My great-aunt Daphne was a lovely, dignified spirit. My great-uncle Jack had a boisterous laugh and a twinkle in his eyes. They float through my childhood memories as friendly apparitions – popping up in my recollections of family reunions, car trips, and holiday celebrations.
But what I really remember about Jack and Daphne was the behavior of my grandparents following his burial. The summers are hot and arid in the Northeast corner of Oregon, and this is not a good combination when you are grieving and waiting.
waiting for the train.
Waiting for Amtrak’s Empire Builder to come steaming across the country from the East. Waiting, for over nine hours in a station that has no conductor, no ticket agent, no up-to-date information board, no walls. It did have gnarled old church pew seats, a pair of old people well-versed in their contempt for one another, and me.
A young widow with three children, my Nana had re-married rather quickly. But not heartlessly. There had, at one time, been love. And maybe she and Joe still did love one another. But on that day, it didn’t show.
What I witnessed started slowly, then built steam. It wasn’t about anything big or tragic. No one had gambled away a life’s savings. No one had been having a 30-year affair. They were irate over toothpaste tubes and toilet seats and coffee cup rings. They were mad about the minutia of life.
I had hoped, perhaps foolishly, that once we boarded and were fed, cooled, sitting on cushions and surrounded by strangers, it would stop. It did not. I thought, if I offered to switch seats so Joe could sit across the aisle, it would stop. It did not. The volleys simply continued to be lobbed right over my head and I felt a bit like a chair umpire at a particularly vicious tennis match.
It was past midnight by the time the taxi from Portland’s Union Station dropped us at their front door. I stepped inside only long enough to call my parents. Despite the hour, despite being a fairly new driver, I was headed home. Now. I would be there before the clock struck three, but not by much.
On the lonely dark drive, swirling thoughts kept me company. My Nana had a huge heart. She laughed and danced and was the life of the party. She was generous and kind. Except to Joe. What happened? Perhaps they forgot that they once had been giddy in love. Perhaps instead of practicing forgiveness, redemption or understanding, they defaulted to the track that took them to the place of the arguments, distrust and judgment. And over time, the ruts got too deep.
Perhaps they forgot they had a choice.
But what if we remember?
Remember to breathe. Remember to choose the slow, local train of compassion instead of the express to self-righteousville. Remember that when we hear the ghostly whisper of ‘here we go again’, we in fact have a choice, every time, to not go there at all.
How do we remember?
The method doesn’t matter. Use humor. Try empathy. Hit an internal mute button. Blow your nose, go to the bathroom, get a drink. Of water. Do whatever it takes not to travel down the same line, but instead jump the tracks.
The La Grande Union Pacific Depot no longer services passenger trains. I assume our sojourn on their benches was not the reason, but one never knows. What I do know is that sometimes we forget to treat the person we most love with love. So practice love. And keep me posted.
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