Dementia is cruel joke that is played on those who suffer from it. For those who watch it happening it is sad and confusing. My mother’s memory fades in and out so quickly that it is difficult to know what world she is living in at any moment in time. You can’t predict or prevent dementia. Mom did all the right things. She never smoked. She didn’t drink. She ate her green vegetables, was never overweight, and she went to church on Sunday. One would think that at least some of those things might have offered her some protection. But here we are, with Mom finding it harder and harder to even remember what day of the week it is.
To some degree, Mom understands and sometimes tells me that her memory is failing. What she still remembers most clearly are things from her past — our family and our lives together and the people she knew and the places she lived growing up in Wetzel County, West Virginia. When Mom began asking to see those places again, I knew I needed to get her there. I wasn’t sure what we would do when we got there. Mom is the last of her generation. There are no longer aunts and uncles or grandparents to visit. The places Mom remembers have changed too. Would Mom recognize them? Would it upset her to see them the way they are today?
I made a plan with my daughter, Amy, who would do the driving. We set a date and wrote the trip details onto Mom’s calendar. I explained our plan to Mom several times. Everything was fine until our chosen date arrived. We needed to leave early on Friday morning as I had arranged to meet others for lunch in New Martinsville. But on Thursday, Mom began fretting and telling me that she didn’t want to go. I had known this might be a problem which is why I’d only planned to be gone for one single night and return home on Saturday afternoon. For 60 years, Mom had not been anywhere without my father. She didn’t want to go to West Virginia with me and my daughter. She wanted Dad to take her. I explained again that Dad is no longer able to drive. Then I offered to help Mom pack a bag. She insisted she could do it herself.
When my daughter and I arrived to pick up Mom up on Friday, morning, I found Mom’s empty suitcase sitting open on the sofa. My mother, who would have never dreamed of inconveniencing anyone, didn’t seem to be aware of the time. I led her to her closet to choose some clothing and into the bathroom to grab toiletries. Anticipating that we might encounter a few problems, I had padded our schedule with an extra hour. We got on the road a half hour late, but we would still arrive in time for lunch.
Throughout the almost 4 hour drive I occupied Mom by asking her questions about her childhood and the family she grew up with. Concentrating on those things seemed to make her happy and keep her calm. At noon we pulled up in front of Quinet’s Restaurant on New Martinsville’s Main Street. We were to meet Mom’s niece and nephew and the wife of Mom’s cousin who is one of Mom’s favorite old friends. I’d explained this to Mom several times. Nevertheless, she was surprised when the others arrived.
Mom knows that Renay and Chris are the children of her two brothers but she remembers them as children. She did not recognize them as middle aged adults. For a while after they arrived, Mom seemed to understand who they were. But like everything else, that knowing soon slipped away and Mom leaned over to whisper her often repeated question into my ear — “who is that?”
Oddly, Mom never forgets her cousin’s wife and is always excited to talk to her. The only explanation I have for this, is that she was already an adult when Mom met her. She is a part of Mom’s early life that she remembers. But whether she made a lasting connections to her family or not, Mom was delighted with all of our lunchtime companions. She loved hearing the stories they told of people and places she remembers, and seeing photos of their children and grandchildren. That alone made the entire trip worthwhile. There’s nothing more that I could have asked for.
I made this trip armed with GPS coordinates for a number of places we might want to visit. I owe much thanks to many in the “Real Folks of Wetzel County” Facebook group who shared information, helped me to pinpoint places on the map, and made recommendations.
My best “tool” turned out to be my cousin Renay with her lifelong knowledge of the county and a large SUV. After lunch, Renay surprised us by volunteering to drive our group around to see many of Mom’s familiar places.
We made stops at the Knights of Pythias cemetery in Hastings, the high school in Pine Grove, and Mom’s old schoolhouse in Mobley. Mom remembered all of these places and the people connected to them. We drove Fallen Timber Rd. where Mom’s Aunt Becky Fluharty had lived. We laughed about my Dad’s reluctance to ever drive any of his cars through the creek, the only way to reach Becky’s house. Dad made it known to one and all, that he was not happy to drive his low clearance cars over West Virginia’s rough gravel roads or along the dirt holler runs that were, in those days of the late 1950s and 1960s, filled with pot holes, fallen rock, and treacherous tree roots.
We saw the place where Mom’s family home once stood on a hilltop in Jacksonburg. Sadly, the old green shingle sided house that I loved as a child, is gone and sheep no longer graze on the hill. What Mom most remembered about the old house was the cellar where grandma stored her many jars of preserved foods including the always endless supply of green beans. I was surprised to find that the entire hill which had seemed miles high when I was a child, is not nearly as tall today as it used to be! Must be those darn tunneling moles!
