||My grandmother has always loved road trips. When I was a child, trips to the Florida shore in the winter and the Wisconsin woods in the summer were annual events. If memory is composed not of days, but of moments, my grandmother gave me some that I hope to recall all of my life. I think of the prickly thrill of fear I felt when black bears visited our cabin’s garbage cans in Wisconsin. As I lay saucer-eyed with fear, I could hear them snuffle inches away, next to my bedroom wall. I also remember being carried at 4 am to visit the sea at low tide with my grandmother. We saw a multitude of shark fins in the surf.
Sprinkled throughout the summer, my grandmother would surprise me with announcements to “pack up, we are going to St. Louis”, or Ohio, or Indiana to visit her sisters. If my friends were visiting, the invitation was often extended to them as well. It was wonderful for me (perhaps not so much for the hapless relatives who were not prepared to host hordes of children).
When my grandmother moved into the Piatt County Nursing Home last year after a series of health problems, it was difficult to help a person who had been independent and working only months before, try to shrink life down to fit a much smaller space. The transition was made much easier with help from the many employees who have been wonderful and have now become members of her extended family. Of course, meeting and sharing a friendship with a handsome fellow resident has also contributed to my Nana’s enthusiasm for her altered, yet still abundant life.
As she had every other year of her life, my grandma wanted to take a road trip this year. She wanted to go to Kentucky to see the landscape where her mother was born. With her short term memory failing, and confined mostly to a wheelchair, I wondered if I could manage her needs. The medicine schedule alone was daunting. I had a million projects to do for work and home; even a short trip would mean double duty when I returned. In the end, with the aid of her still formidable volition, we decided to go.
The trip would be short, just 6 days, but would cover large areas. Two of my three sons joined us and we all shared the excitement of venturing off to sights unseen; the Kentucky woods.
We set out as we had done so many times before, roles reversed. I planned and packed, drove and monitored the frequent rest stop breaks. She chatted and pointed out sights along the way. I brought music that I thought she would enjoy- songs from the 1930s and 40s. Many pleasant miles were spent listening to her sing “You Always Hurt the One You Love” and “Sentimental Journey”, songs she had always sung in the car. Her voice is still pretty.
The music and the green, undulating land seemed to lubricate passages of memory that time and disuse had rusted shut. We took time to excavate forgotten details. Stories were told that I hadn’t heard about family, friends, and a life lived.
When we arrived, we saw the area, but not the homestead of my great-grandmother. Too many Waffle Houses, Cracker Barrels and Wal-Marts have obscured the recollections of people and the land. Only our own family continues to hold the memories of a girl who once walked barefooted named Ita. In the countryside, however, we saw sights she must have seen, and walked paths she may have traveled. Nana was satisfied.
To please the boys, we stopped at a large pizza/ arcade place- boasting to be one of the largest of its kind. The day was also my Grandmother’s birthday and she confessed that despite new physical limitations, she felt only 35 years old. She certainly looked half a century younger as she enthusiastically played every game she could manage from her wheelchair. She “whacked a mole”, and played slot machines that annoyed her by only producing jackpots of game tokens instead of cash. I had to draw a firm line when she wanted to try virtual skiing.
We had pictures drawn together and then, always game for any new experience; she sat in a photo booth that electronically depicted her in various wild styles of hair. We both howled at computerized images of Nan sporting a mullet, then a blonde bouffant, and finally dreadlocks.
It was a lovely trip. I hope these new memories will stay with her; that they will stay with me and my sons and I hope we can retrieve them when we need them, years from now. I think about memory and regret and know that eventually, shared experiences will be all we have of those we love. Although often fragile, memory is also, as Kevin Arnold once said,” a way of holding onto the things you love, the things you are, the things you never want to lose.” I hope we can hold tight to our memories of our one last trip for the road.