“I hate eggs,” I grumbled to my 8-year-old sister who glanced at me unsympathetically and sighed.
I was 5. It was 1942. A war had begun. Our father, a military officer, had left New York, where we lived, and gone to some faraway place named Indianapolis, preparing to go overseas. We were going to visit him there—by train.
It was my first time on a train—a train with beds, which for some reason were called berths (a weird word to me, since I had been told that in a few months my mother would be giving birth), and a dining car with folded linen napkins and a fancy printed menu. Everything seemed grown-up and sophisticated and I was quite certain that the dark-skinned man in the white jacket, the one who had unfolded my napkin and placed it on my lap with a flourish, and who called me “Missy” with a smile, liked me better than anyone else.
But now, after he had gone away and my mother had examined the menu, she told Helen and me, in a terse voice, that everything was very expensive and we were to order the omelet.
“What’s an omelet?” I whispered.
“Eggs,” she explained.
I obeyed and reluctantly ate omelets for a number of meals, as the train hurtled for a day and night through unfamiliar landscapes.
I felt at home in New York City. Helen and I walked our doll carriages on the cement sidewalks, and each day I passed tall buildings on my way to the big brick school where I attended kindergarten. This new place, though, called Pennsylvania, which was flying past the window beside my seat on the train, was occasionally dotted with things I knew only from books. As farmland swept by, I saw things I recognized from The Bobbsey Twins in the Country: barns and silos and cows standing quietly in the fields. It was my first glimpse, really, of a way of life unlike my own.
Time slows when one is young. That time on the train when I was 5 was probably no more, I reflect now, than a day and a half. But it seemed as if I had entered a new, leisurely world. I learned to walk carefully, adjusting my steps to the jostle of the train, holding on to the seats we passed on our way to the dining car. And the exhilarating adventure of moving between cars! The burst of air, the clatter of metal, and the whoosh of the opening door! Mother always grabbed my hand and held me firmly as I made my way across what seemed a terrifying space—and then, having made it through the danger, there again was the soft light, the linen tablecloths, and the welcoming smile of the waiter who would bring me, once again, an omelet (but now he saw to it that a glob of strawberry jam decorated its inside). Sleepy by dinnertime, I watched the sky darken and lighted windows appear in the farmhouses, and pictured the cows being milked, the dogs settling in for the night, the chickens plumping themselves onto their roosts. There was ice cream for dessert. We were in Ohio now, someone said; I nodded as if I knew what that meant and yawned.
Our daytime seats mysteriously disappeared and curtained berths appeared, with net hammocks to hold our folded clothes. Helen and I had bunk beds at home. On the train, we did again, Helen as usual on the top, but now Mother nestled beside me in the lower one, and, as she read to me in the same soft comforting voice I had always known, I could feel the steady lurching movement of the train and hear the clatter and hiss that meant we were speeding toward my father.
When the war ended, my family moved to Tokyo. But in 1950, when another war began, this one in Korea, Dad sent us back to the States. The ship deposited us in California and we boarded a train there to cross the country, a four-day trip.
Mother busied herself with entertaining our small brother. Helen and I were old enough to manage on our own; we went to the dining car together, without her, enjoying our independence, feeling adult. We were teenagers now. Helen was one of those golden girls, a pretty and popular high school senior; I was a gawky, self-conscious 13-year-old with braces. In the same way that she had, years before, admonished me (“It’s just another word for eggs. Eat it.”), she now encouraged me to be more outgoing. “Smile at people!” she said, impatient with my shyness, and made it seem easy because it came so naturally to her. There were other teenagers on the train; she joined the laughing groups they formed, playing cards and telling jokes.
Meanwhile, I huddled with my books, looking up not to smile at people but to watch landscape endlessly unfold through the window of the train: the endless desert of the Southwest; the brief stops at small train stations where I peered at actual...were they cowboys? Just like in the movies? I entered the exciting lives I had read about, pretending to be a cowgirl from the safety and solitude of the speeding train. In my imagination I moved into the small towns I saw; I would be a rancher’s daughter—I would have my own horse, would ride up to that mesa, my hair flying in the wind as I galloped. Then the town would be gone in a blur and I would wait for the next scene, the next place where I could place myself: there, I would live in that crumbling adobe house; I would be poor but honest and we would have a small garden and pray for rain, and—but now it, too, was gone.
Hour by hour I populated the country with versions of myself, taking up residence in every small town or isolated ranch, creating story after story in which I always starred. Sometimes I pretended to be the young Arizonan looking from a bedroom window at the silver train that sped through, yearning to be a traveler, wondering about the blonde girl seen briefly in the window of the passenger car.
When, finally, our grandparents met us at our final stop, Philadelphia, we were able to describe to them a trip that seemed to have encompassed weeks, not days. Helen had played endless games of canasta with her new pals and had fallen briefly in love with a college boy from Nebraska. I feigned boredom, listening to her bubbly description of her new and to-be-lifelong friends.She rolled her eyes when I described having been part of adventures in canyons and prairies and in two big cities, Kansas City and Chicago—how I had glimpsed, blurred and transitory, people’s backyards and bedroom windows, their churches and schools, and had joined whole families with joys and tragedies and complex lives.
