Route 611 North relaxes from clogged strip-mall artery to country road curving past family farms and U-Pick orchards. Mom leans forward as she moves back in time. She has always loved driving. And although long relegated to the passenger seat, on a drive, she sometimes reclaims her clarity. Clarity that has dimmed relentlessly since my father died and she moved from their beloved home to an Independent Living apartment. And then, to an Assisted Living studio.
But today, in the car, her eyes gleam. Let’s find Cold Spring Creamery Road!
I know which bend in the road will reveal the house she first worked in when she came to America. There. Nestled beside a groomed pond fringed with yellow iris, a gracious summer “cottage.” Wonder lights her face, as if she can see through the carved mahogany door. It hasn’t changed! I learned English here. Through Search for Tomorrow and Guiding Light, she acquired vocabulary and syntax while dusting, ironing, and polishing silver.
We drive on, park before a white colonial. A middle-aged man rides a mower next door. Mom rolls down her window, waves him over, something she never would have done before. Incredibly, he remembers the family she worked for, remembers the bachelor brother who lived in the carriage house. The brother eventually married and had four kids. George? Married? She knew him as a playboy who daily pestered her to take a spin in his Corvette convertible.
With Mom still exclaiming over George, we head into Doylestown, with its heirloom hydrangeas and rhododendrons. Here. She points to a grey stone house fronted with two-story-high white columns. I scrubbed those, spring and fall. I always worried the Mister was looking up my dress. Was he the one who wanted the coffee cake? I ask. She laughs. A novice baker, she had stirred a cup of coffee grounds into the batter. He ate a whole slice, then gently suggested she use prepared coffee next time. Mom smiles. They were good people.
We turn south towards Jenkintown, navigate winding streets. She hesitates. There? A red brick Cape Cod with an overgrown garden. Yes. Here, she kept house for an older widower. They fell in love, married. He died two weeks before their daughter was born. Before he could change his will. While she labored alone in the hospital, his born-again son-in-law changed the locks. Cradling her newborn, she returned to the house of the aunt who sponsored her when she immigrated from post-war Germany.
The sun is setting. We’re both hungry. Her head nods. Tomorrow, I say, we’ll go see our old house on Ryers Avenue. She turns to me tearfully. I heard they are tearing it down. No, Mom. The people who bought our house love it. No one is tearing it down. I’ll show you tomorrow.
But the next day she is too tired. She frets, plucking at her sweater. The day after that, I must return to my own home four hours away. We will have no more leisurely drives. By my next visit, she is so agitated and confused that my family has stopped taking her for rides. Too often, she has tried to open a car door in fast-moving traffic.
Like those once wonderful drives, our cherished family home on Ryers Avenue vanishes into the void of Alzheimer’s. The brick house with red awnings and green backyard where my widowed father and his four small girls formed a new family with my widowed step-mother and her little daughter. Where my baby brother, a year later, connected us all. Where my step-mother became my mother. This house of boisterous parties and picnics that embraced relatives, friends, and neighbors, this cherished house is wiped from my mother’s memory.
And in the torturous logic of Alzheimer’s, my mother’s dread of a beloved house destroyed swerves to her childhood home in Diedelsheim, Germany. The solid, three-story house her father built for his family of nine children is the home she now yearns to return to and live in. With her mother and father.
I ask a cousin in Germany to take a photo of the house. I frame it, set it on the sill by her narrow bed in the nursing home where she can see it when she wakens and when she falls asleep.
is a writer and painter living in central Pennsylvania. Her poetry collection, Taking the Long Way Home, is forthcoming in December from Kelsay Books. Recent stories and poems have appeared in San Antonio Review, Flash Fiction Magazine, Literary Yard, The Drabble, Vita Brevis, Flashes of Brilliance, Literary Heist, and Writing in a Woman’s Voice. Two narrative poem projects, La Scaffetta and Accidents of Being, were adapted to stage by Tempest Productions, Inc. and produced in NYC; State College, PA; and Philadelphia.