Several weeks into my trip, I really started talking to myself. “I hate dogs!” I shouted to the unresponsive forest one chilly Friday afternoon. “I hate them, I hate them, I hate them, I hate them!” By the end of the day’s ride, I was extremely glad that it was over. Lately it seemed that dogs never stopped chasing me. They lived at every house, guarded every driveway, and they universally held a strong animosity for humans on bicycles. I turned into the entrance of Sterling Mountain Community with a genuine sigh of relief. I would be staying here till Sunday, and my delight at that was certain: No more dogs for two days. I shushed myself quickly.
Down the drive I went, bumping and rattling past some gardens and a few houses set apart from each other by trees. The sign at the last driveway said, "Lou and Rose."
An old woman with a cane stood by the door of a small house that overlooked the valley. She had white hair and more wrinkles than I’d ever seen. When she turned toward me, her sweet, simple smile made the wrinkles deepen and crease her face. A younger woman stood next to her, filling small pots with topsoil. A girl stood on her other side, absorbed in the same task, and as I walked over, a man came out of the house. He was tall and walked slowly, purposefully, his eyes patient and kind. He looked at me, but although he smiled, I saw sadness in his face. “You must be Sarabeth,” he said. “Welcome to Sterling Mountain Community. I’m Lou, this is my wife, Rose, our daughter Stella, and our granddaughter Alex. What would you like to do first? Are you hungry? Do you want to rest?”
“Actually,” I said, “could I set up my stuff and take a shower?” Suddenly I was so tired, not physically—the ride had been short—but emotionally, because of my fear of those dumb dogs.
“Of course,” Lou replied, “come in and I’ll show you where everything is.” As I walked by, Rose looked at me a little vacantly with her crinkly smile.
“We’re planting tomatoes!” she said brightly. “Are you a new person here?”
I smiled back uncertainly, and said, “No, I’m just here for a visit. My name’s Sarabeth.”
“That’s nice,” Rose said, “Where will you stay? Are you staying with us?” Lou gently interrupted his wife, and led me into the house.
The front porch was enclosed with glass, and several cats looked at me inquiringly from their windowsill perches. “Years ago, we planned to make this a greenhouse,” Lou said. “This year we’ve started to finish it so it can actually be used for one.” He pointed over to several tidy flats of seedlings, soaking up the sun that poured in the windows.
“Now," Lou said, once we were inside, "where would you like to sleep? You’re welcome to sleep inside, of course, but—ah—as you may know, my wife has Alzheimer’s Disease and sometimes roams the house at night.” I told him that my tent was perfectly fine. “Also,” he continued, “let me tell you a little about Rose so you aren't alarmed by her. Basically, she's in the more debilitating stages of the disease, and must be taken care of twenty-four hours a day. She often forgets where she is, and she probably won’t remember you from one minute to the next. Respect is all that is necessary, just a smile and a gentle answer to her questions.”
I set up my tent outdoors next to the orchard. The view was beautiful, but Lou said that when the house was first built you could see farther. Back then, there were no trees growing on the hill where now a pine and birch forest flourished.
After my shower, I read a magazine in the living room and allowed my tightly wound nerves to relax a little. Then Lou came in and asked me if I wanted to hear about the community and get the grand tour. “I don’t want to rush you,” he said, “but Stella’s only watching Rose at her house until four, so now would be a good time for me.”
“Okay,” I said, settling back on the couch, “now’s fine.”
“Rose and I started Sterling Mountain Community in 1980,” Lou began. His speech was measured and precise, his sentences carefully constructed. “In 1987, the land was put into a regional community land trust with another community organization…”
He interrupted himself then. “Part of the reason we were excited to have you stay with us is that we thought you truly wanted to learn. We seldom get letters from young people. And actually, you’re the only visitor we’ve had in over a year. We had decided not to have any guests for awhile while we made some changes in our community structure. But when we heard from you, as I said, we wanted to make an exception…”
How do people lead interesting and fulfilling lives in different places? Staying with people as I traveled seemed like a good way to find out. Before I left, I found some families and communities (including Sterling Mountain) in Growing Without Schooling magazine and The Directory of Intentional Communities who were willing to host me when I came through their area.