Four years later, 17 now, I boarded a train again, this time all alone. Helen was at Penn State, a busy sorority girl with a diamond engagement ring (not the boy from the train, whom she never saw or heard from again, despite the promises to write), starry-eyed with plans and frustrated with my reluctance to leaf through bridal magazines with her.
We lived, by then, in Washington, D.C. My father drove me on a September morning to Union Station and helped me lift my luggage onto the train heading north. Samsonite suitcases had been the high school graduation gift for almost every girl I knew. The Samsonite had no wheels and was heavy, made heavier by me because between the sweaters and knee socks and sneakers I had filled every crevice with books. Brown University had a massive library; I knew that, having lingered over its catalog pages day after day. But still it seemed essential to take them with me: Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather, its New Mexico landscape the same that I had entered through a train window a few years before; Sister Carrie, in which Theodore Dreiser had given me the sad details of a Chicago I had glimpsed and guessed at briefly from a train when I was 13. Other favorites: I took them all with me when I hugged my father goodbye, thinking I was leaving my childhood behind. Yet there it was, with me still, as again I leaned against a window that felt familiar. There it was when I made my way, again balancing against the seat backs as the train lurched, to the dining car for lunch. One more time the conductor came down the aisle, punching tickets with his special tool that had seemed so mysterious to me when I was 5.
And outside, again, was Pennsylvania with its red barns; New York City and its towering buildings—I had lived there once; next, Connecticut and through the window a view of the ocean, gray and choppy this fall afternoon. All of it whooshed past, pieces of the America I was a part of. Not all of it was beautiful. Entering cities, the train seemed always to show me sad parts: the backs of decaying buildings, rusted fire escapes holding wilted potted plants, clotheslines in neglected yards, trash cans and dumpsters, dogs tied cruelly to fences, and people fighting—always people fighting, their contorted faces shouting insults I couldn’t hear.
I flipped the pages of the magazines I had brought with me, but the articles held little interest, and I watched, instead, the other passengers, creating their stories: the businessman snoring, his open briefcase ignored—he’d be in trouble; he was supposed to memorize all those facts before the trial. The young couple—honeymooners? They were taking a train because they had no car, no money for a car—he was out of work, poor guy—but soon a rich uncle would die and... They noticed me watching, and I blushed and turned away. The toddler who’d been whiny and fretful fell asleep, his head on his mother’s lap, and she stroked his hair.
“New London! Neeeww Looonndon next!” Each stop was announced in that melodic phrasing, as if an orchestra might suddenly burst forth, violins and clarinets, and the conductor might begin to tap dance down the aisle. Several young men in naval uniforms boarded the train in New London. They were on leave, I decided, looking to have some fun; I remembered a movie where Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra, wearing what we had called sailor suits, danced exuberantly down a New York street. But these young men simply found seats and sat quietly. One of them looked at me for a long moment, and I wrote a whole story in my mind of the girl who ditched college and her whole potential career by running off with a handsome sailor. But he looked away, leaned back, and closed his eyes.
In Providence, I wrestled my unwieldy luggage to the platform, found a taxi, and began my life. In my sophomore year at Brown, in a writing seminar, I wrote a story called “Train Ride.” The professor, chewing on his pipe stem during our conference in his office, wrote A+ at the top of the story, above the title, and told me that one day I would be a writer. “But...” he began.
“But what?” I asked, basking in the A+.
He squinted at me and smoke from his pipe wafted between us. “You need to suffer a grief,” he said.
Seven years later, on a bone-chilling December morning, a train conductor helped me by lifting my suitcase into the compartment above my seat on a train about to leave Boston, where I lived.I was 25 and plenty strong enough to heave a suitcase up to a shelf. But I was hampered by my newborn son, whom I was carrying. The good news of his birth had collided with the bad news from my family that had sent me to this train. Bundled in a thick woolen blanket, new to the world and unacquainted with sorrow, the baby slept soundly, probably lulled by the familiar rhythmic jostle of the train as it started up and headed south.
“Providence! Prooovideeence is next!”
But this time I wasn’t getting off the train in Providence. I watched my old college, a few of its roofs and towers visible from the train window. New London would be next. And Hartford. It would all whoosh past, and I would gaze through the smudged window at my own history, and this time I would tell—to myself, shaping something that seemed unknowable, into a narrative—a story of two sisters who had traveled together. The younger one was fidgety and curious, given to fanciful dreams. The older girl—her name was Helen—was more practical; she was calm, and good at giving advice. “Sit still,” she would say. “Hold my hand.” “Eat your eggs.”
I murmured the story with its incomprehensible ending to my baby, who slept, his fingers entwined below his small chin, his eyelids quivering now and then. I whispered to him about my sister, whom he would never meet. I was traveling with him to her funeral. Traveling once again, such a long distance, by train.