Jardine: Woman's memories stuck in time

September 18, 2010 

Marilyn Gleaves can tell you all about a baseball game she played in the late 1940s.

"One lady who played thought she was hot stuff," Gleaves said. "I put that ball on the ground and threw her out, and she never came back."

She recalls the night she gave birth to triplet sons at the old City Hospital in Modesto.

"Doctors from all around the valley wanted to be there, but they didn't make it because the kids were born at night," she said.

Gleaves can tell you how she stole apricots and cherries for her seven children, and got caught once by the farmer.

"I had to feed my kids," she said. "I didn't care."

She'll tell you how she became the first woman to work for the city of Modesto's waste-water treatment plant, and that whenever her children's teachers would threaten to send a note home to her, "they'd tell their teacher, 'If you want her to get it, just flush it down the toilet,' " she said with a laugh.

She still can't believe that other mothers would ask her, a woman with seven kids, to pack theirs as well in her old woody station wagon when she took her family on weekend outings.

"Why didn't they take their kids themselves?" she wondered.

A minute or so later, she'll repeat that story. Or the one about gleaning fruit from an orchard to feed her children. Or the one about the doctors when she gave birth to the triplets. Or the one about throwing out the runner at second base during a baseball game in the 1940s. Or the one about her kids joshing their teachers because their mom worked at the sewage treatment plant.

She'll cycle through them again and again, each as if she's telling it for the first time.

Gleaves is 80 years old and has Alzheimer's disease. She can remember events that happened 50 years ago but cannot recall what happened 10 minutes ago, said her son, Lloyd Gleaves of Modesto. Over time, he said, she won't be able to recall her younger days, either, the memories eroding day by day.

"Many families find it hard to accept," said Rita Gutierrez, activities director at the DMC Foundation's Miller's Place, which provides day care for Alzheimer's patients. "I call it 'the long goodbye.' "

L ike so many with the disease, Marilyn Gleaves is progressively forgetting an incredible life. Born in Ceres in January 1930, she went to Ceres High School and ended up playing on an amateur girls hardball baseball team during the summers, competing against teams on sandlots up and down the Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys.

"I knocked the ball all over the place," she said. "And we beat 'em all. We beat every team we played."

She got married, had four children and coached youth boys baseball before the triplets came along May 13, 1956. Les, Leroy and Lloyd arrived in that order. The first names of each of the three doctors who attended the delivery became the middle names for her boys: Leslie Harry Gleaves, for Dr. Harry Webber; Leroy Newton Gleaves, for Dr. Newton Tonge; and Lloyd Archie Gleaves, for Dr. Archie Tonge.

M arilyn and her husband divorced soon after the triplets were born, and she raised them herself. She worked in the canneries to support the family. She also returned to school, getting her associate degree from Modesto Junior College before going to work at the waste-water treatment plant in 1968. It posed a problem, her son said, because the plant had no women's restroom. But with expansion under way, "they made some adjustments," he said.

Gleaves saved her money to buy property and build a home -- she did most of the construction herself -- near Grayson in 1973.

When Lloyd Gleaves returned to their Gene Road home in Ceres after working in a summer camp, he was unaware she had moved.

"I came home and there was no one there," he said. "I called a cousin and asked, 'Do you know where mom went?' "

Marilyn Gleaves later became a member of the Society of Sanitary Sludge Shovels, an waste-water industry designation, and served on the California Water Quality Board. She also was the city's first industrial waste inspector, monitoring the waste water from food processors and other companies before retiring in the 1990s.

About six years ago, her family began noticing changes. She became paranoid, her son said, and began accusing people of taking things that weren't missing. He moved her from her Grayson home into an apartment next to his own in Modesto. He noticed she had developed short-term memory loss but could still recall events and feelings from her youth, including things she had never talked about before she got Alzheimer's.

She talked about how her mother went to every one of her baseball games, detailing a mother-daughter relationship Lloyd Gleaves always thought to be strained, if only because she seldom mentioned it.

She talked about her brother, Fred, who was killed in Germany during World War II. A few years ago, Lloyd Gleaves and other family members took her to the place near Cologne, where Fred died. Now, she talks about him.

"I have a flag at my place," Lloyd Gleaves said. "She says, 'It's my brother's flag.' "

And she talks about baseball.

"I bought season tickets to the Nuts, and she's the newest, biggest Nuts fan," Lloyd Gleaves said. "Baseball -- it's vivid to her. It's unbelievable, the transformation in her. Going to the games, it actually sparked her. She has so much clarity. When I told her we were going to a playoff game (last week), she was so excited."

But Marilyn Gleaves' clarity lasts only so long. A moment ago has no meaning. Nor does yesterday. Only the yesteryears live in her memory.

"You've had a great life," her son tells her.

"I knocked the ball all over the place," she reminisces. "I played on a traveling team with other girls."

For more information about the DMC Foundation and Miller's Place, visit www.dmcf.org or call 527-3412. For more information about Alzheimer's disease, visit www.alz.org.

Jeff Jardine's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays in Local News. He can be reached at 578-2383 or jjardine@modbee.com.

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