Your Roots Are Showing
Copyright 2018 by Amie McGraham
story goes beyond a typical cross-country road trip travelogue; it’s
a deep exploration into the soul of a family caregiver. I wrote
snippets of the trip as I drove across country, eventually ending up
at my childhood home to care for my mother with Alzheimer’s. It
took time and courage to piece it together, and like most of my
writing lately, the words are woven together by the inescapable
thread of dementia.
It begins with the
dinosaurs in Holbrook.
I’ve made this
journey before when my family moved from San Diego to Maine, riding
in the backseat of the ’57 Mercedes with our dog, Jack. I was
obsessed with dinosaurs on that road trip, too, forcing my father to
stop exclusively at Sinclair gas stations where the ubiquitous green
brontosaurus statues beckoned. I wondered if they liked being stuck
in one place; I wanted to unleash them so they would be free to roam
later, I’m taking that road trip again.
north on backroads for four hours; our starting point was my home in
Phoenix. Mel, my travel companion and designated photographer, is
charged with digitally chronicling the images of our cross-country
The initial batch of
photos is as lifeless and monochromatic as the Petrified Forest
itself, our first historical point of interest, yielding only one
post-worthy shot of the short hike we took to stretch our legs.
We get a good laugh
from her daughter’s comment on Mel’s Facebook post. “Why
is mom RUNNING up the steps?” she asks. We all know Mel’s
not a runner; she’s leaving that to me. I’ve let a
rootless life for so long and running grounds me, if only for a
is in Maine, three thousand miles away, and I’ve known her
since her birth thirty-some years ago, this daughter who’s done
two tours in Iraq and, Mel now confesses, teeters between the next
fix and rehab.
what I expected at all,” I say, as we pass the sun-beaten
“Thank You for Visiting Your National Parks,” sign and
weave our way through Navajo Nation toward Interstate 40. “No
“I thought it
would be, ahhh, different,” Mel says, and I wasn’t sure
if she meant the monument or her daughter’s life.
Our journey actually
started thirty years ago in Bangor, Maine. Mel and I were neighbors,
in the way that only happens in rural communities; I lived on Lucerne
Lake and she lived a few miles up the hill. Her husband and I worked
together at the Pepsi bottling plant in town, and I’d often
stop by to visit Mel after work. We spent many a night with a pot of
coffee and a pack of Marlboros, “Days of our Lives” cued
on the VCR.
Mel and I hatched
the road trip plan during an icy winter stroll through Bangor’s
City Forest a few months ago. On a weekend respite from my mother’s
island home, my new role as caregiver to a mother with Alzheimer’s
was taking its toll. I’d been splitting my time between my home
in Arizona and my mother’s in Maine and, even in February,
already planning my summer return east.
thinking of driving across country this summer.” I poked a
frozen puddle with my boot. “You up for the trip?”
My life in Arizona
is the epitome of extremes: The longest I’ve lived in the same
house. The longest I’ve held a job. The longest I’ve been
married. The longest I’ve gone without a drink. The longest
I’ve owned the same vehicle. And, at a quarter of a century,
the longest I’ve ever lived in one state. Yet with all these
lasting achievements, it was hard to feel grounded with a career that
had me traveling the nation 75 percent of the time.
As I child, I was
often uprooted. My father’s career as an oceanographer pulled
us from coast to coast; we never settled anywhere for more than a few
years at a time. My childhood memories are as transitory as my family
life was. Creamsicles from the ice cream truck in Annapolis. The
nursery school in Miami, where I learned to count to ten in Spanish.
My first earthquake in San Diego, age seven. A year later, we
returned to the tiny island in Maine where my parents had first met
almost twenty years before. We were the odd family from “away”:
two intellectuals and their only child. Three years later, my parents
divorced when my father left the island to start another life.
I was the second
runaway in the family. Like my father, I, too, left my mother without
a word the summer I was fourteen, hopped on a Greyhound bus and
vanished into the netherworld of my father’s new life. I had a
brother now, another mother, another family.
After that, I didn’t
return for many years. The island was as frozen in time as the
Petrified Forest. Most islanders could trace their roots back to the
Mayflower era, venturing only to the small village five miles away
for supplies that the island general store was unable to provide. I
wanted to explore the world, to live life without boundaries.
