When I was just a little sprout, my grandmother came to visit us regularly. I’m not sure what the logistics of railroad timetables were in those days, but in my memory she always seemed to arrive about three in the morning. Here’s how it went:
Momma would put us to bed early, saying we needed our rest. We, of course, swore that rest was unnecessary, and suggested we go to the train station right now, in case Grandma was early. It could happen, we told Momma with all the earnest conviction of pre-schoolers.
Though we had been well-schooled in obedience, those nights saw our training–and Momma’s temper–stretched to the snapping point.
Once in bed, of course, we wriggled and whispered, made numerous panicky trips to the bathroom lest we do the unthinkable and pee the bed, thus besmirching Grandma’s arrival. And then Momma was shaking us awake, and forcing our daytime clothes on over our pajamas, and then our coats, and we stumbled sleepily out to our green and white Ford station wagon to drive the five blocks to the train station.
In retrospect, I think Momma was probably as excited as we were; we always arrived well before the train. In those days, we had an old-fashioned train depot, with wooden slat benches divided by curving metal arms. They were painted pale green, and we slid our bodies under the arms to lie on the benches while we waited.
And waited. And waited, while outside the windows stars twinkled and dark man-silhouettes pushed high metal freight carts around. And then the tracks would sing, high and sweet and faint, and we would slither out of the benches’ embrace and beg to run to the window.
“Not yet,” Momma would say. “It’s too soon.”
Not for us, of course, but train schedules followed wishes other than ours. We would sit down on the benches, and then, as drowsiness claimed us, slip back into the benches’ welcoming arms.
When the train came we had almost given up hope. The singing tracks, the high, lonely whistle as the train entered town, the low growl of the engine swelling to the dangerous, angry roar of a beast barely chained by iron bars, all mocked us. We lifted weary heads, opened sleep-weighted eyelids, and at long last beheld the shining deep green passenger cars, the warm golden windows, the silhouettes of hatted and overcoated men and ladies, and soldiers in uniform bound for the army base up by the airport.
We struggled out of the benches’ clutches one last time and strained toward the door, bound by our clasped hands and Momma’s insistence that we not pass the swinging doors to the station platform without her. Outside the door, we stood in a little clutch shaped by nuclear forces–bound to Momma by the gravity of obedience, straining ever trainward by the contrary pull of Grandma’s love.
The train eased to a stop. Steam brakes hissed and sighed white clouds. Black-faced, white-gloved porters leaped jauntily from the train cars to the platform, then turned, flipped down little sets of steps, reached into the trains and brought out a step stool, set it below the steps, then straightened, looked smiling into the cars, and lifted white gloves high. And from the train doors emerged dainty hands, also gloved.
The porters clasped the hands, and hatted ladies in thick, swirling overcoats and pumps stepped carefully onto the steps, the step stools, and then the platforms. When a soldier or an overcoated man appeared in the doorway the porters’ hands dropped, and the men leaped bold and free from the train to the platform, straightend their coats, then leaned and slapped the travel creases out of their pants legs.
Meanwhile, our eyes swept the length of the train, over and over, lest we miss that precious moment when it was Grandma’s hand the porter clasped, Grandma’s foot on the step. And then, suddenly, there she was, a squat shape in low-heeled pumps, both hidden and revealed by the steam hissing from the train, smiling and holding out her arms, her purse clutched in one hand.
Love tore us out of our obedient orbit and we raced down the platform, clasped Grandma’s waist, hips, or knees, depending on our heights, buried our faces in her perspiration and baby-powdered sweetness, and chanted, “Grandma…Grandma…Grandma…”
The porters climbed back into the trains and began handing luggage out to the men with the high carts. We waited until Grandma’s hard-shelled brown leather and tweed cases appeared, and then in a chattering, clutching mob, we swirled out to the station wagon for the trip home.
And there the memory ends. I’m sure we arrived. I’m doubly sure that Momma insisted we return to bed. But all that I remember is the magic of the train that picked Grandma up in Wisconsin and set her down at our home in Oregon.
For years I watched the trains as they raced past our house, first the green passenger trains, and then the orange cars, and then the silver Amtraks. And then they disappeared altogether, leaving only long freight trains, which sometime in the eighties or nineties lost their cabooses, so there wasn’t even a brakeman to wave at us as he rumbled past.
Our town train depot sat derelict for years, its windows boarded up, the ticket master’s little slatted window shuttered, his office vacant. A little plastic, steel, and fiberglas hutch appeared on the lawn beside it. Eventually the county historical society claimed the train station and turned it into a museum. The benches, the loving benches in whose arms we dozed while we waited for Grandma, are gone for good.
Or not. A few nights ago I dreamed about trains, in this case, The Rosemont Car, something my subconscious cooked up to hold all the magic of all those trains that made the miracle of Grandma happen, over and over–and that once, just barely within the flickers of my memory, carried us through the night to her house.
In the dream, I find The Rosemont Car behind my house. I vacuum its dusty carpets, wash and press the lace antimacassars that lie over the high plush seat backs, wash the crystal prisms from the small chandeliers that hang in the narrow little recessed strip overhead, and set up my design and writing studio in its glassed-in observation platform at the back of the car.
When my son and I begin sleeping in it I discover it is haunted; the ghosts of my father and grandfather appear a night and rub lemon oil into the gray and splintering paneling. The paneling blooms into golden, glowing oak. One night the porter appears, and my son and I board the train, fall asleep in bunks, and in the morning awaken to discover that we have arrived in a new and strange town.
Lost in the magic of the best parts of my past, the ghosts of my grandparents and everything they represented feeding my soul, my son with me, the knowledge that my past is within reach, I am complete as I never have been. But my son looks out at the strange town and says, “Where is my school? And where are my friends?”
I look out at the strange town and realize that though I have the thing I have dreamed of–a world in which the past can be called back at will, a world in which one can, quite literally, be carried away and lost in it–my son has lost his present. To give my son a chance to build a past of his own, I must not be carried away by my own past. It’s a timely warning; I’ve been working on a memoir.
I love the idea of The Rosemont Car. I’ve begun a book about it. But it’s made me think about how I balance my life. And it’s made me remember to love and relish the present, even as I visit The Rosemont Car in the things I write, creating a place where the ghosts of things and people I have loved still live, breathe, and move. And much as I love those memories in some cases, I can’t allow them to blind me to the fact that I have a present, and it holds things I love as well.
Still, though, I think The Rosemont car is here to stay, parked out behind my house. I’ve had a workman build me a little walkway from my bedroom to the iron door, and sometimes in the night, like now, when I can’t sleep, I can slip out of bed, walk through the little tunnel, and there it is, chandeliers winking and glowing, Dad and Grandpa working sweet lemon oil into the paneling. Momma and Grandma are playing Mexican Train dominos in one of the booths.
I will never sleep here again; I can’t afford to risk losing my son’s present–or his presence, for that matter. But this place is as necessary to me as breathing; here is where I work; here is where I keep the images and memories that make me what I am. Here is where I will return when I am old, and the gravity of sanity weakens enough for me to swirl away in the giddiness of second childhood. But for now, I live next door, and I commute to work. Welcome to The Rosemont Car. I am your conductor.