Country Roads: A True Fable

Going faster is only better if you know where you’re headed and actually want to get there.

Twice a year every year of my childhood, we would drive to Parkersburg, West Virginia, to visit my grandmother.

In the early years especially, these trips could be pretty horrific. Our family car, a 1970 Chevy Nova, featured a malfunctioning AM-only radio, no air conditioning, and golden, faux-vinyl seats. The four of us would pile in, often with our dog, Muffin, in tow, and take the Nova up old route 50 on an eight-hour, switchback-filled journey over the Shenandoah River, through the woods, and across the Blue Ridge Mountains to grandmother’s house.

The trip featured fantastic scenery and gut-wrenching smells. My brother, Tim, was prone to motion sickness, and he would vomit several times every trip. My saintly mother, a nurse by training, would stand with her hand across his forehead as he puked by the roadside–a veritable Florence Nightingale of old Route 50.

Often enough, Tim’s misery enjoyed my company–with the switchbacks, the smell, and the special attention from mom all conspiring to upset my stomach, too. I can only imagine how my dad managed to keep his patience through these journeys, but he did. Indeed, he was often whistling or humming to himself as he drove–though maybe the music was just a coping mechanism.

We might have stopped making the trip while I was still small, if not for two things:

  1. Grandma was thrilled when we visited, and she poured on the sweets to  prove it. She had homemade cookies waiting for us every time we walked through the door–not to mention fresh-baked pies and cakes for every dinner and Lucky Charms cereal for breakfast (which mom wouldn’t buy us at home). Tim and I might feel sick when we first arrived, but Grandma knew how to cure us quick.
  2. Grandma also wasn’t afraid to play the guilt card on mom (the eldest of her three daughters–and the one who had moved the farthest away). Just before we left at the end of each visit, Grandma would hug mom and say something like, “thanks for coming, dear. I may not have much time left on this earth, so seeing you and the boys is important to me.” My mom hated being guilt tripped like that, but she was still susceptible to it: Grandma got family visits every summer until I went away to college, and every year on either Thanksgiving or Christmas, too. Even before I officially became an adult, she started laying the guilt trips directly on me, too.

During the winter visits when we were kids, Tim and I slept in the unheated, uninsulated attic of Grandma’s house, fully clothed and huddled beneath an electric blanket that strained to keep out the cold. I remember Christmas Eves when we couldn’t sleep but could see each other’s breath in the moonbeams as we talked late into the night.

My memories of Parkersburg are mostly like that: sweet and filled with love, but with occasional bits of frost around the edges.

Eventually the drives got better. New cars, Dramamine, and the interstate highway system (which finally reached even West Virginia) took many of the curves out of the country roads.

Unfortunately, even as the world made progress, Grandma herself began to fade. She finally had to move out of her house and into the nursing home across the street.

Then, in 1999, my Uncle Mike died from non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. The following year, my mom followed him into the great beyond, cut down at 59 by ovarian cancer.

By the last time I saw Grandma, she seemed broken. She told me she had prayed for months that God would take her instead of Michael–then instead of my mom as well. But it hadn’t worked out either time. And though her faith remained unshaken, she was clearly wounded–and wearied–by that. So much so that, when we said our goodbyes for what would be the last time, she couldn’t even muster a guilt trip to lay on me.

The last time I drove to Parkersburg was for Grandma’s funeral.The trip was easy and quick. And it made me think about just how much faster the world was moving than it did when I was young. And about just how little that mattered. It seems like we want to go faster and faster, even when we don’t have a clue where we’re headed.

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