And so I did,
drifting between various jobs and school, never fully committing to
anything or anyone.
said that having no roots and no commitments gives me the freedom to
pick up and go whenever I want. I’ve told people I move a lot
because I’m hooked on the open road of wanderlust, the start of
something new. I’ve told myself that, too, but it’s a
At age thirty-two, I
made a list of all the places I had lived and discovered—between
waves of awe and nausea—I’d moved more times than years
I had lived: across the country, across the street, and even
overseas. It took me four universities, three coasts, a foreign
country and nearly twenty years to finish college.
Age gifts us with
wrinkles and wisdom and this I know now: all those times I moved was
to escape myself. Now, I’m returning to the island to root
myself in the quagmire of Alzheimer’s, a reality as inescapable
as my own self.
After the Petrified
Forest, it’s all interstate. We’ll wind our way to the
northern tier of the route, taking I-40 through New Mexico, I-25
through Colorado and Wyoming, and eventually connect with I-90.
After the historical
marker for Route 66, Mel tells me her father took a cross-country
motorcycle trip of his own, years ago. “He rode out as far as
Barstow, then came home with a bunch of postcards he’d
forgotten to send.” She caresses the tiny urn that holds the
essence of a man who so graciously gave himself to his family,
community and later, his wife with dementia. “Route 66 was his
favorite part of the trip.”
A half hour from the
New Mexico border, we exit in Holbrook. A thread of old Route 66
still weaves its way through this pioneer pit stop; this is where we
sprinkle her father’s ashes, in the steamy rain near the Navajo
County Courthouse & Museum. Dinosaurs lurk in a park across the
street, giant sculpted reminders of days long before wagon trains and
the indigenous settlements of the Anasazi, the Southwestern tribe who
mysteriously vanished six hundred years ago.
“I had a
babysitter who used to make my sister and me this special drink she
called ‘Mexican hot chocolate,’” Mel says. “Think
we could find some around here?”
Our quest takes us
to a tiny café. The outside is pink concrete, with a giant map
of Route 66 painted on the back wall where we park. Inside, faux wood
paneling gives the place a cave-like aura. There’s one
customer, an ancient toothless man, caressing his coffee mug. The
dampness from the concrete beneath the thin gray carpet seeps into my
My coffee tastes
like instant and like everything lately, this reminds me of my
mother, who has never started her day without a cup of Sanka. Mel’s
request for Mexican hot chocolate baffles the waitress. She returns
with a mug of lukewarm water and a packet of Swiss Miss.
Mel sets the menu
aside. “Think I’ll skip breakfast.”
cruising through Wyoming now for what feels like three days straight.
This isn’t the
Wyoming I was familiar with, this deserted stretch of interstate and
uninhabited prairie. It’s as if humans have ceased to exist.
“Wyoming is a
sparsely populated state,” Mel comments in the seventh hour of
this seemingly eternal drive.
“I wish you
could see Jackson Hole,” I say. “The Tetons would blow
your mind.” I tell her the story of my journey over the pass so
many years ago, the one I always tell when I think of Wyoming, about
the day I spent on horseback with cowboys I’d met shooting pool
in a dive bar the night before. I tell her about the warm cans of
Pabst Blue Ribbon swinging from the horses’ packs; dipping my
feet in Jenny Lake; the soft lullaby of hooves on the trail.
never ridden a horse before,” Mel says. “It’s hard
enough being in the car this long.”
This is our longest
day of the trip, eleven hours of driving. At the rest area welcoming
us to South Dakota, I ask Mel if she wants to spell me from the
sleep-inducing ribbon of interstate beneath us. Highway hypnosis,
they called it in my high school Driver Ed class. She’s unable
to drive for more than an hour at a time, she says. Even that makes
her hands throb, fingers freeze up. “Seven surgeries later, and
the Post Office still wants me back on delivery.”
I pull off I-90 at
the Wall exit and follow the signs for Wall Drug. The roadside’s
been peppered with these tiny signs for a hundred miles now, teasing
us closer toward a break.
