What If?

The blog I posted last month about unexpectedly seeing Aunt Betty’s face reminded me of a time I couldn’t conjure the face I needed. Here’s how it happened…


“Good-bye, Dear. It was wonderful having you.” Aunt Emilie’s loving blue eyes seemed to peer into my heart. I hugged her tightly. She was my favorite aunt.

Granny pecked me on the cheek. “Behave yourself and be careful on the train.”

Uncle Morton walked me to the platform and helped me find the right car. He spoke at length with the porter, slipped him some money, and settled me in my roomette on The Olympian bound for Chicago. I kissed him good-bye and watched him move down the corridor until he was out of sight. Turning to the window, I waved to him on the platform below.

I had spent the entire summer in Seattle with my mother’s family. It had been a wonderful ten weeks: an Alaskan cruise with my grandmother and sixteen-year-old cousin, playing with the children of Mom’s childhood friend, reading in the lush garden of my aunt and uncle’s formal home, chattering with Aunt Emilie who always seemed interested in the run-on thoughts of her ten-year-old niece. Did I miss home? I don’t remember.

At the end of the school year, Granny had escorted me west from Atlanta. Now, eager for the train to start, I went over the plan for my return trip alone. The train would take three days and two nights to get to Chicago. Mom would take the overnight train from Atlanta to meet me at Union Station and take me by cab to our connecting train at a different station.

But wait! What did Mom look like? I tried to picture her but couldn’t. I could see Granny. I could see Aunt Emilie. I could even imagine Daddy, whom I hadn’t seen all summer either. But not Mom. Oh dear, what if I didn’t recognize her? My lip began to tremble, my throat tightened.

Just then the train jerked, stopped, jerked again, and chugged slowly out of the station. Before long, the porter brought my suitcase and checked to make sure I was okay. Later, he stopped in to work a puzzle with me. At meal time he came by to send me to the dining car. I swayed with the train, struggling to maintain my balance in the space between the cars, the little “hallway” that jerked this way and that.

“You’re traveling alone?” asked a gray-haired lady at the table where the waiter had seated me.

“Yes, Mom’s meeting me in Chicago.”  Oh, why did she ask that? I had forgotten that I couldn’t picture Mom. I tried again, but still no image came to me. Bravely, in my most grown-up voice, I ordered my meal. Between bites, I prattled about whatever came into my head. Anything to keep my mind busy.

At bedtime, the porter showed me how to convert my seat to a bed. I lay watching the darkness through the window, seeing occasional lights zoom past. I tried again to envision Mom. Why couldn’t I? I had been away from home before, though not for a whole summer. I’d never forgotten what she looked like—or maybe hadn’t ever before tried to remember. Other times, it hadn’t mattered.

Soon I fell asleep to the train’s lullaby: clackety-clack, clackety-clack.

The next day passed quickly. Farms and towns flew past my window. The porter stopped in from time to time for a game of cards. I wandered to the Club Car for a soft drink. I chose my meals from the dining car menu, opening my child’s purse to pay. I finished one book and started another. I loved trains, and I loved the grown-up feeling of traveling alone.

But underlying my independence was the dread that try as I might, I couldn’t see Mom in my mind’s eye. What if we didn’t find each other? What if I never caught my train home? What if?

The third morning I awoke early and turned my bed back into a seat. I played a last game of cards with the porter before he began moving baggage toward the doors. As we approached the outskirts of Chicago, I tucked my book away, shut my eyes, and tried again to picture Mom.  Worry squeezed my throat.

The train crept past a spaghetti-like mess of railroad tracks into the station. Uncertainly, I followed the other passengers to the end of the car. From the doorway, above the platform, I looked out at swarms of people, at a billion unfamiliar faces. Tears collected behind my eyes.

And then that familiar shape, those short fast steps, that dark green suit! As my mother hurried toward me, I could almost feel the squeeze of her arms around me, her tanned face against my own. I could already sense her interest in the train ride, in the Seattle family, in me. She was now close enough for me to see her wavy black hair framing her smiling face, as familiar to me as my own. With a relieved grin, I fell into her arms, hugged her tightly, and began babbling about my trip.

3 Responses to What If?

  1. Beautiful story. I can feel the clickety clack of the train and the fear of the not recognizing your mother. thanks.

  2. What vivid memories. I love the thought of a train trip across the country, but how brave you (and your parents) were, to agree to allowing this “leg” on your own! As for the summer in Seattle, I wonder how different their household was from your own; was the formality comfortable for you? Was Grandmere still living with them at that time? I remember the great contrast between our grandparents’ homes – such differences between my dad’s and mom’s parents. We learned to navigate all of it more and more as we grew.

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