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Songs Of Remembrance: 'Take Me Home, Country Roads'

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

More than a half million people have died in the U.S. from COVID-19 since the pandemic hit this country last year. To remember some of those who lost their lives, NPR is sharing the music that moved them and hearing stories from their friends and families. We're calling our tribute Songs Of Remembrance. This one comes from Alison Wells, who remembers her sister, Elizabeth Wells. As a child growing up in Hazard, Ky., Elizabeth loved the song "Take Me Home, Country Roads" by John Denver.

ALISON WELLS: She was a tiny little thing in a little pixie haircut, little glasses - always wore glasses from a very young age. And in her little pajamas, she could sneak out barefooted, walk throughout the neighborhood. And she would get to the bridge before somebody - a neighbor - would find her. You know, of course, everybody knew everybody in the neighborhood. It was a great place to grow up. And she would be on her way to find John Denver.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN DENVER SONG, "TAKE ME HOME, COUNTRY ROADS")

WELLS: She would see him on TV. She had all his albums. She wanted to see her friend.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TAKE ME HOME, COUNTRY ROADS")

JOHN DENVER: (Singing) Blue Ridge Mountains, Shenandoah River...

WELLS: She was just very curious. And she woke up early, and nobody was awake to play with her, so she'd just go for a walk and see what she could find without fear, without any concern - that meant nothing to her.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TAKE ME HOME, COUNTRY ROADS")

DENVER: (Singing) Country roads, take me home to the place...

WELLS: Elizabeth was a person who had Down syndrome. She didn't have the opportunity when we were really young to go to school, but once the Education for All Children Act was enacted, then she was able to go to the public schools, and she loved it. Her independence was very important to her, and there was much that she was able to do. She worked at a grocery store. She worked in a workshop where she made these beautiful stools that she wove.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TAKE ME HOME, COUNTRY ROADS")

DENVER: (Singing) Miner's lady, stranger to blue water...

WELLS: In her later years, Elizabeth had dementia, which is not uncommon with folks with Down's syndrome. Though she no longer spoke or walked or even sat up on her own, she always recognized our mother and would lean into her. My mother has a lot of illnesses herself, and I think that she just willed herself through all that to take care of Elizabeth. I think there's just a real special bond between a parent and a disabled child. It's very unique and very protective. And it was really precious, the relationship that they had.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TAKE ME HOME, COUNTRY ROADS")

DENVER: (Singing) I hear her voice in the mornin' hour. She calls me. The radio reminds me of my home far away.

WELLS: We were always close. We did a lot of things together. Her disability didn't keep her from going places with me and doing things with me. I hope she got to meet him when she got to heaven.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TAKE ME HOME, COUNTRY ROADS")

DENVER: (Singing) Country roads, take me home...

CORNISH: That's Alison Wells, remembering her sister Elizabeth Wells of Hazard, Ky. Elizabeth died from COVID-19 in January at the age of 62.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TAKE ME HOME, COUNTRY ROADS")

DENVER: (Singing) Mountain mama, take me home, country roads. Country roads, take me home to the place I belong - West Virginia. Mountain mama... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.