“All the years
traveling for work and I’ve never been to South Dakota,”
I admit. “Or Wall Drug.”
years, my office was the nation. I logged hundreds of thousands of
frequent flier miles in sales calls between Seattle, Omaha, Chicago,
San Francisco, and Manhattan. Two years ago, I traded heels for flip
flops and yoga pants. The mascara dried up; business suits gathered
dust in my closet. Care journals and healthcare proxies replaced
business plans and production reports.
I left my career
because my mother needed more help and there was no one else. “Taking
care of mom is a lot more work than I thought,” I say and I’m
drained just thinking about it.
Mel nods. “It’s
a different kind of work.”
We have fudge for
lunch at Wall Drug. Peanut butter for me, penuche for Mel. I’ve
never been certain what, exactly, penuche is, but it’s my
mother’s favorite and the one time I took a bite from the block
she’d bought at the island general store, I’d spit it out
on the street.
Wall Drug is a
tribute to the past, a mini mall of shops and exhibits displaying
garishly painted mannequins in awkward poses, like bizarre props in a
the days,” I say as we prowl ice cream parlors and soda
counters and stores crammed with hardware, plaid shirts, cowboy hats.
“Everything was easier then.”
“The past is
past. You can’t take it with you.” Mel’s a
pragmatist; I’m learning to appreciate the economy of her
much as I hate to accept it. I spend too much head-space in the past,
preferring happy memories of summers spent with my other family at
Sebec Lake on inner tubes and water skis, the air thick with burnt
marshmallows; of the beach bonfires and smoky bars of my blurred
California twenties; of my mother as she was—creative and
eccentric—not the befuddled, anxious woman I’m returning
home to care for.
I want to relive the
days when she sketched fashion ads for Benoit’s Department
Store and painted sunsets of the cove across the street. When she
went on a book tour to promote her cookbook. When she played the
piano in a top hat on the Mother’s Club float in the Memorial
I know I should live
in the moment, as they say in meditation class: my true home is the
here and now.
Most days, though,
the here and now remains as distant to me as my mother’s
recollections of the past.
fixated on mannequins, snapping photo after photo whenever I spot
them during our trip. We first saw them at the museum in Holbrook, as
rudimentary as the ones in Wall Drug—cowboys with creepy
expressions, a postmaster, an Indian in headdress and loincloth, a
woman baking bread.
mannequins?” Mel asks, once we’re back on the road.
using them in my novel,” I say, “but I’m not
exactly sure how.” The seedling of an idea for my book has
taken root in my mind, as it often does when I’m doing anything
but writing, and later that night, from the uncomfortably hard
mattress at Mount Rushmore Lodge, it sprouts from my head to fingers,
then to the keyboard of my laptop.
frozen in time,” I write. “They know no place.
They just are.”
“What if you
suddenly became a mannequin and were frozen in time?” The
question pierces the silence of our motel room.
My outburst startles
Mel, the Facebook feed on her smart phone momentarily forgotten. We
haven’t turned on the television yet this trip, preferring the
motel rooms’ silent anonymity.
“Was that a
Twilight Zone episode?” she asks, puzzled.
“I think there
was one about mannequins,” I say. “But in my Twilight
Zone, you know it’s coming. It’s your eventual fate. And
it’s when you’re at your happiest. Like . . . boom!
You’re turned to stone. Or plaster. Whatever.”
“Sounds like a
cross between Nirvana and jail,” she says. “I need to
think on that.”
I already know where
I’d want to spend the rest of my days, immortalized in time and
space, at the one place that will always feel like home: Sebec Lake.
In true patriotic
form, we’re touring Mount Rushmore on our nation’s
birthday, but it’s Crazy Horse, the lesser-known Black Hills
monument that fires me up. This tribute to the Lakota leader has been
under construction, Mel tells me, for almost as long as its land
ownership conflict, when the Government promised the Black Hills
would forever belong to the tribe.
with the fee to get in?” I ask Mel; it’s pricier than
Rushmore, yet the paint is faded on all the signs and there are no
cars lined up at the entrance. “Does this place have a pulse?”
entrance fee helps fund the completion of this project,’”
Mel reads from the brochure we’ve been given by the bored
gatekeeper. “‘When completed, it will be the world’s
We’re here on
a whim at Mel’s suggestion after our morning with the
presidents; this point of interest had not been part my carefully
choreographed master plan. We don’t spend enough time here, I
think, as we drive away. Maybe it’s that Crazy Horse is on home
turf, because even incomplete, the sculpture is desolate, yet
majestic in a way the president heads didn’t quite pull off.
