Road Trip, 1977

By Kirsten Rice

Photo courtesy of Dana Lipar (

He’s talking again, saying crazy things about packing the car and leaving town. So I tell him, “No, Grandpa, you can’t leave right now, just drink your tea.” And I go get Mom.

Grandpa’s house is weird now, without Grandma and almost without him, so it feels like I’m trespassing as I walk into the hall. Grandma’s pictures of all the grandkids still hang on the wall, but we’re frozen in time at the year she died, braces on and glasses crooked, ungrown and guiltless. But the guilt wraps around me  as I tiptoe down the hall. I don’t deal with these moods: they’re slippery as the salmon Grandpa used to reel in from Puget Sound. Like last night, when he said he didn’t know where Grandma went. He thought she might have crashed the car or gotten robbed at the grocery store, and Mom had to tell him again that Grandma died two years ago. He bawled exactly like he did at Grandma’s funeral.

Today the confusion won’t go away.

“Mom, Grandpa’s talking again.”

She’s doing dishes in the kitchen: two pairs of plates and silverware, one Grandpa’s and one the part-time caretaker’s. Her shoulders slump and she turns off the tap. “Already?”

“Too bad it didn’t happen tomorrow,” I say, because tomorrow is my uncle Stuart’s day with Grandpa.

“Don’t talk like that.” Mom dries her hands on a dish towel, a threadbare one that we don’t throw away because Grandma liked how it matched the cherry wallpaper. Mom looks at her watch, but I know she’s looking at the date under the digital numbers: April 26. Grandpa’s like a clock: a limping clock that stumbles behind a day or so every year, but still keeps pretty good time. Every spring, late spring, Grandpa starts mumbling about the trip he never took. The first time, Grandma was still alive, and because she could still feel the sweet Redwood breeze shuffling up the back of her t-shirt and unsticking it from her sweaty skin, she thought she could gust the memory back into Grandpa’s head. But Mom took him to the doctor. Diagnosis: Alzheimer’s, early stages. He started to forget weird things, like my name, and my brother Sam’s name, and my sister Macy’s name, and how to drive to his boat.

look children, this is what we used b4 flickrphoto © 2010 betty x1138 | more info (via: Wylio)
I follow Mom to the hall closet, where she pulls out the picture album. This year’s dust sifts to the floor and the other albums, cracked with too much opening and closing, whisper weird smells across the closet threshold and into my nose. For one wobbling tick of the hall clock, I smell something more than dust. Something sticky and gingery, dark as molasses and crumbly as sugar baked into the air. Tangled up with that smell is an image of Grandma drizzling molasses into a cup measure in the kitchen and Grandpa daring me to taste it when she left it on the counter. Then a memory of his gotcha when my mouth puckered against the dark and syrupy slick on my tongue. I almost feel the tug on my ponytail that came next, a teasing and silly Grandpa-thing that used to make me wrinkle my nose and glare at him. Then the clock ticks again and those memories sink under the layers of dust.

This house is full of those peek-a-boo surprises. I glance at Mom. She’s frowning at the rows of picture albums inside, either remembering the years stamped onto the bindings or wondering what to do with all the memories once Grandpa dies. I can’t tell which. She hands me the album.

“Your turn.”

I jump back. “What?”

Her look skewers. I hear everything: how he’s my grandfather, how she doesn’t have time for arguing. “Please,” she says. And that word drains the argument right out of me. Because her mouth is trembling and her hair is wisping out of its ponytail and her eyes almost look like raccoon eyes, she’s so tired.

I want to roll my eyes, but I just say, “Okay.”

The leather photo album is chilly and old-smelling, like a history book that hasn’t been opened in ages. Or—in one year, to be exact. Mom and Stuart think this yearly re-telling is some kind of ritual, religious almost, as if the photo album is Scripture. As if chanting the photo captions over and over will ward off the curses of Alzheimer’s. I don’t believe in any of it. Alzheimer’s is not a god to plead, negotiate, or bargain with. It doesn’t hear.

Mom goes back to the dishes. I’m glued to the closet door. I do not want this job. I can’t tell my mom this, but I don’t even want to be here, where memories drip like leaks from the ceiling only to evaporate, vanish into the air.

“Clary?” my grandpa says. I walk back into Grandpa’s room. He looks shrunken in the padded rocking chair by the window, too pale in the rainy light sieved through the blinds. In his lap, his hands tremble—fisherman’s hands that tugged on lines and nets, and twitched my ponytail whenever I came over.

