Sunday, May 10, 2015
Letter from Harrisburg--On How Moms REALLY Influence Us
I suppose it was no accident that I heard about my grandma jumping off the train and my daughter crashing her motorbike on the same day.
When I got the text that something bad had happened to Amy, I was sitting in a church service in Iowa with Aunt Vina, last March.
I jumped up in a panic, edged past my cousin Merlin, and called Paul, my husband, who was still at Vina’s house, sick with the flu. We couldn’t phone Amy directly, because she lives in Chiang Mai, Thailand, and we communicate online, which is hard when you’re traveling in the Midwest, have sketchy Internet access and use an old flip-phone.
Paul checked for news on his smartphone.
Amy was alive, thank God, and remarkably unhurt, he told me. While riding her little green motorbike across town, she had crossed a strange shiny streak on the highway and immediately found herself on the pavement with her helmeted head wedged under a parked car while the bike skittered on without her and a flip-flop slid all the way to the curb.
The streak turned out to be a slick of spilled oil. People at a nearby store rushed to her rescue and were surprised that she didn’t need to be hospitalized. A woman poured an herbal ointment on her scraped arm, which stung like crazy. Then she went home and sent us an email, which Paul read to me.
I went back into the service but couldn’t listen to the sermon. Instead, I sent a text to Amy’s email, apologizing for not knowing about this earlier.
She replied, “I AM FINE. DO NOT FREAK OUT.”
I showed the message to my cousin, who whispered, “A little too late.”
We moms are good at obsessing. Pacifiers versus thumbs, safety versus freedom, letting them go when they’re grown.
When our children are still small, Mother’s Day is a day for mulling our mothering methods and hoping we’re doing it right.
But now, looking at my adult children and the sweep of generations, this is what I’m concluding — our influence and eventual success are not so much about techniques and systems but about who we are and how we live.
Vina, my one remaining aunt and the best storyteller I know, had invited two generations of local cousins to her house for Sunday dinner. I set aside my anxiety about Amy to take advantage of this rare chance to ask for details of vaguely remembered family stories.
Vina and her cousin Leona recounted the story of Grandma and her sisters jumping off the train when they lived in Oregon.
When I was a child growing up in the Midwest among cornfields, harsh winters and flat horizons, Oregon was a mythical land that my grandma spoke of with reverence and deep nostalgia.
She and her family had moved to the Amish community near Amity, when she was 19. They stayed for only three years, but it was long enough to forever equate Oregon with the Garden of Eden in Grandma’s mind.
The fruit in Oregon was so wunderbar, she would say. Apples and cherries and plums, free for the taking in your own backyard. And you could see Mount Hood. Ach my, was there anything as wunderbar pretty as Mount Hood? Grandma would take her spoon and push her mashed potatoes into a careful cone. “That’s Mount Hood,” she would grin, and then she would eat.
I remember trying unsuccessfully to imagine mountains in general and Mount Hood in particular. We could never comprehend Oregon or its wonders or its iconic status in Grandma’s memories.
Then, strangely, I ended up living in Oregon myself, years after Grandma had died. Not only that, but she and I were both 19 years old when we first arrived. She had come on the train and I flew, and as the plane descended toward Portland, a gigantic snow-covered mountain loomed off to the left, level with my window. The pilot said it’s Mount Hood, and it was almost a spiritual moment to see that mountain, come to life from Grandma’s plate and memories, before my astonished eyes.
Grandma was the third oldest of a family of 15. She was Anna, known by the Germanized Ennie. She and the two sisters nearest her age, Katie and Susan, were apparently best friends, workmates, and, at times, the determined and resourceful lifeboat that kept the family afloat.
Among their many adventures was going to Portland every week to work as maids for wealthy families, Aunt Vina recalled.
The three sisters used to get off the train at Whiteson, a village few miles from home, after their week in Portland. However, the train, heading south, would actually pass by their house before they got to Whiteson, and it seemed a shame that they couldn’t get off closer to home.
They got an idea. A mile or two north of Whiteson, the train always slowed down to go around a curve and then over a bridge. If they did it right, the girls calculated, they could jump off when the train slowed down and then walk home.
So on their next trip, they were ready. The train braked for the curve, and one by one the girls leaped off. Unfortunately, it wasn’t as easy or safe as they expected, and Susan barely made it off before the train started over the bridge.
The next time they got on the train, presumably the following Monday, the conductor sternly told them to never, ever try anything that foolish again.
They never did, to Vina’s knowledge, but their knack for adventure lasted the rest of their lives.
I decided I must find the place where this remarkable story had happened. So, on a recent Saturday, Paul and I picked up my oldest brother, Phil, in Newberg and set out. We didn’t have many clues.
A little booklet called “The Amish of Amity” told me the general area of the Amish community but not the specifics of my great-grandpa’s farm. Phil remembered that Mom took him to see the area some 20 years ago, and at that time the original farm was a golf course.
And of course, I had the clues of railroad tracks, a curve, and a bridge.
So with Paul driving, me reading directions, and Phil in the back seat, we headed south on 99W near McMinnville, headed for Whiteson. Our first stop was supposed to be Trestle View Lane, which would give us a good view of the old railroad trestle, which seemed like a significant clue.
Shortly before we got there, we passed a golf course. It was the only golf course for miles around, so we concluded it must be the original farm and could hardly believe we had found it so easily.
Then we took a back lane through the field across from the golf course, hoping to get closer to the tracks.
Suddenly we were on the tracks, which glide quietly right through the field. We looked south, and yes, there was a slight curve, and beyond it a bare bridge over a deep ravine with the South Yamhill River down below, and then the tracks continued to the south on a long wooden trestle.
It is a moving moment, to stand on weathered railroad ties and think of your fearless grandma, jumping off a train and then catching her breath as Susan barely makes it to safety, perhaps right over there, where the grassy slope drops into the river under the unforgiving bridge.
It happened 100 years ago, yet that quirky courage is still fresh and current.
My mom and her sister were so much like their mother, endlessly determined, tackling challenges that would intimidate any normal rational woman, delighting in doing what couldn’t be done.
My daughter hopped back on her motorbike soon after her accident and again rode all over the city, because she loves Thailand and teaching English and traveling like the locals.
While I consider myself less hardy than my mother and daughter, I do recall planning a trip to Yemen soon after the 9/11 attacks to visit my sister. “But — aren’t you afraid?” sputtered a horrified friend.
“Of course I’m afraid,” I said, “but why would I make a decision based on fear?”
That approach to life, I realize now, is the invisible chain that links me to all these intrepid women, and that is the wonderful and challenging lesson for all young moms on Mother’s Day.
Rather than focusing on detailed parenting methods, we should all be seeking to be the best people possible — the bravest, the kindest, the most grateful and joyous and thoughtful. Because daily we see more of our mothers in the mirror, and who we are is who our daughters will eventually become.