When I was eight years old my granny took me on a trip of a lifetime. She took me by train from Chicago to California and pointed out all of the sights along the way. There were buffalo, rolling plains, the Badlands, Mt. Rushmore, fields of corn, silos, the Rocky Mountains. We saw it all. As with any little kid, the most exciting thing for me was being in a sleeper car. Is there anything more cool than having a bunk on a train?
The train wasn’t just any old train, nor was the bunk any old bunk. It was the itchy brown, yellow, and gold plaid sleeper sofa in our guest room. The scenery? White walls. My time with Granny? For real.
Granny, my dad’s mom, was a fiercely independent woman. She grew up on a farm in Nebraska and went away to college at age 16 (her father sent all three of his daughters to college in the 1920s and 30s– a time when it was unlikely for girls to go beyond high school). She received her Master’s degree from the University of Chicago, where she met my grandpa. They got married, had four kids, and divorced. She reinvented herself from a realtor to a school teacher. She traveled all around the United States and drove alone cross-country. Twice. She even went on a cruise to Africa to see the total eclipse of the sun and got lost by herself in Senegal. Using the barest of French, she communicated with a little boy who led her back to the ship. In addition to all of this, she remembered everything.
Granny was an amazing story-teller. She liked to remind me of my demands for stories “from her brain.” Really who cares if a prince stumbled upon Snow White when I could hear exciting tales of farm life and using bloomers to catch fish in Bell Creek? Or when my great-grandpa shot a hawk and picked it up only to discover it was still alive? It sank his talons into to his hands, and my great-grandma had to kill it with a piece of wood (after fainting at the sight). He had to drive himself into town for the doctor, hands wrapped, because she didn’t know how. When Granny did read me a story, it was Something Is Eating The Sun!, a tale about farm animals’ reaction to a solar eclipse, and this often lead to stories about Africa.
But the most fun was sitting on the sleeper sofa mattress, listening to her go, “Chugga-chugga! Chugga-chugga! Choo-choo!” and describing where we were in our journey. It was not the white walls that I saw, but the towns, fields, landmarks, and sky. She made me aware of the other people on the “train” and intoduced me to proper train decorum. At this point in my short life, I had only been to Chicago, Michigan, Indiana, and various places in California. The “travels” she and I took introduced me to history, geography, and culture. She taught me that exploring new places was fun and that there were other ways of life besides mine. When I graduated college, she gave me a suitcase to represent all of the places I’d go.
Granny passed away in 2005. Prior to her death, she planned her last trip: to have her ashes put into a biodegradable box and buried next to her parents in Nebraska so she could return to her “native soil”. To her death was not death, but a journey back home.