Crazy Horse isn’t
far from Custer, where we’ll be watching fireworks that night.
The bison is big in Custer, we discover; every corner of the tiny
town is overcome by life-sized sculptures of the beast. The bison by
the post office is metallic silver, as shiny as a new nickel. Some
are in costume, some sport neon colors and psychedelic patterns.
The bison was
popular at the Midwestern company where I’d worked up until two
years ago. Like most stalwart insurance companies, my former employer
was based in the heartland and when I’d started there more than
two decades ago, the bison was part of the company’s “Strong
on Service” logo.
I spent a good chunk
of time at itsNebraska headquarters, fondly referred to as the “home
office.” Even the name signifies dependability, a place of
comfort and familiarity. These people have roots, I realized, the
cube farm employees of the home office. The company was more than a
century old and most of the people who worked in the home office had
known each other from birth, and had worked for the company seemingly
from birth, making the progression from the same
and grammar schools and high schools to the home office where they
stayed until retirement. They didn’t need high school reunions.
They lived them every day.
monuments behind us, we strike off to see the rest of the heartland.
“Now I can
mark a Dakota off the three states I’ve never visited,” I
say after we cross the Missouri River and enter Minnesota. “Guess
North Dakota will have to wait.”
the third one?” Mel asks.
Indiana, I tell her.
“We should hit Gary tomorrow sometime around noon. According to
Mel sighs. “The plan.”
Two months before we
embarked on this road trip, I planned out our travel in minute
detail, spending nearly as much time on logistics as the ten-day
journey itself. Online trip planning apps and a visit to AAA—where
I left with a dozen guidebooks and as many maps—were a good
start, but the real work began once I sat down at home, spreading
maps, books and rulers across the dining room table. I booked every
hotel online in advance, double checking cancellation policies
because it was summer, a holiday was involved, and I’m a
planner; that’s what I do. It’s maddening to some, like
my husband who frequently reminds me there doesn’t need to be a
plan for everything. And it’s unfathomable to others, like Mel
who prefers the here and now to future tripping.
like this, adrift through time and space, the cacophony of calendars
and clocks unwittingly replaced by the simplicity of being in the
moment. It’s not a bad way to live, really, when you think
takes us through the thick of Americana and even the stop in Blue
Earth, Minnesota—where the Green Giant statue is so gargantuan,
it’s seemingly visible from space—is no match for
Wisconsin, the kitschiest part of our trip by far. At the Cheese
Chalet in DeForest, we’re surrounded by more mutant statues: A
human-sized mouse in lederhosen. A cow the size of a triceratops in
the parking lot. And across the street, the life-sized statue of an
elephant, inexplicably painted pink, sporting glasses as wide as I am
tall. “These effing statues…” I’m at a loss
for words. “They’re as freakish as the mannequins.”
with the mannequins.”
After we reach our
cheese quota for the summer, we walk over to the pink elephant for a
“I never saw
pink elephants in my drinking days. It’s my mother who’s
having hallucinations.” I circle the elephant. “Last
winter, she thought there was a man in her closet wearing her high
heels. She’s never owned a pair of high heels in her life.”
Mel says. “Mom thought people lived in her heating vents. It
was just the pipes rattling.”
After an overnight
in Rockford, Illinois, exactly as boring as it sounds, we’re
Motown-bound and I’m literally running out of time.
I’m on the
second loop at the rest area outside Gary. My goal is to run at least
one mile in every state and today’s travels take us through
three states: Illinois, Indiana and Michigan.
Some of my miles
have been through parks, some along riverfronts, and one was even in
a field along the highway, but we’re anxious to tour Detroit.
The rest area is a first, requiring four loops around the parking lot
and generating perplexed stares from long-haul truckers on smoke
At the end of each
mile, I slam a can of Tab, one of the peculiar assortment of road
trip snacks we’ve loaded in the car: peanuts, braided honey
pretzels, protein shakes and Mozzarella sticks. Mel opts to walk
while I run, taking pictures with her new Canon, a gift from her
husband before she left.