As we sat in the small, dimly lit living room, and Lou continued to talk, I could tell he was in his element. His community was his passion, and I could especially see that when we went outside. We walked past my tent, down past the fruit trees to a path at the bottom of the steeply sloping hill. He showed me the community school, the pond, and the gardens I'd seen when I rode in. Everywhere we went, he stepped with care.
Lou loved the place deeply, and he knew its every quirk and loveliness. He was convinced that places like Sterling Mountain could be sustainable and fulfilling places to live, and for the past 45 years he and his wife lived in intentional communities. Now, as I stood looking at him, I realized why there was such sadness in his smile. It wasn’t only that his wife was sick, but that he had lost his dearest friend. I could imagine them having conversations about politics, about philosophy, about their plans for the future—when Rose was well. I could see them raising their children, helping each other through the trials and tribulations in the early days of SMC, each of them supporting and helping the other remain strong. Now Rose was like a baby, and Lou had to find all the strength within himself, as his wife slowly—painfully slowly—lost all of what she remembered or realized. He was a strong man, I decided as I listened. Most people would not have had the strength (nor maybe the ability) to keep Rose out of a nursing home, but Lou had forsaken many things he loved to have the time to be with her. How lonely it must be.
Now we had come back around to Rose and Lou’s house, and Lou said, “Rose will be home in a few minutes. I will have to be here, but you’re welcome to visit anyone in the community—Andrew and Jane are probably home, and you can explore wherever you please.” But I had spied a piano in the corner of the living room, and I decided to stay and play for a while.
I was still playing when Rose came in, and she immediately noticed the music. “How nice,” she said, smiling brightly, “you play well! Who are you, dear?”
“I’m Sarabeth,” I said, “and I’m going to stay with you for a couple of days.
“How nice!” she said again, as I kept playing. “Oh Lou! This girl says she’s going to stay with us! Isn’t that nice? Where will you sleep?” she asked with sudden concern. Then, before I had a chance to answer, she said, “What pretty music. What’s your name?” But then she stopped talking and just listened.
The old instrument tinkled loudly in the quiet room, and as the dust flew off the keys, I played from the books of old music that stood faded and forgotten on top of the piano. I played “September Song” and I realized that Rose was singing with me. She remembered the words, and sang until the song ended.
“Brava!” she cried, clapping her hands, “That was so beautiful! I used to play once,” she said, a glimmer coming into her eyes. She looked down at her wrinkled hands, and said wistfully, “Now I hardly remember... Remember Lou?” she said to her husband, who was cooking in the kitchen. “We used to sing together!” She shuffled into the kitchen and said, “Play again.” I played, and out of the corner of my eye I saw husband and wife in the doorway, singing. The music changed what I could see, and there was a young Lou and Rose, a Rose without forgetfulness—and I cried silent tears onto the dirty piano keys. The music lightened the cold house, made it warmer and happier, and I wished that the song would never end.
But it did. Rose sighed, and the magic was broken. “Lou, when’s lunch?” she asked.
“We’ll be having dinner in half an hour,” her husband said gently.
“Oh, dinner,” she said, “I’d forgotten about that. Lou!”—suddenly she was urgent— “when are we going home?”
“We are home, Rose.”
“But I don’t know this place,” she said pettishly, “I want to go home to the community. I know we aren’t home. Why are you fooling me?” She was getting upset, and Lou began to soothe her, talking about Sterling Mountain.
“...and we’re all here, Rose,” he finished, “Stella and our sons and your friend Lila and we are all going to take care of you. You have Alzheimer’s. It’s a disease that makes you forget things. But I’ll keep reminding you. Now you go read your magazine and I’ll finish your dinner.”
