In Pennsylvania, roadside memorials mark 'where your soul is taken'
Friends and family of Jennifer Daniels Ritter release balloons in her honor at an intersection of Route 234 on the ninth anniversary of Ritter's death in a car crash at the intersection.
Share with others:
YORK, Pa. -- Purple balloons sailed above the family gathered at a corner of Route 234 in Paradise Township.
"Purple was her favorite," explained Joyce Reynolds. She was referring to her daughter, Jennifer Daniels Ritter, whom they'd come to remember.
About 20 of Ritter's family and friends gathered on a bank overlooking the place where Canal Road crosses Route 234.
It was 7 p.m. June 30. Nine years earlier nearly to the minute, Ritter died in a collision at the intersection while driving her 1994 blue Chevrolet Cavalier to visit her family in Abbottstown, Adams County. She was 30 years old.
She had just called her mother.
"Her last words were ... " Ms. Reynolds said and choked on a sob. When she talks about her daughter, the 61-year-old's voice often breaks into falsetto. It's as though she is no longer talking to you but to the baby her daughter was. "She said, 'Wait for me.' "
The family hugged one another next to a graying wooden cross. It was planted next to the cornfield on the northeast corner of the intersection within two days of Ritter's death. Crumbling letter decals spell out her name. A lizard is glued to the upright beam. Ritter had a thing for lizards -- she owned an iguana named Iggy and a water dragon, Buddy.
Some, like Ritter's father, Howard Daniels, visit the cross every few days. Mr. Daniels stands in the high weeds, looks out across the cornfield and watches the cars slow -- but seldom stop -- when they drift down Canal Road.
Jen Snyder, Ritter's childhood friend, hadn't been to the intersection since the day of the crash. Until this day, she had avoided it, taking different routes to get where she needed to go. When she met Mr. Daniels at his home in Dover, her face was already red and the tears had started to flow.
"This is where she took her last breath," Mr. Daniels explained.
Roadside memorials like the one for Ritter dot highways across North America. Many are illegal -- civil disobedience carried out not in protest but grief. In some areas, it is considered littering, vandalism or the theft of a small parcel of land. Permissions are seldom sought or granted, but many times, for at least a little while, the government or property owner looks the other way.
The crosses -- in York County the memorials usually involve the Christian symbol -- are reminders of sad stories. Someone was out for a motorcycle ride or heading to the grocery store or coming home from work, and they never got there.
Often, the friends or family start out placing remembrances where the person died, old stuffed animals or liquor bottles. Later, someone decides to erect a permanent structure.
Some people can't go on with their lives without it, said Jan Withers, Mothers Against Drunk Driving's national president.
In some cases, the memorials disappear when time dulls the grief. For some, however, like Jennifer Daniels Ritter, the memorial continues on and on, as permanent as a grave.
"A grave site is where a body is laid to rest," said Tim Himes, who erected a cross for a relative in a Rutter's Farm Store parking lot two years ago, "but this is where your soul is taken."
Greg Penny, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, remembered first seeing roadside crosses as a boy on a trip to Mexico. Since then, he said, their popularity in central Pennsylvania has exploded. No one can say how many there are.
"Putting memorials in the state right of way is not permitted. That's the bottom line," he said. "We also recognize that people have a need or a way of dealing with their grief. We basically look the other way unless there's an issue involving safety."
That happens sometimes, if a cross or a memorial is too large or elaborate. In one case, a memorial in Lower Paxton, Dauphin County, drew so much rubbernecking that PennDOT made the family remove the memorial. Years ago, a woman wanted to place a marble marker at a site, and PennDOT had to say no, Mr. Penny said.
PennDOT also removes memorials when they get in the way of routine maintenance such as mowing. PennDOT tries to contact the families and hangs on to the items for roughly a month.
It recommends mourners participate in the Adopt a Highway program, or offer to pay for scholarships rather than creating a roadside memorial, Mr. Penny said.
In some cases, governments find themselves working at cross purposes with other organizations.
Mothers Against Drunk Driving "absolutely supports" erecting roadside memorials, Ms. Withers said.
Each state is different, she said. For example, in Maryland, the organization has battled the department of transportation, which frequently removes the memorials. Often, the families will replace them.
MADD doesn't try to persuade families to create the memorials, Ms. Withers said. Rather, families decide to do it on their own.
"It's sacred ground," Ms. Withers said.
Turn right onto Roosevelt Avenue off westbound Route 30 in York.
Two memorials lie within 50 yards of one another. Two white crosses with the name George Steed rise from a flower bed at the entrance to Weis Markets.
