Riding on the Sandwich Train

My husband took this picture. It looks as good as any postcard I've ever seen. I'm impressed.

My husband took this picture. It looks as good as any postcard I’ve ever seen. I’m impressed.

We bought the train tickets for my father-in-law. No, more accurately, my husband and I were watching America’s Historic Railroads on PBS during a pledge drive. When they announced that supporters who pledged at a certain level would receive free train tickets– four tickets for the Scenic West Virginia Railway and four tickets for the Scenic Western Maryland Railroad–we agreed: We would donate to PBS and then give the tickets to my father-in-law on Father’s Day.

That was in February 2012. Months lapsed before PBS mailed their donor gifts. In the meantime, our lives took a tragic turn and then became complicated. My mother-in-law fell in March suffering that now infamous head injury. My father-in-law’s health failed while she was still in the hospital. He died on July 6.

The train tickets arrived a week after his funeral. I cried when I opened the envelope.

Dad loved a good road-trip. In fact, for Christmas, we had given him a field-guide to Civil War Battlefields and the promise that we would go to Gettysburg together. After he was gone, I found the field-guide while cleaning out his car. I cried then, too. I always feel a little sad for those memories we didn’t make.

So, we had these tickets. I wanted to go even without my father-in-law. In my mind, I made it a tribute trip to him. We would go and we would remember how much he loved these little outings. But when? Fortunately, each set of tickets came with an expiration date for the following year, and at the time, June 2013 and September 2013 felt like the very distant future.

Time, however, can move faster than the speed of light. Or so it seems. In May of this year, I realized that we would not be able to use the tickets for the West Virginia train before they expired in June. So, I gave them to friends.  And I became doubly committed to using the other set of tickets before they expired in September.

I told my husband that I wanted us to take this trip without his mother. It felt selfish but only for a moment. Almost every weekend, we take her somewhere with us—usually to a festival or an event of some sort and she seems to tolerate it, but it’s not really fun for me. I want to be with my husband and when we take the children and his mother anywhere, our attention is divided. One of us is always with the children and the other is with my mother-in-law. Sometimes, it feels like we are at two separate events.

So, I made arrangements for Deborah to stay with my mother-in-law all day on August 30, and we—my guy, our two adorable children and I—headed up to Cumberland to take the historic Scenic Western Maryland Railroad to Frostburg. Hooray!

As we stood on the platform waiting for the boarding call, I noticed that it was a virtual Sandwich Generation Fest and several families resembled ours. Why? Because while everyone likes trains, old people and small children—particularly old men and small boys—love them. So, the families waiting to board all consisted of young children—under seven, older grandparents—over 70, and 40-something parents/children who had probably bought the tickets and arranged for a multi-generational adventure.

I saw no one in the same shape as my mother-in-law, but I wasn’t surprised. Not only is it difficult to do a day-long excursion with someone in her condition, the railroad’s website was very clear—because the depots and trains are all very old, the handicapped facilities are somewhat  limited and passengers with special needs should call ahead to make special arrangements. In other words, this ride is not for everyone.

When we boarded the train, we ended up sitting across from another sandwich family—a 40-something couple, their 3-year-old daughter, and her parents who looked to be in their late 70s. Despite being slender people, each of the adults occupied two seats so that the little girl could gleefully bounce from a parent to a grandparent comfortably. She, the child, looked out the window excitedly—just as my own children did. And she quietly recited old fashioned nursery rhymes—the kind I had learned as a child, but have neglected to teach my own children. She snuggled with each of her grandparents before falling asleep in her grandfather’s lap.

Of the adults, the mother was the only one who spoke. She nervously barked orders at the other adults in a shrill voice and with an accent that northerners call “southern” and southerners call “country.” She never seemed to interact with the child, but hovered over her through the other adults. “Daddy, if she gets to be too much for you, you send her back here to me, ya hear?” and “Mama, is she hungry? If she’s hungry, you just let me know. I’ve got snacks in my bag, ya hear?” and “Honey, don’t you let her crawl on the floor now! She’ll be filthy before we even leave the station. Pick her up. Pick her up, now, ya hear?”

By contrast, I was feeling pretty mellow. I wasn’t barking at anyone–for a change. My children were louder and wilder than the little nursery-rhyme girl. My husband bought them candy at the snack bar and I didn’t care. I just let them ruin their appetites, get dirty, and go into the open car even after the woman with the shrill voice had yelled at her husband, “Don’t you take her back there! It’s filthy and dangerous, ya hear?”

She looked like she might have a heart attack before the journey was over. Her face was red and I assumed her heart was pounding and her blood pressure rising. I, however, felt so very relaxed and smiley.  I smiled at her. I even tried to talk with her when she returned from the ladies’ room with the little girl and announced, “Y’all, she didn’t need to go. She just wanted to see what it looked like. My goodness!”

I said, “Oh, I’ve been there. Mine act like they’ve never seen a toilet when we go somewhere new.”

She gave me a disapproving look, but didn’t comment. I guess she didn’t appreciate the smiling woman with the dirty, wild children butting into her conversation. So much for that stereotype that all southerners are friendly because apparently some of us aren’t! And so much for my belief that she and I might have something to talk about.

I continued to smile, and I reminded myself that when I travel with more than one generation, I’m more uptight, too. Had my mother-in-law or even my mother been with us, I might have been less relaxed, more wound. That’s just the way it is when you are the peanut butter in that family sandwich. So, I silently said a little prayer for her—and for me—that we would have the patience, grace, faith, strength, whatever it is going to take to get us through the days ahead.

I also couldn’t help but notice that she was taking a lot of pictures of her daughter as she slept on the old man’s lap. His skinny, wrinkled arms were wrapped tightly around the chubby little girl’s body as her sweet little head rested against his chest, probably listening to his heartbeat. “Hold onto this moment,” I wanted to tell all of them. “This might be it. This might be Grandpa’s last family trip. Things change so quickly.”  But I suspect the shrill-voiced woman already knew that and that is why she was taking all those pictures. That’s probably why she bought tickets and planned this trip for her family in the first place.

When we got home, I realized that I really didn’t think about my father-in-law on this trip as much as I thought I would. I was too busy enjoying my time with my husband and our children. Even when I was watching other families and thinking about how they were like and unlike our own, I didn’t feel sad. I felt grateful that my father-in-law had always been up for a road trip and available for making memories. He’d want those happy times to go on without him.

I think I will pull out that field guide of his and start planning to trip to Gettysburg—not for Dad, but the rest of us.

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