“Oh yes,” said Rose, sniffling a little, “that’s right. I’ll go wait.” And she settled herself onto the couch, already forgetting her concerns of a moment before.
The cold April wind beat my tent all night, flapping the outer fly back and forth. “Smack! Smack!” I rolled around my tent, tossing and turning uncomfortably, and I dreamt about Rose. Her vacant, sweet smile seemed always in front of my eyes. I couldn’t turn away from her, couldn’t get the smile away, and wherever I looked she was there, saying something over and over and over again until I felt sure I was screaming and going crazy. I wasn’t screaming when I woke up though, just crumpled in a corner of my tent with my sleeping bag all twisted around me.
Rose was on the porch when I went inside, shuffling around with her cane. “Sweet kitty,” she crooned to the cat that was eyeing her disapprovingly from the windowsill. “Sweet kitty, come in. It’s cold out here. Come in.” She reached for the cat when her shuffling gait carried her to the window. The cat jumped out of her reach, and as she turned toward it she saw me. “Good morning, dear!” she said brightly. “Did you sleep here too?” No, I said, I hadn’t. Rose turned her attention back to the cat. “The kitty needs to come back inside!” she said, her voice suddenly high and insistent. “Come back in, kitty, come back in!” She was walking too fast, and rather unsteadily, and I wondered how I could get her back into the house. Then Lou appeared in the doorway in his pajamas.
“Come inside, Rose, the kitty will be okay. Come in and let’s get ready for breakfast.”
“Oh that’s right, Lou,” she said, relaxing at once, “I’ll come in for breakfast. I was waiting for you to get up—you slept late.”
Lou made us breakfast; like last night, he gently refused my offers of help. We sat at the small table and began to eat the oatmeal. “Here’s yours, Rose,” Lou said, “with cream and sugar just how you like it.” Rose took the bowl.
“Please pass the sugar, dear,” she said to me.
“There’s already sugar in it,” said Lou.
“Oh, that’s nice.” She ate for a few minutes. Then, “Oh, Lou, you know I like cream and sugar in my cereal. Can you put some in?”
"There's already sugar in it," said Lou.
Throughout the entire meal, Rose could not remember that she had cream and sugar. I thought about my dream of last night and looked at her crinkled, smiling face, as she asked the same question over and over. She was completely, utterly oblivious to her repetition; Lou and I were equally, painfully aware of it, and her cheerfulness was eerie and strange.
Toward the end of the meal I was suddenly claustrophobic. The oatmeal was like sawdust in my mouth, my conversation with Lou fake and unreal. The birches outside the window whipped around in the cold wind, and I felt miles away from anything familiar. The Blue Ridge Mountains were out there too, but even their faint blue silhouette failed to cheer me. I felt, as Anne of Green Gables put it, “in the depths of despair.”
After breakfast, I walked through the woods and headed in a roundabout way towards Lila Williams’ house. The night before, I had met Lila, a beautiful, white-haired 85-year-old woman who was a long-time friend of Lou and Rose.
“I’m so glad you came!” she said, greeting me at the door. “I was just about to sort loopers, and if it’s not boring, you can help. They’re loops of jersey fabric, you know—the waste left over from knitting socks that’s usually thrown away.” Lila Williams was a weaver, and she told me that she weaves with recycled fibers when she can.
“Loopers make interesting textures,” she explained, “but before I can weave them I have to separate them by color and size.” She brought two large garbage bags of loopers out onto the porch, set them on the picnic table, and began deftly sorting them into piles. “I get these from a sock factory in North Carolina. They don’t use them, and so my friend down there sends along a batch whenever I need more.
“How’s Rose today?” Lila asked. I’d learned that Rose has “good days” and “bad days.”
“I don’t know,” I said uncertainly, “she seemed to be repeating herself an awful lot.”