“Did you find the atlas?” he asks.

“Um, no,” I say. I tap my toes in my shoes, stuck in the doorway. “I always wanted to take that trip, Clary,” he says, and then he picks up his tea with shaky fingers and says, “Why don’t you get a map out? That road atlas is—it’s somewhere, it must be in…”

“I couldn’t find it, but I found this,” I say, holding up the album.

“I don’t want to look at pictures today.” Grandpa sets his tea down. “My eyes are tired…” He trails off, eyes focusing on something behind me—some past, some other person, maybe Grandma.

“They’re good pictures, Grandpa,” I say. I perch on the edge of his bed, lean toward the rocking chair. My ponytail slips over my shoulder and swings between us, but I know he won’t tug on it. He hasn’t remembered that in a long time. I pat his hand like Mom and Stuart do to get his attention. “They’re from. . . from your trip.”

His eyes click into focus, snap onto the album. “My trip?”

Grand Canyonphoto © 2009 DaSon’e | more info (via: Wylio)
“Yeah, the trip you took with—um, Grandma.” I stroke my thumb through the dust on the cover. I wonder if these pictures will streak the dust off the memories in his mind, or if he’ll just stare out the window or even start to cry. I would cry. I stare at the dust on my finger. It scares me how something giant and epic like Grandpa’s trip could whirl into the black hole of his mind and disappear—poof!—like the dust when I blow it off my skin. I wonder sometimes if the memories of daring me to snatch ginger cookies off the cooling rack are gone, too, fossilized and frozen in the dying cells in his brain. “Here,” I say. “I’ll show you.”

“I don’t remember taking a trip,” he says. “But did I tell you that I always wanted to go to the Grand Canyon? Your Grandma and I always talked about it, but I guess we haven’t gotten around to it. We were going to make a road trip out of it. We were going to go to Yosemite on the way, and—and someplace on the way back. What was that place called?”

“Arches,” I say quietly. “Arches National Park in Utah.”

Grandpa nods. “Arches. Arches on the way back. But we never went, I guess.”

I peel back the first page. The album’s spine cracks like ancient joints. The pages smell inky and dusty. I bite my lip. Grandma’s handwriting curves in a half-moon shape over a picture of her and Grandpa standing by a packed car. It’s a funny picture, because the trunk is still open and some camping stuff is strewn across the lawn. Grandpa isn’t smiling, Grandma’s pressing the back of her hand against her forehead. Mom and Stuart always laugh at this picture, snapped by one of them in the middle of Grandma and Grandpa’s fight over how to pack the car. But the tension, once full as the gas tank, seeped out of the picture long ago as the color faded and the inks melted into each other. It became the joke: the trip that almost ended before it began.

“You did,” I say quietly. “Take the trip, I mean. You went with Grandma in 1977. It was your twentieth wedding anniversary.”

Then I close the album. The spine doesn’t groan. I think it wants to stay closed, huddled under dust, unopened. I dump the album on the bed next to me, then go to the window. I know what Grandpa’s face is doing right now without looking, because I’ve seen it happen every time Mom pulls out the album. Like he’s seen a ghost, and not just any ghost: his ghost. Grandma’s ghost. However much Mom and Stuart think it’s our God-appointed duty to remind him, I think it’s cruel.

One time, I argued it with Mom.

“He needs this story,” she’d said. “Stop being selfish.”

“Selfish? He doesn’t need this story, it just hurts him. He hates himself for forgetting.”

“He loves to remember.”

“Not true.” I was choking on tears in my throat, trying not to let her figure out I was about to cry, my throat raw with all my own memories. “He just forgets it over and over again—what’s the point?”

“The point,” she’d said, “is not the forgetting.”

I flick the blinds open wider with two fingers and shiver as more dust flutters into the air. Dust covers everything in this house and everything in my mind. I’m forgetting, too, what he was like before. Every time I come here, the sticky taste of molasses drips farther out of my memory. So does the gotcha laughter behind Grandpa’s glasses and the swish of a rolled newspaper when Grandma would swat him. Robert. Don’t tease your granddaughter. I’m forgetting it all, too, just like him.

I turn back to Grandpa. He’s staring at the album, fingers tapping and rubbing the arms of his rocking chair in a whispery song that sings confusion. And — maybe some kind of memory? Like he knows this is important? I swallow a few times. I’m afraid, suddenly, like I used to get afraid when my sister and I would play hide and seek in the basement and I’d run into something in the dark.