Before I left on
this road trip all I got from my husband was a warning.
going to drive three thousand miles across country, at least take a
gun with you,” he said. “Or wait until after I die.”
We didn’t take
a gun. But we had a pair of scissors.
Of all the stops on
our trip, Detroit is the one I’ve most looked forward to. And
it’s the stop that Mel’s Canon captures best.
Motor City’s lurid demise for a decade now, researching the
history of this once-thriving community founded on assembly lines and
soul music. Now it is a city abandoned; a city of broken-out
streetlights and potholes, imploded houses, uprooted people.
I know the feeling.
Mel furtively snaps
photos from the car as I dart through some of the sketchier
neighborhoods. The incongruence of this city haunts me. Empty motels
displaying “No Vacancy” signs dare travelers to stop.
Gleaming skyscrapers dominate downtown, its foreground lined with
rusty shopping carts and broken bottles. At the riverfront Campus
Martius Park, graffiti-ridden garbage cans overflow and signs implore
visitors to “Come Back Soon!”
you wasn’t here yesterday,” says the guy lounging against
the wall of the liquor store where we stop for sodas and smokes. I
pay with cash, distrusting the credit card machine that appears on
the Lucite lazy Susan from behind the cashier’s bullet-proof
fortress. “Crazy people rioting in the streets.”
Mel mouths at me.
television blackout has left us blissfully unaware of current events.
Pokemon Go is a complete mystery; Hilary’s emails, evidently,
have been laid to rest. And there was a protest last night, we now
learn, several hundred people jammed in the downtown park we’d
just strolled through, marching to denounce the fatal police
shootings of African-American men in Louisiana and Minnesota earlier
imagine what the husbands would say if we’d been here
yesterday?” Mel asks.\
we’d be rehashing the ‘I told you to take a gun,’
The next morning, we
veto driving to Cleveland to tour the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
It’s on the “maybe” list anyway, and after Gary and
Detroit, we aren’t up for another depressed city.
short day, five hours through Canada from our hotel in Windsor, the
Ontario border town across the river from Detroit where we spent the
night to stifle safety concerns and gun advice from the husbands. I’m
kicking myself for not including a day in Toronto, a city that
fascinates me almost as much as Detroit—the yang to Detroit’s
With a double dose
of Lakes Erie and Ontario today, we’ve now seen four out of
five of the Great Lakes. “I’m bummed we’re gonna
miss the ‘S,’” Mel taps the map. I raise an
eyebrow, unsure what she means. “You know, HOMES?
lakes spell out the word H-O-M-E-S, like we learned in grammar
say. “I don’t remember that one.” There were four
kids in my class in the three-room island schoolhouse I attended from
grade three to eight and the school’s combination of
old-fashioned and progressive studies included cursive, ocean ecology
and good citizenship, but the fact that the Great Lakes spelled
“homes” was not part of its eclectic curriculum.
As each day unfolds,
I uncover little pieces of Mel’s soul; it’s like being an
archaeologist and psychologist all at once. In Niagara Falls, I learn
she’s petrified of heights. I’d reserved a room on the
fifteenth floor of the elegant Fallsview Hilton on the Canadian side
of the Falls, a step up from our usual Hampton Inn. The spacious room
has a sweeping view of Horseshoe Falls, and the pounding crash of
water is almost palpable. It was too much for Mel.
think I can be up this high,” she confesses. “It’s
really freaking me out.”
We switch to a room
on the third floor, facing a brick wall. It doesn’t matter; we
spend most of our time sightseeing outdoors.
Her fear stems from
a childhood incident in which she nearly fell from a bridge. “I
white-knuckled it on the bridge into Ontario last night,” Mel
says. Zip liners rocket past, their faces a mixture of grins and
sheer terror. “Didn’t you notice?”
I hadn’t. “I
was pretty focused on border patrol at that point,” I laugh,
recalling the weekend drives to Quebec City with friends. “It
used to be so much easier to enter Canada in high school.”
change,” says Mel.
On our last night,
the night before we arrive in Maine, we stay with old friends of
mine, who I’ve known since the hazy days of high school.
