Finding West Virginia
A daughter recalls a 1964 family road trip that served as a lifelong and poignant memory for her late mother
I like to think I did good by my forever-widowed mom, born into northern Korean pageantry only to end up in the Betty Crocker 'burbs of Boston, then D.C., but in one way I failed her: I never got her back to West Virginia.
Not to that mythical place, anyway.
For the record, it was a real place. In the summer of '64, our family vacationed somewhere, I never knew where, in the hills of West Virginia — an odd choice even for my adventurous dad who was not born into pageantry yet wanted us to experience it all, big and small. But Koreans out in the sticks? In 1964??
Here was a World Bank wife who'd flown first-class to Paris, Rome and Hong Kong. Still the call of West Virginia proved the loudest.
The proof is captured in two bygone pictures of our family looking decidedly hillbilly — blame it on the mountain air. I framed both for my mom, neither of which feature my dad, our trusty photographer, but, trust me, you can feel his presence behind each one. Breathing, loving, wishing now could last forever. This still.
He had fifteen years left.
Curious how a little spot in West Virginia would become fabled in my mom's mind but there it was, maybe half-there, floating, like a dream or a heaven, some long lost paradise, once real, now imagined, staying on her mind like Wind Song Perfume, and if you don't know the commercial, lucky you, you're still young.
Here was a World Bank wife who'd flown first-class to Paris, Rome, and Hong Kong. Still, the call of West Virginia proved the loudest. Whenever I found her in the kitchen studying the Travel or Weekend sections of the paper, I could predict her next words:
"Where we were, I wonder?"
On occasion, to perk her up, I'd get out our AAA Road Atlas and we were the blind leading the blind, tracing every inch of West Virginia with our fingertips. Though it was her nostalgic journey, I'd go along for the ride. Could it have been this town? What about that town?
We may as well be looking for buried treasure.
"Why do you want to go back there, Mom?"
If only I knew where, I'd take her there in a heartbeat. Hitting the road was our thing and there were many little scenic trips, some even to West Virginia — Shepherdstown, Harper's Ferry, Charlestown. Nice jaunts but no magic mountains to speak of. Even as we left the countryside, my mom kept glancing back at some elusive Eden — to recapture who she was as a young mother and wife, before widowhood.
Last August, the morning after my mom died, I went through some of her drawers, specifically the two in her coffee table. Just to touch her things. Feel her. I came across a hodgepodge of hearing aid batteries, old remotes, a half-dozen decks of cards when something stopped my heart: a folded map, face down.
I turned it over, dead sure what I would find: West Virginia. Official Highway Map. Most likely she picked it up at a Visitors Center when we were on the road, slipped it into her bag without a word. The map was well-worn enough to tell me that her yearning was even more desperate than I realized.
Later, wondering how my mom could've read the fine print, I went through her drawers again. And there it was: a magnifying glass.
Time blurs but that night or maybe the next or a week later, I got out my big box of collected family photographs, some dating back to before I was born. Reaching in blindly, the first thing I pulled out was a small brown paper bag. I peeked in to see old-time slides, four of them. One by one, I held them to the light. The black film cast an eerie effect and all I could make out were figures in fog posing like some ghost family.
Wait, not a ghost family, our family. In the foreground of mountains, next to a log cabin. Our family, minus my dad, of course. Yet in a way he was there, always there. Proof: Written in blue cartridge ink on the bottom of each slide was his recognizable script: W.Va Summer 1964 or Bobcock State Park July 1964.
The internet corrects my dad's spelling as Babcock State Park, located in Fayette, West Virginia.
In my dreams, she's still alive; we're moving through doors, through stores, making our rounds. When I wake up, the veil of reality comes over me.
As deaths go, my mom died peacefully at home. In a sense, she'd already left, no idea I was holding her hand.
Speaking of hands, two days earlier, seemingly in a death coma, she did the unexpected: put her hands in prayer. For all our time together, in the end, I couldn't hear her prayer; I could only hope she found her West Virginia, after all.
Editor’s note: This is an excerpt from a new memoir entitled "That Lonely Spell" by Frances Park (Heliotrope Books, March 2022). Reprinted with permission.