At the Roosevelt Avenue entrance to the Rutter's Farm Store across the way, another white cross bears the name Jon "Jonah" Sowers.
One March morning in 2009, Ida Steed got a phone call at work. It was Kim Winters, her son's girlfriend. The restaurant where they were eating took only cash, and George Steed had left on his motorcycle for an ATM. He hadn't come back.
Emergency crews weren't willing to tell Ms. Winters, but they told Ida Steed. Mr. Steed's bike had collided with a car making a left into Weis Markets. He died of multiple blunt-force trauma. He was 19 years old.
"Nineteen years and 20 days," Ms. Steed said.
The items began appearing at the entrance to Weis within hours. Ms. Steed remembers seeing flowers and stuffed animals. There was a toy four-wheeler. After they buried Steed in Prospect Hill Cemetery, people continued to pile stuff at the corner. There were balloons and cards.
Months passed. The entrance to Weis, feet from where Steed had been killed, looked like Christmas morning.
"He was a social bug," Ms. Steed said.
At the one-year anniversary of Steed's death, she and Ms. Winters' father fashioned two crosses out of wood. They painted the crosses white and pushed them into the mulch at that corner.
Nobody asked Weis Markets for permission, Ms. Steed said. She and George's little sister, 16-year-old Elizabeth Steed, visit the site nearly every week to make sure neither cross has fallen or to retrace the letters in Steed's name with a Sharpie.
Occasionally, the crosses had been moved, presumably by a Weis employee trimming grass. But nobody has ever removed the crosses or told the Steeds to stop.
Weis Markets management did not return phone calls for comment.
"It lets us keep his memory alive," Ms. Steed said recently while seated at the kitchen table of the family's home on White Street. So do the T-shirts with his photo on them that the family had made. She drives the mammoth, black pickup Steed left behind. She added an oval sticker to the rear end, "In Loving Memory George Steed 3/7/90 3/27/09."
How long will they continue to maintain the memorial at Weis?
"Forever," Ms. Steed said.
About four months after the Steeds added their cross in front of Weis Markets, Sowers died in an eerily similar crash feet from where Steed breathed his last.
Sowers, a guard with the York County Prison, was riding his motorcycle when it collided with a car turning into Rutter's. He was 34 years old.
Two days later, Mr. Himes pushed a cross into the ground at the edge of the Rutter's entrance. He glued shamrocks, a photo and an Irish prayer to it. Sowers, a relative of Mr. Himes by marriage, had been born on St. Patrick's Day. Where the cross beam meets the upright, Mr. Himes added a photo from his wife's collection -- Jon, grin spread across his face, raising a pint glass of black beer.
"You couldn't dislike him," Mr. Himes said. "I wanted to get a picture of Jon with a big ol' smile on his face."
Mr. Himes never asked Rutter's for permission. Marcelle King, the store manager, said Rutter's has no plans to remove the memorial.
Every year on St. Patrick's Day, Joanne Rose, Sowers' mother, said the family gets together at Sowers' grave, or they take a bike ride or donate money to the Make-A-Wish Foundation.
The memorial is something else, she said.
"It's always been [Mr. Himes'] thank-you," Ms. Rose said.
Mr. Himes, who lives near the memorial on Bull Road, passes it every day. Sometimes, the wind makes it tilt, so Mr. Himes stops to readjust it. Other family members add flowers on some days.
When his wife, Anne, is with him, she says hello.
Howard Daniels led a procession from his house down Canal Road to the place where Jennifer Daniels Ritter died. It's a tradition -- though some years they eschew the intersection and gather at Ritter's grave in Susquehanna Memorial Gardens.
He loads a hibiscus and a balloon into his car. "I stop at stop signs," Mr. Daniels warned the two cars following him to the crossroads.
Pulling out of his development, Mr. Daniels paused at a red octagonal marker identical to the one that couldn't save his daughter. He waited. Seconds ticked by.
A car pulled up behind the procession. The driver frowned and leaned against his horn.
At the intersection, a handful of cars were already parked on the shoulder on Canal Road. Some members of the family, including Ms. Reynolds, had already visited Ritter's grave.
The cross was built by Ritter's boyfriend. It was the first memorial to appear at the site nine years ago. After that came letters and flowers. Nobody asked for permission, but later a local politician asked the farmer on the family's behalf. The farmer allowed them to keep the memorial.
Mr. Daniels planted the hibiscus behind the cross. The family released eight purple balloons into the sky and wept.
How much longer would they maintain the memorial?
"Forever," Ritter's mom said.
"Until we breathe our last breath," her father said.
First Published August 5, 2012 12:00 am