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Lillian and the Train

April 19, 2012

We’re at the train station. There are people everywhere, moving past with sober alacrity. I look at her and we share a smile. Her smile is joyous. Her hair is disheveled and her blue raincoat hangs like a shower curtain. I guide her through the crowds and help her on to the train. Her smile never fades and it is infectious. People smile back and step aside. We find a pair of seats and settle in. She looks at me and her face becomes serious for a moment.
“God bless you, Sally,” she says. “I have been waiting for you.”
“Grandma,” I say. It’s all I can say.
She laughs and the smile returns, the radiant beams of joy spreading throughout the cabin.
Anachronistically, the conductor calls out, “All aboard!” The engine chugs out of the station and we are on our way, my great-grandma and me. We are on our way to California.
“I was born in California, you know,” she tells me confidentially.
My eyes burn with tears and I listen as she recounts her childhood in California, recalling with stunning clarity her earliest years as a child of the Depression. I feel like I might explode with pride as the train rolls on into the night and into the past.

The last time I saw my great-grandma was two years ago. She was in a wheelchair in a nursing home. She was seated amongst a room full of cotton-topped lodgers in the lounge. I followed my uncle through the halls to find her, catching troubling glimpses into the rooms inhabited by grandmas, grandpas and the infirm. The beds looked like hospital beds and there was a tomblike quality to the place, a grim silence broken only by the stifled murmurs of the inmates. The orderlies spoke in hushed reverent tones when speaking to relatives. My uncle introduced me to the director of the facility before we went in to see my great-grandma. He spoke in a soft voice that betrayed tragedy while professing hope.
I walked behind my uncle as we entered the cafeteria. I was feeling uneasy. The whole concept of a nursing home unsettles me: a facility in which to house those people we love and we can put their suffering of age out of our minds. It is one of the baffling branches to grow out of our modern world. Where on one hand we crow about the importance of family, on the other we sweep away the members of our family that interfere with the things we would like to be doing. I feel even worse knowing that I am complicit. I did not offer to take her in. I was in high school when my uncle made the decision that it would be best to place under the care of professionals. I remember the discussion they had and they all said it would be for the best. I know my uncle would have kept her in his own home, but her needs were becoming beyond his abilities. In the end, he was the only one that visited regularly. Now here I was, nervously hiding behind him, intimidated by the cloying mortality that haunts the very air.
She was old when I was a child. Even then, I was always slightly afraid. There was no reason for it. She was probably the kindest woman I have ever met. My uncle said, and from my limited contact I found it to be true, that in his whole life, he never heard her say a single bad word about anyone. If someone was being disparaging about someone else, she would just smile and say nothing. That was her usual course in life, just smile and say nothing. There was something in that smile though, something magic. It brought hope to the downhearted and shame to the arrogant and mean. She was indulgent but stubborn. I loved her though as a child I did not show it. I didn’t love her because of familial connections; that is a false love and easily destroyed. I loved her for her unique ability to bring joy wherever she went, into any hardship, a quality born of child forged in the Depression. Despite her kindness and my love for her, as a child I regarded her with awe. She was fragile yet resilient. Her hair and makeup were always perfect no matter how early in the morning it was. I had seen the other women in my family make the transformation from sleep-creased pallor to painted on verve, but never my great-grandma. She was always ready to face the world.
The fear I had of her when I exited childhood was the result of guilt. I never visited her. I never made my appreciation clear. She wrote letters to me sometimes before she moved into the home. They were sweet, neatly written pages about the neighborhood squirrel or the latest adventures of my far-flung cousins. With the greatest of intentions, I never wrote back. It was always something I would do tomorrow.
I stood behind my uncle and listened.
“Ma,” he said, “It’s me.”
She looked tiny in her wheelchair peering up at him. She squinted.
“It’s me, Toby.”
“I know, dear,” she said. She was obviously covering her tracks.
“How are you?”
“We’re just waiting for dinner. Your father already ate.”
My great-grandpa had been dead for ten years.
“What are you having?”
“Oh, I don’t know,” she waved her hand dismissively. “It’s hard to tell the difference anymore.”
“I brought someone to see you,” my uncle said. He took a sideways step and I stepped forward.
“Oh,” she smiled. “Who’s this? Who’s this pretty lady?”
“It’s Sally. You remember Sally?”
She looked up at my uncle with wide eyes.
“Is this your wife?”
“Grandma, it’s me, Salomé. Sally.”
“Ma, it’s your great-granddaughter, Julie’s little girl.”
