It was a warm and sunny winter’s day that Sunday, driving back from Heather’s grandmother’s funeral in Belpre, Ohio. The last time we’d driven back from Ohio, two years earlier, it started to snow pretty fiercely as soon as we hit Route 50 east of Parkersburg, West Virginia. When I glanced to the side of the road and saw a wild dog nibbling at a dead bird of prey on the side of the road, I started to feel as if we were caught in the middle of a wintry version of some Mad Max/Road Warrior film. Which is to say that although it was a little bit scary for us, it was also exciting that Heather, Maggie, Julien, and I were out on the road in the middle of a minor adventure. All I had to do was remind myself that as long as we took it calmly and slowly, we’d make it home fine, and we did.
Whenever we visited Heather’s grandmother and the Ohio branch of her family, we always stayed in Parkersburg, which is just across the Ohio River and only a half hour drive to where she and Heather’s aunt and uncle lived; and in Parkersburg, whenever we could manage it, we stayed at the Blennerhassett Hotel. A beautiful Queen Anne style building from the late 1800s, the Blennerhassett is a fancy hotel, and the only reason we could afford staying there on a number of our trips is that it’s in Parkersburg, an economically depressed town as well an area that’s been polluted by the local Dupont chemical plant. It was through the manufacturing of Teflon, that miracle non-stick surface—that the chemical compound C8 made its way into the environment. And now, through the criminal actions of Dupont as well as other companies, most people in the world have some level of C8 in their bodies. This is why, if you can afford to do so, you don’t drink the water in Parkersburg or Belpre—and, of course, in a lot of other places.
As with most small towns, I find that there’s something almost unbearably sad about Parkersburg. But that’s probably because Parkersburg seems like a place that has so many stories to tell. And by stories I don’t mean simple facts and statistics. Too many people think these are the same as stories or else use them as substitutes for stories and go about their lives as if everything in the world has an explanation and reason—as if there’s nothing we can’t grasp with our minds, nothing that doesn’t fall between the cracks. It was in Parkersburg and some of the surrounding area that Aaron Burr, who had been vice president of the United States under Thomas Jefferson, began having discussions with Harman Blennerhassett (who with this wife Margaret were the two people after whom the hotel was named). What he and Blennerhassett discussed were among the things that led to Burr being put on trial for treason. But these are simply the facts, and have nothing to with the story being told here.
The last time we were at the Blennerhassett, whenever we’d see another hotel guest in the hallways, Julien would ask “How long are you staying here?” Usually, the answer would be “Oh, one more night” or “just for the weekend.” Julien would then say, “We’re staying here for thirteen days.” If we could, he wouldn’t have minded staying there for thirteen days. (Yes, like me, he enjoys being away and spending time in hotels.) As for Maggie, between all the family gatherings—or sometimes during them—she spent her time reading Neil Gaiman’s novel The Ocean at the End of the Lane. Heather, of course, had a lot of family she wanted to catch up with, while I spent a lot of time thinking about birds and all the things that are harder to see in the dark.
Heather’s grandmother’s funeral was held in Belpre, Ohio at a funeral home around the corner from what had been the site of The Lee Middleton Doll store and museum. It was maybe fifteen years ago, during a trip to Ohio, that Heather and I visited the doll museum there. It was one of the creepiest places we’d ever been to. There were rows and rows of doll parts—it’s incredible how frightening a row of about twenty or thirty cute doll heads can be—and on top of that an entire nursery filled with dolls representing newborn infants. At the funeral, the minister seemed to spend a lot of time talking about Jesus and Christianity and not so much time talking about Heather’s grandmother, Emma Rae Runkle. That reminded me of my mother’s funeral more than two decades ago, when the priest, during his sermon, said that if my mother were somehow there she would have asked us to take some time to consider our lives as Christians. She wouldn’t have—because although she was a believer, she preferred to keep her thoughts about Jesus to herself—and what she would have said to everyone gathered in the church that day in her honor would have been “Hello” and “How are you today?”
I took this photograph of Route 50 on the Sunday after the funeral as we were leaving Parkersburg. I tend to enjoy leaving a place much more than arriving there, even when it’s somewhere I want to be. There’s something about leaving a place that calms me. And on that Sunday’s drive, I wondered if we’d ever find ourselves in Parkersburg again. With Emma Rae Runkle gone—and only a few of Heather’s family still living in Ohio—the east coast might now be the preferred location for any family gatherings. And although Heather and I do like to take trips with Maggie and Julien—and although there is something fascinating about Parkersburg, I doubt it would be part of our itinerary for any trip out west. Still, I wouldn’t mind, if sometime in the future, I could leave from there again. Take Route 50 out of town and head east. And since I prefer leaving a place as opposed to going there, I wondered as we drove farther and farther away if I might ever be able to leave Parkersburg without having to go there to begin with. And I wondered about all the other places I might leave, without having to go there.
After we got back home that evening, it wasn’t long before Maggie got out her guitar and started to play. Julien then took out a bag of his dinosaur toys and started to play as well. It’s a different kind of music when a child is playing with dinosaurs, but once you learn how to listen to it and hear the subtle delicate notes, it’s quite beautiful. In a little while, Heather began organizing what we’d brought in from the car, putting the medicines we’d brought with us back in a cabinet in the kitchen. I then picked up a couple of our bags, and began walking upstairs with them. That’s when Julien looked up from his dinosaurs, turned to me and said, “See you, Dad.” As if I were going away somewhere, maybe on another long trip. I suppose that sometimes there’s a distance in my eyes that seems to say I’m drifting off toward some unreachable world. Only those closest to me can see this. They also know I have no intention of going there. And that on those occasions when my mind takes me there anyway, that if at all possible, I’ll be coming back.
“See you, Julien,” I said. “I’ll be right back down in a minute.”
“OK,” he answered, then he added, “Don’t jump on the bed.”
“OK,” I said.
And though I love being on the road, sometimes it does feel good simply to be home, which means it was probably good that Julien reminded me not to jump on the bed. Because upstairs, with no one looking, that might be exactly what I’d want to do—jump on the bed. Jump for joy. Jump for all the years condensed into a moment of a million thoughts. Jump for all the distance diminished from hundreds of miles into a simple matter of upstairs and downstairs. I’m pretty sure that jumping would have been a way of saying, “we’re home,” and that being home was a good thing.
Photograph by Jose Padua