One of my best friends from grade school, Linda Jovi, moved away the summer after fifth grade and we stayed in touch with letters and saw each other when she came to back to Southern Illinois to visit family. A year after Linda moved, when we were 12, I begged my mom to let me take the train to visit her. I’d taken the train a year or two earlier, by myself, to visit a cousin, so it was a pretty sure bet that my parents would let me go.
Except for the woman who committed suicide by chopping off her own head in a meat grinder (maybe I'll cover that in another blog), violent crime simply didn’t exist in our little town. Our front door and windows had never had locks, and the back door screen had a little latch to keep hoboes from sticking their head through the doorway and asking for a bite to eat. I've never seen a hobo in my life, but Dad put the latch on the door because Mom remembered them coming to the back door when she was growing up.
Fast forward about 50 years. One night I’m googling things like where did the name Blye come from (the Captain? Nelly? My mom’s desire to get even for being named after a steak and two relatives (Mignon Phebdora)), what’s the crime rate in the town where I’m spending the night alone in a remote cabin, and what’s the number of accidents that Amtrak is now up to, when lo and behold, I discover Amtrak did not exist when I took the train to visit Linda and Gail in grade school.
OMG, my mother had put me on a coal train!
I had been baffled most of my life as to why I didn’t remember any other people on those trains, and now I knew why. Only the conductor and the guy who waved from the back of the caboose had been there, that’s why. My parents probably had thought that would be the safest mode of transportation for their little girl, their youngest, their baby, the child of their old age. Grandpa had worked for the railroad before becoming a coal miner, and every man in my family worked for the mines in some way - my dad, both grandpas, all my uncles, brother-in-law, and nephews. Who could we better trust than someone who hauled our coal around?
This realization made me feel all warm and fuzzy, and as I prepared to travel to see two of my lifelong best friends, I decided to pull about 100 letters out of keepsake boxes and take them along. It would be a blast reminiscing! Oh wow, here is one I wrote to Linda, the friend I traveled on the coal train to visit in 6th grade! I never mailed it!
“Dear Linda,” it read, “my mom said I could come visit you, but the bus only goes to St. Louis. Can your mom pick me up there?”
My mom hadn’t stuck me on a coal train?
This was devastating news.
I had taken the bus to visit Linda. I had undoubtedly taken the bus to visit Gail. What a freakishly boring childhood I had had.
While recently visiting my best friends of 47 years, Pina and Kate, in Birmingham, I brought up all the sweet times we had had, together, like babysitting my twin nieces (Pina and Kate are also twins). When I was even smaller, my nieces had become my live dolls. My cousin and I would set up their cribs in separate rooms and as new moms, we’d load up our babies and visit each other in the town between the two bedrooms.
Pina jolted me out of my reverie. “We didn’t usually babysit together,” she said.
“What? Of course we did! Remember how Nancy used to pay us?” (I’ll leave out the form of payment here since Nancy now has 16 grandchildren).
“Not exactly,” Pina said. “You used to talk Kate and me into helping you babysit, then you’d take off and go to a party.”
I blinked at Pina. “That doesn’t sound like me at all,” I said.
“That sounds exactly like you.”
Pina also reminds me of the time, 30 years ago, when I let her off at the DFW airport, during the days when it was customary and legal to park the car and go inside to wait with your guest until the plane boards, crying, waving until you can’t see each any longer, waving at the plane as it takes off, knowing, even though you can’t see her, that your loved one has pressed her head against the window and is waving back at you.
“You ever make a flight at 5am again and you’ll take a bus to the airport,” I shoot back, proving her point about it being like me leaving them to babysit my nieces while I ran off to a party.
Memory is funny like that.
I often talk about getting my scuba certification, then learning to ski in my 30s, but my ex-husband reminds me that before I received my certification, I had a melt-down in the three-foot end of the swimming pool, springing to the surface, still clutching my regulator in terror, and that when I “learned to ski”, I snow-plowed right into a tree. When I hear Bob tell others about me backpacking alone through the Rockies, I wonder if I gave him that impression, or does he count this - hike for 30 minutes, stop to journal for three hours, drive into Winter Park for lunch, hike until I reach the first fork where I will absolutely get lost if I walk further, stop to journal some more, drive into Winter Park for dinner, go to the cabin and read and journal and eat Oreos and go to bed - as backpacking through the Rockies?
For me, it was the coolest thing that my friend Linda didn’t have a toaster, because nothing could beat broiling cinnamon toast in the oven after school while dancing to Bang-Shang-a-Lang by the Monkeys.
Linda doesn’t remember that.
“You were the one with all the stuff,” she said. “All the toys and dolls. The secret cubby holes that your dad built where you could hide your diaries.” (No, it isn’t lost on me that I hid my diaries in a cubby hole that my dad built.)
Still, our memory serves an amazing purpose. It gives us a twinge of fact so that we can exercise our imaginations, create humor, and concoct a mythology that uniquely belongs to us. It preserves the stories that are meaningful to us, and alternatively, it hangs onto traumatic memories so that we can discover the wonder of healing and emotional growth. It reminds us that we’re imperfect, fallible human beings, and that we should suck back our words when we’re about to say, “I’m 100% certain...”
I may not have actually ridden on a coal train, but when I think about those trains, it takes me to this really sweet emotional space. In one of my earliest memories (I’m not 100% certain, but I think it’s one of my earliest memories), my dad takes me to Main street where we sit on a bench just to watch the trains go by, and the guy who stands on the platform of the caboose really does wave to us. Why that was so thrilling, I don’t know, but it was. In my teen years, we sneaked onto parked trains and took a flare or two, although we never figured out how to light them. One time I got stuck between two cars on a track with a train barreling right at me (this was before we had lights or gates) and even though I was only 16, I grabbed my 7-year-old niece, Denise, opened the car door, and prepared to run, instinctively knowing that our lives outweighed the value of my parents’ car (the car in front of me moved just in time and I safely drove out of the way).
Trains ran through West Frankfort dozens of times a day, a few blocks from my home in at least two different directions, and alongside the homes of my grandparents, uncles and aunts, and most of my friends. I crossed the tracks when I walked to grade school. Going to the little local market required me to “stop, look and listen.” The donut shop that allowed us to knock on the back door and pilfer a couple of free donuts lay on the other side of at least two railroad tracks. The almost continual blasting of a train’s whistle became our white noise. So sentimental has it made us that decades after moving away, when I was back visiting my mom and complained that the train whistle kept me awake at night, Mom took it personal and got mad at me. “I find those whistles beautiful,” she said, “and you should, too! That’s how you grew up! This is your home.”
Yes, Mom, I remember. Thanks for all the dolls and the bus trip and, oh yeah, the toaster that made broiling cinnamon bread at Linda’s seem so exotic and taste so much better. Thanks for not sticking me on a coal train. Thanks for raising me in that wonderful little town in Southern Illinois. Thanks for letting me run a little wild with my life and my imagination. Thanks for making it possible for me to sit here writing about so many sweet memories.