Traveling west to see my family, was one of the best parts of my childhood. I remember packing, packing snacks, my Winnie The Pooh Pillow, and fleece blanket. I remember waking up early and stopping at Dunkin’s to grab donuts or munchkins. You would find my face glued to the window in the car because I knew there was more out there than my small town. And of course, I remember the long car ride, seven hours to be exact. But the length of time never bothered me, there was something about traveling the open road, even at five years old that sparked my curiosity.
Seeing my family was simply awesome and visiting was special, since we were 400 miles away. They live in a small town named Sugar Run, Pennsylvania with a total population of 878 people. And despite their size, their environment was anything short of small, it was quite the opposite, surrounded by mountains, valley’s and lakes, I always found something to do at my home away from home.
My grandmother’s house sits at the far end, next to my uncle’s house, and on the other side of his house, is where my grandfather lives. Yup, my family lives all in a row and couldn’t get much closer. I remember riding the four-wheeler in between every house and up to my great grandmother’s house at the top of the hill.
Visiting my great grandma Grace was always my top favorite place to go, after my grandmother’s house and my mom would certainly agree. Her house sat at the top of the hill, off of a steep and narrow dirt road. She had a porch swing outside, that I made her go on every time I was there and she always had chocolate cookies in a jar, I don’t think I ever saw it empty. Great grandma always had puzzles she was putting together. Some upward of 3,000 pieces and I’d never seen someone finish them as fast as she does. She would glue each piece together and when she was done, put it in a frame to hang on her wall. I swear each piece held a small part of her and that was what made them so beautiful to look at.
Besides her house, I loved hanging out with my cousins. I am the awkward middle cousin because everyone else is either years older or years younger than me. I remember pushing my cousin Hannah in a toy Tonka Truck and running around the yard playing tag with her brother Even. And less than two miles away, are where my other cousins live, again on top of a steep, narrow dirt road, there’s a lot of those there. They are the closest to mine and my sister’s age and catching up with them was always fun. We would go down in their basement and pretend to make dance videos, thinking we were “all that”.
What I don’t remember, is the exact moment everything changed; I am not one to enjoy change and it’s actually hard for me to see everything different. Great grandma Grace moved out of her home and into another one with my Aunt Brenda. When I was fourteen, I started noticing her acting different. There was no jar of chocolate cookies, she wasn’t baking or cooking but she was still putting puzzles together, just not as fast. Shortly after that, she moved into an assisted living home (where there was no jar of cookies for sure). This is when I found out she was diagnosed with Dementia.
It’s a horrible, horrible disease. When I visit her, I can see the struggle in her eyes as she tries to put the puzzle pieces together. But these aren’t pieces you can find in a box and glue together, these pieces were her children, her home, her life.
I recently just got back from a quick weekend visit to Pennsylvania and seeing her was my priority. I’ve been to her new home countless times and to be honest, it’s still weird to see her in that environment. I always saw her up and about, seeing her still in a chair isn’t great grandma Grace. And It kills me but it kills my mom more knowing if we lived there, we would be there as much as possible.
With a disease such as Dementia, it’s easy to think “Well she doesn’t remember anything so why bother?” But she does remember, some things. She may not be able to remember your name but she’s knows you’re there, she knows I am there. The most she knows is that, I am familiar to her and that’s all that matters.
For a woman in her late eighties she physically looks damn amazing. She has maybe a few wrinkles on her face and can still get up a dance a little. For that moment, I saw my great grandma Grace again, the one I remember swinging on the porch swing, eating chocolate cookies.
Leaving Pennsylvania this time, left an impact on me. For years I’ve seen the same faces, same places, yet everything’s different. I can no longer push Hannah in a Tonka truck (even though she would probably try to fit in one) and I can no longer ride the four-wheeler up the narrow dirt road to great grandma’s house. But what I can do, is make new memories and remember all the good ones, because you never know when you’re going to lose them.