“It’s so hard for Lou,” said Lila. “We all help out, but it’s just more and more difficult. I’ve been a friend of theirs for years, and it’s been such a long, hard process. When Rose was first diagnosed, they tried everything. And it helped, for a while—they managed to hold off the worst for much longer than any doctor said they could, by using herbal remedies and diet changes.”
“It must be so hard for Rose, too, to be so disoriented.”
“Yes,” said Lila, “but not in the ways you might think. It can be scary, I’m sure, but she doesn’t remember that after five minutes. It was very hard at first, though, when she was still basically fine and still knew that her memory was leaving, that every day she was remembering less.”
How horrible. I caught my breath at that. To know that you’re forgetting things—and to know that there’s nothing you can do to prevent it.
Lila and I kept sorting loopers, and we began to talk about other things. She mentioned how Sterling Mountain has changed over the years, and I said, “That must be true about other things, too—lots has changed for you, I mean.”
“Yes.” Lila reflected a minute. “But things change slowly, you know, so it becomes less strange than you think. It all fits together in a pattern. When I was a child, automobiles weren’t so common, and the roads mostly weren’t good. I remember our first car, the first drive we took. The whole family was inside—nobody used seatbelts then—nobody had seatbelts then! My father was driving, and all of a sudden the road ended in a cornfield. Just stopped! There was nothing but waving ears of corn...”
So much must be different. The women’s movement…computer technology…all the things we take for granted now that weren’t invented yet. I watched Lila’s bent head as she methodically sorted and talked, respectful of this woman who had lived through so much.
In the middle of Lila’s large, sunny living room were her looms, great, beautiful wooden machines with mysterious levers and rollers—and, on one, the beginnings of a rug. A large closet off the living room contained all of Lila’s supplies, neatly organized in boxes and shelves and spools. She pointed to a weaving on the wall. “Rose made that. I keep it there to remind me of what she was like Before. She was so full of laughter and life and loved to make things. She sewed until her eyes got bad. She used to love to weave—we’d do it together. One of those looms was hers.”
In one corner of the living room sat a stack of finished rugs and other creations. “Some people want to buy more than I make,” Lila told me, “but I don’t want to turn my art into the sort of thing where I need to make a certain number of rugs by a certain date. I like to make them when I feel like it, and leave time for other things. I don’t need any more money—I sell what I make and I'm happy.”
I left Lila Williams’ house in the afternoon, inspired and honored to have had the chance to talk with her. I told her that when I left: “I hope that when I’m 85 I can be as strong and wise as you!”
Rose was having a bad day. I spent the morning exploring Sterling Mountain, and when I came home, Rose and Lou were in the living room. “…When is our son coming home?” she was asking testily. “He hasn’t visited in months.”
Lou, sounding so tired, said, “He lives down the hill, Rose, with his children and his wife. We all live here, Rose—your children and your grandchildren and your friends. Your friend Lila lives right up the hill. Remember Lila? She spent a lot of time with you while you were beginning to get sick. You used to go to her house every afternoon…” Rose was not calming down. As I stood awkwardly by the door, she began to cry, convulsively, shaking with fear or some emotion I couldn't see.
“I’m scared, Lou,” she said, “nothing is right. I don’t remember all these things you're telling me. I want to go home. I want to see the people I know. Why don’t I remember? How do I know you’re really Lou? Maybe you’re fooling me. I’m so scared.” She sobbed, and it was an awful, hollow sound that filled the living room with darkness. Outside, the wind blew gray clouds swiftly through the sky, and I thought about all the people Out There, going through their daily lives and never thinking how lucky they are just to be able to remember things.
Inside the room, Lou was soothing Rose, telling her the story. “…and you have Alzheimer’s,” he was finishing, his words echoing through my head. He must say the same things a hundred times a day. “It’s a disease that makes you forget things. But I’ll keep reminding you.”
Later Lou told me, “I must take care of her. We used to take care of each other, and now I have to do it for both of us.”