The long, straight track - FamilyEducation

The long, straight track

October 13,2008
Professor Mom
Aliki McElreath

Aliki is a writer and college English teacher. She lives in North Carolina with her husband, two children (ages seven and ten), a dog, a cat, a rabbit, and too many fish.

Many, many years ago, when I went with my parents to the train station to take my brother back to another semester of graduate school in Mississippi, and my mother was sad about his departure, I remember my brother cheerfully telling all of us not to worry, because Mississippi was just “at the other end of a long track.” It was a comforting thought, really; this idea that there was one long line of steel and wood and we were at one end and there, far away at another point, would be my brother, going about his graduate school life. I think this is what I like most about train trips—this feeling that the distances separating you from your loved ones aren't all twists and turns, but straight lines, like a section from a kind of real-world connect-the-dots. I think my kids like this, too—especially my logical and practical son, who finds the predictability of a train trip comforting and safe.

Our trip to D.C. on Friday was not all I had imagined it would be, alas. We were crammed into two seats because my kids refuse to be separated, and no one wants to be the one to sit by him or herself across the aisle from me. So we crammed ourselves into two seats and it was crowded, and the whole half of our car seemed to be taken up with college students from my own college. They all were complaining about midterms and were excited to be going home. I’m trying to get away from all this, I thought to myself, having just spent an hour that same day listening to a student complain to ME about my midterm exam. L. decided he no longer liked the Amtrak pizza (“They must have changed their microwaves,” he complained), and both kids had a case of the fidgets the whole way there. And the train was delayed an hour and fifteen minutes, which is an awful long time when you’re sitting in a small train seat with one child’s dirty crocs shoved into your chest and the other one begging you over and over again to read The Bernstein Bears and the Bad Influence just one more time.

But if the actual train trip to D.C. on Friday was not all I had imagined through my rose-tinted glasses, the trip back to N.C. on Sunday was everything and more. You know how we parents often complain that our kids are periodically taken away by body snatchers who swoop down and replace our angelic offspring with demonic body doubles? Kids who never whine suddenly whine nonstop? Kids who are easygoing become maniacal and demanding? Well, this can happen in the reverse, too. On Sunday we hit the lottery for train trips and got the four-seats-together combo, where we could all spread out and where my restless, constantly-in-motion boy could spend most of the trip walking and pacing and moving around. L. spent hours drawing intricate designs for the futuristic Utopian country he’s planning. T. occupied herself for hours with my new favorite must-have for long trips, RoseArt's Peel ‘n Pix. (Note: I love these things! They are amazingly great for long trips, as long as you don’t obsess over getting the sticker part just right. I couldn't for the life of me figure out which stickers went with which page, but maybe that was just me). On the trip back on Sunday, I actually had time to think and daydream and gaze out the window. The kids and I talked, we played cards, and we reconnected, in wonderful, fun ways. Then the unthinkable happened. "Hey,” I asked my good-natured, body-double kids. “I need to type up something really quickly. Can I have a few minutes to do this?”

And they let me, those good kids of mine who sat there, coloring and drawing and planning away about distant Utopian worlds run by robots and trains, while I typed away and wrote my column for today. I wrote and looked out the window and thought about that straight line of metal and wood running from my one Home to my other Home, and back again. I thought about how everything I love is at both ends, and how even if it's hard to leave the one, I can always keep it in my sights, shimmering there, at the end of a long, straight track.