“Do you remember?” I ask.

“I always wanted to see the Grand Canyon,” he says. “The red rocks…”

I sigh. False alarm. “You saw it,” I say. “You and Grandma saw the Grand Canyon, Yosemite, Arches, and the Badlands in June, 1977.”

Redwoodsphoto © 2008 | more info (via: Wylio)
The details rush up out of me, but in the remembering of this story, Grandpa and I are both blind. I have no memories to shade and color the National Parks, and neither does Grandpa. These names are just words. Symbols of forgetting. And what scares me is that my own memories are fading, too, sighing to sleep in photo albums that will collect dust in the hall closet. But there are no pictures of the little things, like sneaking molasses in the kitchen or digging in the garden with Grandpa and Sam. No way to remember.

“We wanted to take the great American road trip.” Grandpa’s still whisking his fingers around the knob on the end of the rocking chair’s arms.

I crouch down next to him. He’s wearing this sweater Sam and I got him when we were little, too little to know that a navy sweater with cookie-cutter fish shapes was more tacky than cool. I wonder if he remembers how, when Mom whispered he didn’t need to wear it, he looked right at me and Sam and said, of course I will, I’ll put it on right now.

“We took you with us,” Grandpa says. I almost jump up, startled by the clear look in his eyes as he moves his hands off the arms of the rocker. “Didn’t we? You came along, too.”

“No, you—” I bite my lip. “You took the trip with Grandma. And Mom and Stuart stayed with Grandma’s parents.”

Hands on rocker. Fingers flicking. “Grandma?”

“I wasn’t born yet. I just know the story. And the pictures.”

“Oh…” he says. I pinch the bridge of my nose. The dust in this house makes my head hurt. Grandpa’s hands shuffle off the arms, settle in his lap. “No, you were there. I remember, Clary.”

I grab the album, pull it open. “Look, see Grandma’s handwriting? ‘Our Great American Roadtrip.’” I trace my finger over the letters. They’re so old, I think the ink’s going to peel off onto my skin. And when the ink’s gone and the pictures have faded, when the album falls to pieces, when the memory is scratched off the surfaces of the minds that lived it, where will the trip be? When Grandpa’s gone—or is he already gone?—how will I cling to all my boxed memories? “And you and Grandma are about to leave in this picture. You don’t look so happy here, but you always said packing was the worst part of the trip. It got better from there.”

He shakes his head. “Not that. It was another trip. After ’77. With you.”

I sit back on my heels. Grandpa’s looking just over my shoulder, at a spot on the wall, maybe the picture of me and Sam and him and Dad on the dock, fishing boat bobbing behind us. Grandpa caught the salmon, but Sam and I are holding it.

“Here.” I try to put the album in his lap so I can read out the captions on the second page about long drive to the Washington border, pit stops in Long View and Salem. Pictures of evergreen trees alongside the highway, a mini-mart in Long View. Then the pictures of the Oregon Coast, camping in the rain, we made baked potatoes in our campfire! But his hand closes over mine.

“We went to the coast. One year, your grandma and I took you and your sister and brother…Macy and Sam…to the coast. Do you remember that?”

I freeze. I’m bumping around in the dark again, tripping, not sure what to say. Grandpa’s hand is cool and dry, his eyes clear as Seattle skies can be sometimes.

“I think we lost the slides. Maybe they’re in a box somewhere. I should ask your Grandma. We packed the car…just like that.” He points to the album, a picture of Grandma perched on the bumper of their station wagon. Lunch in the Redwoods before a long drive to Yosemite. He blinks a few times and then lifts his hand. It flutters, shaken by some windstorm in his mind, and then brushes against the end of my ponytail.

Washington Coastphoto © 2006 Anne Hornyak | more info (via: Wylio)
“Remember?” he says. I hold my breath. His hand falls. But for another tick of the hall clock, I’m ten years old again, wrinkling my nose again, smelling ginger in the kitchen again, Grandpa’s Clary again. “We drove you to the Peninsula,” he says. The words string together as fragile as drizzles of molasses.


He shifts his hands to the arms of the rocker. “Hm?”

“You were—telling me about the trip to the coast.”

“The coast?”

“Yeah, a trip to the Washington coast with Grandma and me and Macy and Sam.”

His eyes blur, cloudy again like regular Seattle skies I sink off my heels, plop onto the rug.


Flash and gone.

