult, it’s also an alternate way of being in our world, and I’m grateful for that experience.”

Voices in this Episode

Zoe Saldana arrives at the Oscars on Sunday, Feb. 22, 2015. (Photo by Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP)
Zoe Saldana arrives at the Oscars on Sunday, Feb. 22, 2015. (Photo by Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP)

Receiving a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame last spring, Zoe Saldana is herself the epitome of a true star in Hollywood, earning a reputation as a versatile and respected actress by choosing roles that she feels passionately about. She recently reprised her role as the fan-favorite ‘Gamora,’ in 2018’s “Avengers: Infinity Wars,” which became the first superhero film to gross over $2 billion worldwide and became the fourth-highest grossing film of all time. Saldana is the only actress in history to star in multiple movies that have passed the $2 billion worldwide mark. Additionally, she starred in the independent drama “I Kill Giants” directed by Anders Walter based on the comic book of the same name. Saldana also lent her talents as the voice of Captain Celaeno in the animated Lionsgate film, “My Little Pony: The Movie” and will again lend her voice in 2019 in the animated Laika Entertainment film “Missing Link” as adventurer Adelina Fortnight opposite Hugh Jackman, Emma Thompson, and Zach Galifianakis.

Saldana is currently focused on BESE (prounced “Bee-Seh”), her digital platform reshaping the cultural narrative by shining light on the untold stories that reflect today’s America. This platform provides a voice to Latinx youth through Facebook, Twitter, Instagram as well as YouTube videos and podcasts. BESE fills a niche for young LATINX audiences craving positive portrayals of the modern AMERICAN experience.

Saldana is best known in her starring role as ‘Neytiri’ in the record breaking film, “Avatar,” James Cameron’s sci-fi thriller, co-starring Sigourney Weaver and Sam Worthington. “Avatar” quickly became the highest grossing film of all time, winning the 2010 Golden Globe for Best Director and Best Picture. “Avatar” went on to receive a total of nine 2010 Academy Awards nominations, including Best Picture. Saldana is currently in production on the film’s highly anticipated sequels “Avatar 2, 3 and 4” slated for a 2019 release.

When not in production, Saldana engages in meaningful philanthropic work involving children’s development, well-being and confidence building. Saldana has been very vocal in her involvement with Brave Beginnings. The organization focuses on bringing essential life-saving equipment and services to seriously ill children and their families. Brave Beginnings specifically works to ensure ventilators and life-saving neonatal equipment are always available to newborns in critical need.

Saldana is also the Global Ambassador for Shot@Life. Shot@Life aims to ensure that children around the world have access to life-saving vaccines. Through education, advocacy and fundraising, they strive to decrease vaccine-preventable childhood deaths and give every child a shot at a healthy life no matter where they live. It is a campaign of the United Nations Foundation, which builds public-private partnerships to address the world’s most pressing problems, and broadens support for the United Nations through advocacy and public outreach.

Additionally, Saldana also lends her support to The Step Up Network – an organization which works to propel young women from under-resourced communities to fulfill their potential by empowering them to become confident, college-bound and career-focused leaders. The organization offers effective after school programs as well as influential mentorships. Each year the organization holds their Annual Inspiration Awards Gala in which Saldana was honored in 2014.

Saldana was born and raised in New York. When not on location, she resides in Los Angeles with her husband and three boys.

Jenny McPhee is the author of the novels The Center of Things, No Ordinary Matter, and A Man of No Moon, and she co-authored Girls: Ordinary Girls and Their Extraordinary Pursuits. Her translations from the Italian include books by the authors Natalia Ginzburg, Primo Levi, Giacomo Leopardi, Curzio Malaparte, Anna Maria Ortese, Paolo Maurensig, and Pope John Paul II. She is the Director of the Center for Applied Liberal Arts at NYU’s School of Professional Studies. She teaches literary translation at NYU and at Princeton University. She co founded the Bronx Academy of Letters, an NYC public high school and middle school.

Caitlin O’Keefe  Producer, Podcasts & New Programs
Caitlin O’Keefe is a producer of podcasts and new programming at WBUR.


2 Replies to “Refreshing A Mother’s Memory With Love, Read by Zoe Saldana–The Podcast from NYTimes Modern Love”

  1. Jenny,

    I cried when I read your piece. Your depiction of your mother, her passions and accomplishments, your loving group of sisters and Joan’s attempt to engage your Mother’s failing memory are so vividly etched.

    I met you and your younger sisters at a dinner party given by Roger Straus when I first came to Farrar, Straus c 1988 and was assigned to edit your father’s books. My first thought was that any writer with so many lively daughters will be a delight to work with! I wish I’d had the chance to see you more then and hope we can get together again now.

    Meanwhile, I’m forwarding your piece to many friends including Jane Lahr who was her mother’s chief caretaker as she declined into dementia. Jane said to me after we saw The Waverly Gallery together on bwy, that she felt the most important ongoing response to someone with dementia was love. Another friend, Elinor Fuchs, a theater critic, wrote a surprising, illuminating book about how she engaged her mother in theater games which would bring her out of the solitary decline of dementia.

    Would love to read more that you’re writing now and have written in the past.

    I’m spearheading the development of a new theater website: You can see what we’re up to on our site preview:

    It would be wonderful if you’d be open to writing a piece for theaterhound.

    All best, Linda

    Linda Healey 890 West End Ave. New York, NY 10025

    Editorial Director theaterhound

    c: 917.361.6324


    1. Thank you so much Linda and for all your support over the years. It is so true about dementia and love, but I think love is probably essential to anything and everything. And I am an avid theatergoer and would love to write for theaterhound. Congratulations! All my very best, Jenny

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