We drove through Smithfield where my great grandparents and later, my grandparents had lived. In the 19th century, Smithfield was a boomtown filled with hotels, banks, blacksmiths, bakeries, general stores, and other shops and services. A devastating flood in 1924 washed away much of the town. By the 1960s it had become a quiet little dot on the map that gave passing motorists on the highway little reason to stop. Today, the place where my cousins and I played in the street and waded in the creek, is little more than a memory.
I remembered the beautiful stone bridge that once crossed the creek, replaced decades ago with a simple (and cheap) iron railing. We drove down the street where I once tagged at my Uncle Eric’s feet every time he walked to Maize’s Store, often to get his favorite lunchmeat – bologna – that would be wrapped in plain paper and tied with string. Unlike many kids today, I had been taught to never ask for anything and I never did. And while a trip to Maize’s with my mother and grandmother may or may not have resulted in a treat – depending on how distracted they were or how worried about the number of pennies they didn’t have in their purses that day — I could always count on Eric to come through. It didn’t come without a measure of teasing. Eric would pay for his purchases and turn, making his way toward the door as if to leave. He would wait for the look of disappointment to cross my face and then with a chuckle he’d say something like “Oh! I think we’ve forgotten something!” He’d reach into his pocket and pull out a nickel and the man behind the counter would fill my hands with sweet treats! Today, Maize’s Store with its squeaky wood floorboards and poorly lit corners that were filled with anything and everything a person might need to buy, is a lonely patch of green grass.
On the lot where Great Grandpa sat on his front porch waving to all who passed, there is now a gravel road leading straight up the mountain — a sign of the gas and oil companies that still dominate the area 200 years after the discovery of West Virginia’s abundant fossil fuels.
Up and down the street, many of the same little houses that I remember from my childhood still stand, only now, unmaintained for 40 years, they are dilapidated with sagging roofs and broken, boarded windows. Junk cars and cast off furniture fill side yards and even front lawns where overgrown grass and weeds have replaced the manicured flower borders and vegetable gardens that I remember. The street today resembles a third world, war-ravaged, ghost town. There were no grandpas sitting on porches and no children playing in the creek. The Smithfield we knew no longer felt safe enough to even get out to click a few photos.
Despite the decline in my family’s hometowns, West Virginia remains a beautiful state. Trees still cover the hills. Fallen rocks still “decorate” roadsides. The creek still flows beside the highway and sparkles like diamonds in the sunlight. We saw little boys fishing near Reader. We saw wild turkey and deer. Bird song is the music to be heard in the quiet, lonely places. The views everywhere are stunning.
Mom enjoyed the ride and the conversations. I did not realize though, how distorted her view of the situation had been until after we returned home. When Dad asked her how the trip had gone, Mom told him that “the people of West Virginia are so nice! Even the strangers!” Knowing that Mom had had no contact with strangers, I pressed her for an explanation. That was when Mom told Dad, “We had lunch with very nice people we didn’t know! And one of the ladies was so sweet! She even drove us to the cemetery and the old schoolhouse!” Apparently, my mother, forgetting that Renay is her niece, must have thought that I was having us hitch a ride with strangers. Fortunately, Mom took it in stride and didn’t find it to be unusual or frightening.
There are some newer hotels in New Martinsville, but I chose to check us into the New Martinsville Inn. At one time it was an Amerihost and it still displays an Amerihost sign at the the road. It had been my parent’s favorite hotel and the one hotel I knew might be familiar to Mom. There is nothing fancy about the New Martinsville Inn but it was clean and quiet and had a nice pool and hot tub. It also has one advantage over all the others. It sits on the river next to the locks. There is a long grassy area behind the hotel and a few benches make it a nice place to sit and enjoy watching passing boats and river traffic.
We had intended to spend a quiet evening doing just that. My sweetheart of a cousin Chris offered to come back after we had rested for a bit so we could talk more. I hoped he could bring his wife and kids. It would have solved the problem of how to keep Mom entertained all evening. But Mother Nature had other ideas. Shortly after we arrived at the hotel it began to thunder and rain. It rained so hard that a river of water was soon rushing along the sidewalk outside of our window. There was no way we would be enjoying the riverside views that evening. Nor could we even take Mom out for dinner. Amy got online and ordered a pizza and salad to be delivered. We ate sitting on our beds and surfing the TV channels. Finding nothing of interest to watch and exhausted from our busy day, we were asleep by 7:30 p.m.
We woke early on Saturday, and by early I mean 4 a.m. That’s what happens when you fall asleep before the sun goes down! We had planned to do some more touring before heading for home at dinnertime. At breakfast though, it became clear that Mom wanted to go home. There were a couple of nearby places where I hoped to snap some photos. Amy checked Google maps. The Mt. Olive cemetery was only 20 minutes away. We could see a couple of family history sites and be back into Ohio well before lunchtime.
