Your Roots Are Showing

Amie McGraham

© Copyright 2018 by Amie McGraham


Photo of flowers and a lake in the sunset.

This 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 the planet.

Forty-four years later, I’m taking that road trip again.

We’ve driven 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 journey.

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 moment.

Mel’s daughter 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.

That wasn’t 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 trees.”

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.

I’m 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.

I’ve always 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 lie.

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 toes.

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.”

Past Life

We’ve been 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.

I’ve 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.”

For twenty-five 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 museum.

Those were 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 words.

She’s right, 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 Day parade.

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.

I’ve become 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.

Why mannequins?” Mel asks, once we’re back on the road.

I’m 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.

They’re 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.

Pink Elephants

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.

What’s 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?”

“‘The 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 largest sculpture.’”

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 kindergartens 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.

Fireworks and 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.”

What’s the third one?” Mel asks.

Indiana, I tell her. “We should hit Gary tomorrow sometime around noon. According to the plan.”

Oh, yes,” 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.

My mother’s 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 about it.

Today’s drive 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.”

Mel: “Again with the mannequins.”

After we reach our cheese quota for the summer, we walk over to the pink elephant for a closer look.

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.”

Right?” 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 breaks.

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.

If you’re 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.

I’ve followed 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!”

Good thing 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.”

Rioting?” Mel mouths at me.

Our self-induced 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 this week.

Can you imagine what the husbands would say if we’d been here yesterday?” Mel asks.\

Pretty sure we’d be rehashing the ‘I told you to take a gun,’ comment.”

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.

Today’s a 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 yin.

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? The lakes spell out the word H-O-M-E-S, like we learned in grammar school?”

Huh,” I 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.

I don’t 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.”

Things 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.

First it was the shoes. She can’t tie them anymore. And now she’s having a hard time with buttons and zippers. And sleeves.”

Mom got like that.” Mel sighs. “And when you help them get dressed, their limbs are so stiff, it’s like they’ve forgotten how to move.”

Frozen like the mannequins, I want to say, but some things don’t need to be said.


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.

The scariest 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 that day.”

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.

It’s no way to live. She can’t figure out the TV anymore, wanders up and down the stairs all night. She calls me her mother now. She wants to play marbles with her childhood friend, Edie, for God’s sake.”

Mel: “Guess 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?”

I used to 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 brain.

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.

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