“No.” She looked at me and then at him and then back at me. “You look so—so elegant. I don’t think I would recognize you if my mind did work right. I remember when you wet the bed in the guest bedroom and then didn’t tell anyone. It was quite a surprise when you left.”
“I’m sorry.”
“Little Sally. Such a sweet little girl. I always wished she wasn’t so shy.”
I could feel my face redden. My uncle swooped in, effortlessly steering the conversation. He seemed to know the keywords to her comprehension. She never stopped smiling and I wanted to cry.
“Bob and I are going to California in a few months,” she told my uncle.
“I remember you were born there,” he said.
Bob was my great-grandpa who had died of lung cancer ten years earlier. It was fortunate that he left before she did because he would’ve never survived without her. In the waning years of his life, hers was the only voice he could hear. Even if you shouted at him, he would still have to lean over and ask loudly, “What did she say, honey?” Grandma would repeat your words in her quiet voice and he would understand. It is not as though my great-grandpa was helpless though. In his life he had been a man, a hearty example of maleness. He was good with his hands, fixing things, building things. He built two of the house they lived in. He was a lumberjack in his younger years, followed by a few years as a fisherman. He hunted. He fought in the war. He sang; he played the accordion. He loved my great-grandma’s cooking. She was his perfect mate: the archetypal woman to his man. He provided; she nurtured. And they loved each other fiercely. It is difficult for me to maintain my composure as I listen to her talk to my uncle about their relationship.
“That’s where I met your father,” she says.
“I remember,” my uncle replied.
“Oh, you’re too young to remember that.”
“I mean, you’ve told me about it before.”
“You should’ve seen your father. Up there on that stage with his only suit on. All the other girls were looking at Marv but I only had eyes for your father. Of course, I didn’t tell him that. A girl’s got to play hard to get.” She flashed a mischievous smile.
“Oh, mom.”
“He’s got to make an effort otherwise you won’t know what you’re getting yourself into.”
“So, what did he do?” my uncle asks. I get the feeling that he knows the answer but he has inherited her kindness.
“He wrote me a song and the quartet performed it.” She laughed. “The crowd didn’t care for it but I fell in love. I’ll bet I was the only one clapping.”
An orderly comes into the room and announces quietly that it is time for dinner. A swarm of pink-clad nurses and orderlies come and push the tired patients toward the dining room. My uncle grabs the handles of my great-grandma’s wheelchair and she directs us where to go.
“Will you stay for supper?” she asked.
“We’ve gotta get going. But I’ll see you next week.”
“Okay. I love you.” She turns to me. “It was nice meeting you, dear.”
Tears burn my eyes.
“You too, grandma.” I lean down to hug her.
“Bye, mom.”
She smiled and I followed my uncle through the hushed hallways. Despair gnawed at my stomach as I thought about my great-grandma spending her final days cooped up in this sterile hotel breathing the settled air of age. I sensed that my uncle probably had similar feelings and the drive home was a shared pensive silence.
For weeks after, I thought about that place and about her simple joy. I played it over and over in my mind. I remembered her saying that her and my great-grandpa would be going to California. I thought about the stifling existence she would have instead. A vision, a waking dream, a fantasy, began to sprout in my mind: I would go to the nursing home and smuggle her out. Together we would escape and go to California. If I loved her that’s what I’d do, I told myself. It would be like a movie. She would find happiness in a pilgrimage to her home and I would learn about myself through her aged wisdom. I thought about it for weeks. I could see it clearly in my mind. The train amidst a fog, the crowds, the valleys of California farmland, the sunshine, her smile.
Of course, life got in the way. School started again. I had my job. There were engagements with friends and parties and self-indulgence. The vision began to fade. It was something that would happen tomorrow. These other things are what needed to happen today. She could wait.
Three weeks ago, my uncle called to tell me she had died. He said she was sleeping when it happened. I didn’t know what to say or do. I went to work and acted like nothing had happened. There was a service the following week. The church was filled. My uncle arranged for an accordionist to come and play the song my great-grandpa had written for my great-grandma. I cried till my face hurt.
I don’t ever remember telling her I loved her. All I have left of her is that vision of me and her boarding the train to California, to the sunshine. I will never stop wanting it to be a memory instead of a dream.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. April 19, 2012 4:24 am

    I’m sorry for your loss. Those words seem clinical and never really fully give the emotion behind it. Thank you for sharing this story and your thoughts. Everytime you tell this story to someone else you share a part of her with us. For everyone that reads this, the importance of who she is grows a little more. A part of us will mourn her with you and be sad on your behalf.

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