They’re in western Massachusetts now, have a son, careers and a
ranch house with a basement full of turntables and old vinyl. Scott’s
got a thirst for music; everything I know about Grand Funk and Pink
Floyd and Black Sabbath, I learned from him all those years ago,
before rock was called classic.
“I want this
trip to last forever,” I tell Mel, as we follow our hosts to
the Green River Music Festival, where grilled tofu burgers will
permeate the air and the gravelly voice of Shakey Graves will mingle
with the patter of a passing thunderstorm. “I’m really
not looking forward to the rest of the summer.”
The spaces between
each trip East and my life in Arizona are shrinking this year. It’s
my third trip back already; long-distance caregiving is almost as
exhausting as watching the progression of my mother’s dementia.
the shoes. She can’t tie them anymore. And now she’s
having a hard time with buttons and zippers. And sleeves.”
that.” Mel sighs. “And when you help them get dressed,
their limbs are so stiff, it’s like they’ve forgotten how
Frozen like the
mannequins, I want to say, but some things don’t need to be
We’ve told a
lot of stories on this trip. In the span of ten days, our lives have
unspooled like ribbons of old mix tapes; it’s been decades
since we’d spent more than a hurried afternoon together. I
moved out West thirty-three years ago and until recently, I’ve
spent as little time as possible in Maine with parents or friends.
Even when I was Mel’s neighbor, it was merely a layover, a blip
on the radar of my rootless life.
Back then, she had
just started with the post office as a rural mail carrier in the days
when people actually sent letters. She drove her own vehicle along
the rural delivery route and, short legs stretched to operate the gas
and brake pedals, sat in the center of the bench seat, steering the
Pinto wagon with her left hand.
thing I ever saw in all the years I delivered mail was down to
Happytown,” she says. We’re in the home stretch, now,
driving down Main Street in Bangor along the Penobscot River. “I
was about ten yards from Burnham’s mailbox, and this old guy
comes running out of the woods in a flesh-colored thong. I thought he
was naked at first. A bunch of men were chasing him.”
She shakes her head,
lost in the memory. “I have never been so creeped out in my
life. They looked unevolved, with these gross, hairy faces. One of
them made grunting sounds when he saw me slow down at the mailbox,
and another one, big as a black bear, made lewd gestures with his
crotch. I booked the Christ outta there. Buzzy never did get his mail
Before I take Mel
home and drive the final two hours to the island I ran away from so
long ago, I share one more secret.
way to live. She can’t figure out the TV anymore, wanders up
and down the stairs all night. She calls me her mother
She wants to play marbles with her childhood friend, Edie, for God’s
she hasn’t lost them all yet.”
We pass McLaughlin’s
Seafood and Hollywood Slots, the new casino across from the Paul
Bunyan statue. Mel has lived here all her life, a half mile from her
parents’ farm. She grew up there, helped her father milk the
Jerseys in the barn. She’s as deeply rooted as all the
generations that preceded her.
“I just want
her to be in a better place,” I say as we pass the old Pepsi
plant where Mel’s husband and I used to work. “Is it
wrong to want my mother to die?”
want that, too.” Mel turns away from the window. “But who
are we to say they’re not in a good place in their minds?”
I pull into the
driveway, slow and unsteady. I am home, for the moment; a summer
ahead of me, a husband far behind. It’s not all lobster rolls,
sailboats and black raspberry ice cream cones, though. I have
responsibilities and obligations here, at my childhood home where the
roles have reversed and I am now the parent.
The tire I swung
from beneath the chestnut tree is long gone, and so is much of the
tree itself. With great sadness, I had to clip its century-old wings
this spring; the gnarled branches had entangled themselves amidst the
powerlines, not unlike the twisted neurons misfiring in my mother’s
Like Mel and the
mannequins, the chestnut tree is firmly rooted in place. Until two
years ago, my mother was, too, having lived in the same spot for
almost fifty years. Today, she floats between past and present;
dementia is the constant reminder of life’s impermanence.
A few days later,
Mel sends a text. “If I were frozen in time, it would be right
here. At home.”
And finally, it’s
clear: I am here. I am home.
of the message
won't know where to send it.)
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