For some, the train that runs through my town is a nuisance. It disturbs their sleep, waking them in the middle of the night with its shrill whistle. It holds up the traffic when everyone’s rushing to get to work. But the train helps me commute to the past: The sound of the long line of cars rushing by transports me to simpler, more carefree times. Whenever I hear the train, I’m taken back to my grandparents’ farm.
Every month or so, my grandparents had my sisters and me spend the weekend with them. While my mom took a pie out of the oven and set out the good china, my sisters and I packed our little matching suitcases and watched for my grandparents at the window. It seemed to take forever for the adults to finish their coffee. Finally, Grandpa pushed away from the table, put on his hat and pronounced it time to go. Amid admonitions to behave, we tucked ourselves into the backseat of the car.
Although the distance wasn’t far, the drive seemed to take forever. I often fell asleep until the sound of the tires crunching against the pea gravel driveway announced our arrival.
We took our suitcases to the house and rushed to the barn where Grandpa kept his racing horses. We watched the horses being put through their paces, and occasionally were permitted to ride in the training cart. As we grew older, we were allowed a more active role in the training. I remember the thrill of being handed the reins one day. “Take her around a few times,” Grandpa told me. Suddenly, I was grown up.
Grandma took us for long walks, teaching us about the variety of plants and flowers that grew in the woods. We chased after butterflies, trying to capture one to add to her collection. We found fat night crawlers for fishing under the wooden planks leading to the outhouse.
Grandpa and Grandma took us out to dinner—Bob’s Big Boy or Ponderosa—where we invariably ordered hamburgers, fries and Coke. After dinner, we stopped by the grocery store to pick up a quart of Bryer’s vanilla ice cream for dessert. On the drive home, my grandfather would begin a song—“She’ll be comin’ round the mountain”—in his deep bass voice. Grandma joined in, in her whispy soprano. They encouraged us to sing along. We complied, until the day we considered ourselves too mature for such things.
Occasionally, my grandparents took us to the train tracks that ran past the farm. We lined our pockets with little circles of iron ore and picked up the rusted iron spikes that had fallen out of the track. We learned to read the rails for approaching trains. If we determined one was coming, we stepped off the track and waited, eager to watch it passing. Our patience was rewarded: In the distance, we heard the whistling of the train, the rumble of the cars against the track that grew louder and louder until, suddenly, the train was there, a huge blur of color and sound speeding by in a great gust of wind that threatened to knock us over. And then, at the end of the train, in a little red caboose, the conductor stood waving, a blue and white striped cap atop his head. We waved as long as we could see him, then turned around to head back to the house.
At the end of a long day, we climbed the steep stairs to the loft where my sisters and I slept, the windows cast open to catch the cool summer breeze, the night train speeding me off to my dreams.
A version of this essay was previously published in the Christian Science Monitor.
Labels: Grandparents, Growing up, Trains