Marjorie Hilkert had never known her father to be a painter.
One of 12 children in a poor family, Pete Badowski started working at age 5 in his parents’ bakery. He went on to a have a career as a factory worker.
Thirteen years ago, Badowski was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. At age 89, as part of an art program designed to stimulate minds facing memory loss, he picked up a paintbrush for the first time.
Hilkert was astounded by what he created.
Her father, who she said had not painted a room let alone a landscape, was producing still-life pieces — vases of vibrant flowers in an array of hues. All the while, he was singing along to songs from the 1940s and ’50s — songs he danced to on regular outings with his wife, whom he met at a dance hall when he was 16.
Through the clouds of a brain struggling against Alzheimer’s, he remembered every word of every song.
Hilkert lost her father to the disease in 2010, but his experience with the program inspired her to become a passionate advocate for the Alzheimer’s Association and the Memories in the Making initiative that had brought out her father’s creative disposition.
When she learned the Alzheimer’s Association was teaming up with Chicken Soup for the Soul for a special edition anthology to support family, caregivers and those living with the disease, she put his story on paper.
“I never dreamed that it would be chosen,” Hilkert said. She ran drafts by her two daughters and her mother – Badowski’s wife of 73 years – before sending off the piece.
“Those who have seen my father’s pictures can hardly believe them,” Hilkert wrote. “The paintings are beautifully composed, colorful, and evoke memories of my grandmother and mother’s flower gardens. … With support and encouragement from friends, my family and I are working to preserve my father’s artistic legacy and help others living with Alzheimer’s.”
Out of thousands of submissions, her short narrative was chosen to appear with 100 essays, stories and poems in the book.
On Saturday, Hilkert will sign copies of the published “Chicken Soup for the Soul: Living with Alzheimer’s & Other Dementias” from 1 to 4 p.m. at the Barnes & Noble in New Town. All proceeds from the book benefit the Alzheimer’s Association.
She never expected to take the journey, but Hilkert said she and her family are proud her father’s legacy is living on.
When Badowski was diagnosed, his daughter knew little about the disease — Hilkert said many people are not well-versed in Alzheimer’s until it touches them personally.
“We wanted to help him as much as we possibly can, knowing he was going to be on a difficult journey — our whole family was going to be going on a difficult journey,” she said.
Hilkert dove into research and support groups with the association’s southeastern Virginia chapter, moving both parents from Florida to Williamsburg, and then discovered Memories in the Making.
Having dabbled in art over the years — Hilkert and her sisters share a creative inclination, never guessing it might have lived dormant in their father for decades — she latched onto the program that uses art, music, storytelling and sensory stimulation in a group setting to engage the identity underneath the memory loss.
Six years ago, Hilkert became trained to lead Memories in the Making sessions, which she does throughout Williamsburg at-care centers and churches.
She said Alzheimer’s hurts the function of the left side of the brain, which deals with logic and reasoning, but the creative right side is the last to close down. By giving Alzheimer’s patients an outlet, they often release untapped emotions and deeply buried memories.
While many produce “stunning” work, Badowski’s creations – and the stories he recalled while creating them – are relatively rare. Hilkert does see, as happened in her father, patients lose the ability to bring as much clarity to their work, and color and form decreased as they progress through stages.
For patients who are frequently being corrected or reprimanded as their memory fails, the experience also gives individuals a renewed sense of dignity.
“You’re trying to limit that shutting down process,” she said.
Hilkert hangs their artwork from a clothesline — the “art gallery” she calls it — at the end of the session and has the artist, if he or she is able, tell the others in the group about the piece to their applause.
She notices each patient standing up straighter and brimming with pride.
“I get chills just thinking about it. … It feeds my soul,” Hilkert said.
In addition to leading sessions about once a week at various locations, she has started training others to start holding their own Memories in the Making events.
She continues to share the story of her father and advocate for the cause, as a speaker for the Alzheimer’s Association and through cards with his pieces printed on them, which raise funds to help find a cure for the disease.