And I’m sitting here barely able to breathe, all the air punched out of me by that half-twitch of my ponytail, clutching at words that have no meaning for me: Washington coast, Peninsula, one year, slides. Words that weighed more than dust for half a second in Grandpa’s mind; a trip that has been forgotten. Sam and Macy won’t remember, they’re younger than me. And I don’t remember either. Why don’t I remember?

“Clary?” Mom’s calling from the kitchen. “Your phone’s ringing.”

I clutch the album. A beautiful first view of Yosemite! Half-Dome and El Cap in the sunshine at Tunnel View. I flip to the next page. Our campsite in the valley. Beware the bears! Hiking Lower Yosemite Falls — rainbows in the spray.

“Clary? You missed your phone,” Mom says. I creak to my feet, joints stiff from crouching on the floor, then slip into the hall, only looking back at Grandpa once. He’s gone again, doesn’t even remember that he almost remembered the great forgotten American road trip.

Mom’s wiping the counter with the old dishtowel. It’s losing its grip on itself, fraying to pieces at its center, streaking the water around more than soaking it up. I check the missed call on my phone, then hesitate.



“Where did Grandpa take me and Macy and Sam that one time, on the coast?”

Mom rings the towel out over the sink. “This old thing is kinda useless, huh?” she murmurs. “I should probably throw it away.”

“Mom, the coast.”

“Moclips,” she says. She folds the dishtowel on the counter, then rummages around in the drawer for another one.

“Moclips?” I repeat.

“Near Ocean Shores.”

I don’t remember where that is. But the way she says it, so off-hand, like it’s common knowledge, something I should remember, makes me shiver.

“You remember, right?” she says to me. I pick up the old dishtowel. The smell of dish soap soaks the whole thing through.


“Really? You don’t remember?”

“How old was I?”

“You were seven,” she says, “And Sam was five and Macy was two. They took you so Dad and I could have a week alone. You stayed in a motel right on the beach and you must have built sandcastles the whole time because you came back with the whole beach in your hair.”

I wait for a flashback. An image of myself at seven, curly brown hair blowing everywhere, digging up piles of sand with the Pacific surf rolling up to my toes. But I’m just making it up. That trip is a blank.

I go outside to call my friend back, perch on the porch stoop tracing circles with my toe on the step below. But I drop my phone onto the step and drop my head onto my knees. Cloudy sunlight presses the chill of out the spring day and I hear, way back in my memory of this house, the hiss of the garden hose and the hellos shouted from across the yard as Sam and Macy and I piled out of the car and ran up to Grandpa, some spring day years ago, and Grandpa’s whoop of triumph as he sprayed us with the hose. And that hiss and that whoop hang in the air, summer sounds, still as real as Grandpa’s ponytail-twitch.

I let myself back inside.

The album’s not on Grandpa’s bed anymore. Mom’s put it away again to collect more dust, thinking I already went through the pictures with him.

I take it back out, slip back into Grandpa’s room, and open it to where we left off. The album spine crackles and then sighs, shushing the dust off its pages. Dustless, the pictures are almost full-color. Almost.

One last look at the valley, goodbye to Yosemite. On to the Grand Canyon…

Kirsten Rice is a recent college grad and YA novelist represented by Ammi-Joan Paquette of the Erin Murphy Literary Agency. She loves traveling to far away places, hanging out in cool coffee shops, and writing.  Follow her blog at!

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3 Comments Post a Comment
  1. Charlie Sin says:

    I enjoyed the story of Clary trying to bring back her grandpa’s memory back by showing the old pictures of him and grandma going to the road trip. But with the lost of Clary’s memory going to Moclips with grandpa and grandma brought suprising ending. Additionely, I am an amateur photographer and loved how photos can be a memory keeper for people.

  2. Elizabeth Lim says:

    I really liked reading this story because it shows that even though the grandpa was the one with Alzheimers, he wasn’t the only one losing his memory. Even Clary was forgetting about what his grandpa was like before, the memories that they made with the molasses, and about the trip they took to the coast. I also really like this quote, “Dust covers everything in this house and everything in my mind. I’m forgetting, too, what he was like before.” This quote was a very good comparison of how dust can cover our mind and make us forget our cherished memories. I can really relate to this quote because I have forgotten many memories of family members that have moved away to other states.

  3. kayce womack says:

    i really like how Clary tryed to remind her grandpa about her grandma memories it reminds me about my grandfather who died 10 months ago today

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