Wayside Memorials at a Crossroads

By William Wan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 3, 2008

Every day, it gets a little easier to forget. The memory dims, the picture fades and more is lost. For the past five years, Deana Rogers has been fighting against time.

Every week since her husband died, she has visited the site where his motorcycle crashed and tended the memorial she built for him there. Some days, she trims the grass. On others, she adds a new ceramic angel or picture. To her, it is more than a tribute; it is an act of defiance against pressures to move on, to let go, to give up.

Out of respect, state highway officials for years have turned a blind eye to her memorial on the side of Route 50, near Davidsonville in Anne Arundel County. But this year, just before the anniversary of her husband's death, they told her that it had to be removed.

The number of such memorials has become a problem, the officials said, one they can no longer ignore. Every few weeks, another one pops up, meaning another difficult call to make to a grieving family.

Across the country, such memorials dot roads and byways. They have increased in number and magnitude, experts say, even as traffic fatalities have decreased nationwide.

They inhabit a tricky place in the eyes of the law. Officially, permanent roadside memorials are frowned upon, deemed a hazardous distraction, and they are illegal in many jurisdictions, including Maryland, Virginia and the District. Some states strictly enforce the bans. In Wyoming, for instance, road crews removed almost 300 memorials rcently. In other places, such as Virginia, families can pay for the posting of a standardized, state-maintained sign that reads, "Drive safely in memory of . . . "

But even the most stringent by-the-book bureaucrats say they recognize the delicate nature of the memorials and the intimate and tender grief they represent.

For years, Rogers, 38, hoped her site would be left alone. She put up a white cross well away from the road, near a line of trees. She mowed around it, pruned nearby trees and repainted the cross every few months, thinking that if she kept it presentable, no one would complain.

She desperately needed the site, she said, and practically clung to it for dear life that first year when everything seemed to crumble around her. She gave up the new home she had planned to move into with her husband, Charles "Chuckie" Rogers Jr. Instead, she retreated to the double-wide trailer in Lothian that they had shared for seven years.

She lost 50 pounds. And her sisters-in-law gave her razors for shaving her legs as gag gifts, hoping to lure her out to socialize again. But the only times she ventured out were her visits to the memorial. She spent hours there, crying, praying and talking to her husband. She asked him for advice on how to raise their two daughters, how to make decisions, how to keep it together. She asked him for comforting signs.

Sometimes, waiting by the cross she decorated with pictures and trinkets, she felt she got fleeting answers -- a feeling, a memory, a reassuring call from a friend.

Listening to her friends' advice, Rogers tried to let go. Three years after his death, she even began dating again. "I felt I needed to move on, to feel alive again. I let go," she said. "But that doesn't mean forgetting."

The memorial continued to grow with the addition of flowers, wreaths and stones. Her daughters added to it, as well. The eldest refused to go to the cemetery, preferring to pay her respects by the road where her father died. Even Rogers's new boyfriend contributed, building elaborate shadowboxes to protect the family's pictures from mold. Although her life began to stabilize, Rogers kept up her weekly visits. She simply didn't want to forget.

"People do this for presidents and people like Martin Luther King. No one says anything about that," she said. "In the same way, I think anyone who touches the life of someone else, they shouldn't be forgotten either."

Her husband, after all, had saved her from a life of regret. When she met him, she had been heading down a bad road toward a life of living on the streets and working in bars. He was the first one to love her despite her flaws, and it made her a different person.

Already, she says, she has lost so much of him over the years. The motorcycle he loved was totaled in the 2003 crash. Angry words were exchanged in the years that followed, creating a rift between her and the family he grew up with. In recent months, she has had to sell the last vehicle he owned, a Chevrolet Tahoe truck.

So when the state highway folks called to talk about his memorial on Route 50, it felt ominous, as if this last piece also was about to disappear.

The state highway man was sympathetic and seemed to have gone through this with other families many times before. Besides the safety implications, there were issues of fair enforcement -- commercial and political ads are banned and removed as well, he told her, and the number of shrines would be huge if the highway department let all families erect memorials. More than 600 traffic fatalities occur in Maryland each year.

Rogers negotiated for more time, pleading to keep the memorial up through Oct. 12, the anniversary of her husband's death. And when that passed, she had no choice and began removing it piece by piece, telling the highway officials that she wanted do it herself.

"It's difficult. It's such a personal, delicate thing," said David Buck of the State Highway Administration. "We're not trained grief counselors."

Last weekend, Rogers visited the site one last time, packing up the last pieces into her car. All that remains is the white cross, which is set into the ground with concrete and will be removed by a road crew the next time they mow the area.

A girlfriend started a petition for the state legislature to pass a law to allow such roadside memorials. So far, more than 1,000 signatures have been gathered. Rogers said all she can do is hold on to that hope. For now, the memorial will be packed into a shed behind her home. But she vows that if she's ever allowed to put it back up, it will be there forever.

"That's where he left us, the last spot where he was on this Earth," she said. "It is a sacred place."

© 2008 The Washington Post Company