We’ve driven these roads dozens of times over the years, hauling children and their stuff back and forth between Pennsylvania and Illinois. They throb with the familiar, pulse with memories. The laughter, the tears, the twice-as-long-as-it-should-take trips, the smoother-than-expected ones.
When we weave through the mountains, my soul stirs at the beauty. We’ve seen them snow-covered and bare, shadowed in the pre-dawn light. Their beauty struck me anew this last time. Everything was so brilliantly green. The sun was already casting its light on the mountains. My breathing slowed, my mouth temporarily agape.
We know what we are in for when we cross the state line into Ohio. Mostly flatness, but even this has its own kind of beauty. As a child of the flatlands, acres of farmland stretching as far as my eyes can see will always spark feelings of home. The hours across Ohio are some of the most uninteresting of the trip, and yet my breath catches for a different reason.
I will never forget what happened here.
I’m not always good at remembering but when I am, I seem unable to forget.
The memories flash in my mind as if they happened recently or are happening now. Sometimes I can feel the same feelings. It is both a gift and a burden.
On this stretch of Ohio road, I remember the wind and the ice, the trucks traveling faster than was safe. I remember the third lane, the one I shouldn’t have been in. I remember the days leading up to this trip, how I wallowed on the couch, ill, taking sick time from work before taking vacation days because I couldn’t break my fever, couldn’t conquer the cough.
We persisted with our trip, though, because it was crucial, we thought, to our future. Sometimes I wonder what would have been different if we had given in to the obstacles and turned around. Or canceled. But try as we might, we can’t change the past, no matter how much we might want to step into the memory and give warning. Or permission. What would I say to the girl pressing through illness and snowstorm to please the man she loved? I don’t always know. Sometimes I am still that girl.
I remember losing control of the car, the one that didn’t belong to me. I remember Phil saying, “It’s going to be okay” as the front of the car hit the concrete median at 75, how we spun, I think. How minutes earlier we were being passed by semis and how a fleeting thought was certain we would die. I remember seeing the back end of a pick-up truck glance our car. I remember coming to a stop on the opposite shoulder. We were upright. Alive. I had hit my head on the side window. A gallon of milk in the cooler had exploded, showering the interior with a white substance we at first couldn’t identify.
A man pulled up and asked if we were okay. He said help was on the way. Traffic streamed by as if nothing had happened. I couldn’t believe we were alive. I remember the officer interviewing me about my speed. He handed me a ticket. I remember the tow truck driver and how we squished into the seat together. I remember the phone calls Phil made, to his parents, to our pastor friend who was waiting for us in Pennsylvania.
I don’t remember much after that except that we removed what we needed from the car. We got a rental. And Phil drove the rest of the way, through the snow in the mountains with trucks passing us. I remember being tired and terrified.
All of these memories flood my mind when we drive that road in Ohio. Whether it is January or June, I can’t ever forget. It feels important to remember that it could have turned out so much differently.
It is an annual fact that our kids spend a couple of weeks in Illinois with their grandparents. When I tell people this, most other parents are jealous, even though we go months without seeing family. I don’t always understand the jealousy but I’m thankful that we have the opportunity. It is life-giving for the kids. And for us.
Our hometown has a festival every summer, near the Fourth of July. It is one of my favorite things. Last year, I got to go home for it for the first time in many years, thanks to a well-timed class reunion I didn’t want to miss. There is a fair, and food, a parade, fireworks and all the people you haven’t seen in ages. The whole town, it seems, comes out for some part of it. Did I mention its central theme is petunias? There are worse things.
I’ve attended dozens of Petunia Festivals in my life. A few stick in my mind. Like the year my best friend and I decided to ride the Zipper for the first time. We screamed the whole time and afterwards, she threw up behind one of the concession stands. There were the years I was on some kind of official assignment for the newspaper. The years our summer softball team rode on top of a fire truck in the parade.
The pancake breakfast is always a highlight. Eating a stack of pancakes and a side of sausage under a tent near the river, shooing away flies, sweltering in the heat. It sounds awful when I describe it, but it’s a tradition. Last year, we took my grandpa with us. I sat across from him and smiled every time someone stopped to greet him. He was a teacher in the local school system, then manager of the Dairy Queen, then a pharmacy driver. He was a character everyone seemed to have a story about, quick with a joke, and with the kind of memory that surprised you for a nonagenarian.
When our weekend came to a close, we took this picture.
I didn’t know it would be our last. Our last group picture: my kids and my grandparents. Our last memories of pancakes in the park, of stories of Grandpa “babysitting” the kids (or maybe it was vice versa) and accompanying them and my mom on a tour of our hometown’s parks.
My kids are in Illinois right now and this is what I am thinking of. How this time last year, they were having a blast with all of their family and none of us knew that three weeks later, we’d be back in Dixon for a funeral.
I think this is how July will always be for me: joy in the beginning, grief lurking in the shadows, waiting its turn. Maybe this is how all of life is: seasons of joy and sadness, celebration and grief. Maybe all memories hold a mixture of emotions and not a single one can be classified as only “good” or “bad.”
Were the good memories all good and the bad memories all bad? I’m not sure anymore.