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Finding West Virginia

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Trips become journeys become myths. Frances Park explores a family legend.

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 DC, but in one way I failed her: I never got her back to West Virginia.

Not to that mythical place, anyway.

Name Unknown.

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? 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 15 years left.

I was nine and my remembrances are fuzzy things, at best; dandelion puffs in a breeze: our log cabin with other cabins situated around a semicircle path where the sight of a big squished lizard ma de me jump out of my shoes; a roped-off body of water I took for a river but more likely was the shallow end of a lake where my little brother Sammy snuck onto shoreline rocks only to lose his balance and—SPLASH!

Afterwards, my dad, who jumped in after him and saved the day, had fun teasing his only son with a singsong The other day, who fell in the water and was rescued by Daddy? Over time, it shortened to The other day .... Then Sammy became Sam and the joking got old.

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. Funny enough, there was no denying her bumpkin bone or two—she favored country music and cowboy shows—but, come on, West Virginia, of all places? Here was a World Bank wife who had flown first-class to Paris, Rome, and Hong Kong; dined sumptuously in Tokyo’s Imperial Hotel, walked the shores of Maui back when the beaches were bare, and devoured so many pastries while stuck in an Istanbul hotel room she returned to the States downright pudgy. 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?”

“I wish I knew, Mom.”

“Listen, you hear story?”

Only a hundred times. The story: The only doctor available in those parts happened to be Korean, and the locals worshipped the West Virginia ground he walked on. Apparently, when they saw us, they saw him, and welcomed us with open arms.

In 1964 America, the kindness of strangers wasn’t something a Korean family took for granted.

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?”

“Just do.”

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.

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.

Yet one autumn Sunday a sort of boyfriend—meaning, he didn’t last long—and I took my mom on a day trip to Winchester, Virginia. Nicknamed the Apple Capital, it was an hour and a half away and not far from the West Virginia border. A historian who talked a lot about the Civil War, he stopped the car at one of the battleground sites where all I recall is a cannon on a cliff under ominous skies. Afterwards, we walked around a picturesque village square, though for some reason most of the shops and cafes were closed. Before returning home, we decided to drive further out. All the while, my mom was poking her head out the window.

“Hey, where West Virginia?” she wondered aloud.

The would-be boyfriend explained we could practically toss an apple there. Pointing: “In that direction, Mrs. Park.”

In years to come she would bring up that day trip to Winchester, how she had the very certain feeling we were close to that enchanted spot of so long ago. Could smell it. I kept my doubts to myself. Winchester was too close to home and if I knew my dad, he would’ve rented a log cabin deep into the Mountain State or not at all.

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—my mom did love her solitaire, Korean-style—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 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, hundreds if not thousands of pictures, some dating back to before I was born. Every so often I go through a few, have a memory or two, then put the box away. But that evening I wanted to look through them all, even if it took me until morning.

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, these were the same images framed in my mom’s room—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 to Babcock State Park, located in Fayette, West Virginia, 250 miles from Winchester. Not that the discovery mattered anymore. I put the box away.

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 had 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.