I had studied the maps well enough to know how to get where I wanted to go from Rt. 7. Our GPS “lady in the box” had other ideas. Instead of following Rt. 7, she led my daughter to turn onto Doolin Run Road. Assuming it was a shorter way, I was nevertheless wary, and for good reason. Within minutes of leaving New Martinsville, we lost all cell signal. I had never thought to toss the Gazetteer Map book into the car, expecting that technology would be available to guide us. In most places it would have. But Wetzel County is not most places. Without a cell signal we had no Google Maps. And while GPS still worked, we knew that “the box lady” doesn’t always get things right in remote locations.
We did find the Mt. Olive cemetery. There are three cemeteries in Wetzel County that use the name Mt. Olive. This one was near Friendship Ridge. Perched high on a hilltop, I was surprised to discover a magnificent view. Photos that I’d seen only showed individual tombstones and not the beauty of the location as a whole. Those who buried their loved ones saw the cemetery as a place of sadness and grief. It is only the passing of generations that allow us today to see the loveliness in the places they chose to be their final resting spots.
I walked the cemetery, seeing familiar surnames from my family tree. Many of the oldest tombstones are worn, covered with lichens and moss, and are difficult to read. I found the stone I was looking for – that of my great great great grandfather, Emanuel Amos. He was the first Amos to settle in Wetzel County. His father, Mordecai Scott Amos brought the family to West Virginia’s panhandle from Pennsylvania and before that, Maryland. Emanuel’s wife and children lie around him, their gravestones still connecting them to each other and to those descendants who take the time to stop and say ‘hello.’
I’d hoped to also find the Mt. Herman Church and cemetery near Littleton. Instead of following the GPS lady’s instruction to turn down a gravel lane, we chose to stay on the paved road believing it would likely just take a little longer. It soon became clear why so many people who live in Wetzel County drive trucks and 4-wheel drive SUVs. We had the GPS set to avoid unpaved roads, but avoiding unpaved roads would have resulted in going nowhere. The GPS sent us up one and down another. We got further off track when Amy refused to turn down what appeared to be an extremely steep path suitable only for mountain goats. Our lady in the box directed us to turn onto a road that was closed and gated. No matter which alternate route we attempted, she kept insisting that we make a u-turn and take the gated road up the mountain. We found ourselves driving in circles, passing places we’d already seen. Despite having studied the map, we passed signs for roads I’d never heard of. Unlike the roads my father was faced with in the 1960s, today’s gravel roads are better maintained. They were narrow though, and everyone seems to drive in the middle of the road, making for some tense moments when rounding a curve and meeting oncoming traffic.
Needless to say, we were lost. We attempted to navigate by compass. Every turn we took led us deeper into… where? We did not know. We were forced to stop when we came upon ducks swimming in a rain filled pothole in the middle of the road. We considered that a photo opportunity. A herd of goats traipsed into the road. We took more pictures. Clearly, these animals were not used to traffic. We realized we had not seen a another car for a very long time. Amy inched the Jeep forward, nudging the goats out of the way. For nearly two hours we drove up, down, and around hills. The area was so remote we never passed a general store, a café, or even a gas station.
There was little we could do but laugh about our predicament and keep driving. When a police car passed us I shouted at Amy to “Stop!” But it was too late. The policeman obviously knew where he was at and where he was going. Within seconds he vanished around the hill in a cloud of dust.
We never did find Littleton or the Mt. Herman church. Like lost souls chasing mirages across a desert, we were excited when we finally stumbled into a town. We found ourselves with the bridge to Bellaire looming straight ahead. Hallelujah! We raced to the nearest service station for necessities – a restroom, bottled water, and chocolate. We crossed the bridge to Ohio and turned toward home.
I was afraid that Mom might not remember the trip to Wetzel County, but she does. After being reminded several times that Renay, Chris, and Fran had been our lunch mates and fellow tourists, Mom has even worked them into her story. Mom’s memories of our trip are not the same as my own. This afternoon I listened as she told a neighbor how nice it was to see her family home again and to watch deer graze on the hillside beside it. Those “new” memories from our trip are very real to her even though the family home was torn down long ago and the only deer we saw were nowhere near Jacksonburg. Her mind has created an elaborate story in which we all visited the old house. She says that the door was wide open and she doesn’t think anyone lives there anymore. She regrets that she didn’t go inside and take a look around. She did go down the steps that led to the root cellar beneath the house. When she looked inside, she saw a large jar of pickle beans! No one will ever convince my mother that these things didn’t happen. We don’t try. Mom’s memories contradict the notion that those with dementia can’t remember new happenings. They can and do make new memories. Their memories may not always be based on the reality experienced by others. But, Mom remembers our trip in her own way. She has used the experience to make new happy memories for herself. And in the end, that really is all that matters.