Last night—the last night of my East Coast trip with Smoke and Stump—I set the alarm on my iPhone for 5:20 am, and picked up my grandmother’s autobiography. The book has heft—not because it is especially long, but because she wrote it in 1984, typed it out on a typewriter, three-hole punched the single-sided pages, and bound them in a thick three-ring binder. To read it, I must sit cross-legged on the bed and lean over so that I can carefully turn the pages.
In the chapter I read last night, my grandmother described her family’s move from Kansas to Montana by railroad in the early 1900s. She was a young child at the time traveling with her parents, baby brother, pet horse, a dog, and several cows. My grandmother rode with her mother and brother in a passenger car, while her father rode with the livestock so that he could tend to them. The journey lasted several days, and my grandmother describes what it was like to ride with her mother, who nursed the baby, who changed and washed diapers on the train, who relied on the workers to bring fuel for the wood stove, who cooked meals of oatmeal, boiled potatoes, and beans, and who offered my grandmother snacks of peanuts and dried fruit.
I’m writing from the airplane now, somewhere between Boston and Seattle. Smoke is playing Angry Birds on the iPad and Stump, bless him, fell asleep some minutes ago while watching a movie. I know that it would be logical for me to write about how easy we have it in comparison to my ancestors. We are traveling by airplane not by rail. We are not hauling cattle. My children have devices that keep them entertained. A flight attendant just brought me a cup of Starbucks coffee. But I am actually more struck by the ways my experience may be similar to my great-grandmother’s, how the details of travel and transport may change, but the feelings of confinement and dependency remain.
Our flight this morning was delayed by two hours. Every so often an agent would get on the speaker and tell us to be ready, and then twenty minutes later they would announce the very same thing again. Though I had roused my kids at six am, dressed them, and carried them to the car, we did not board the plane until eleven. Once we were in the air, my children complained that they were ravenous. They didn’t want the cookies I had packed; they wanted real food. It didn’t matter how often I checked the progress of the food cart. It took another hour for it to reach us at the very back of the airplane where we sat and by that time they had sold out of most of their options. (I would have preferred a meal of boiled potatoes and beans to the box of prepackaged snacks I purchased.) By then, Stump had decided to move to my lap and so I tried to contain our snacks and drinks to the small tray in front of me, to somehow keep track of the various wrappers my kids created, to contain our bodies, our crumbs, our mess.
As I write this there’s a two-year-old in front of me who keeps lying down in the middle of the aisle, and there’s a mom to the left of me who paces the airplane with a fussy infant in a carrier. (She just took a wide step over the two-year-old.) She won’t have to hand-wash her diapers in the airplane sink, but I did turn my head a while ago after noting the scent of baby wipes, and saw that she had laid her child across the seats to change him. We are in our own kind of cattle car.
That feeling I’ve had since waking this morning, this dread of having to move my children through tight and crowded spaces, to usher them up and down escalators, to herd them to the right side of any corridor, I’m sure that feeling was familiar to my great-grandmother Bertha who cared deeply about propriety, about keeping her family safe but also organized and tidy. Even in 2016, with every imaginable convenience, that still feels like an impossible goal.
Image Credit: Andrew J. Russell (1830-1902), photographer – National Park Service. http://www.nps.gov/gosp/index.htm, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=708221