Gifts From a Train Traveling Grandma

Chicago to Cincinnati, The Cardinal, Train No. 50

At Chicago’s Union Station an elderly lady wearing a short fleece coat, long purple dress and hat catches my eye. A chain from her neck holds a circular pendant that bobs at her stomach. Her blue canvas backpack shifts her shoulders forward. Other ladies sit with their right hands clenched around the extended handles of their luggage. They lift themselves from the blue vinyl chairs without releasing their hooked fists. Forming a trail of clicking bags they move toward the boarding train.

Amtrak passengers boarding in Chicago

Passengers board the Cardinal train at Chicago’s Union Station

I follow the woman wearing the purple dress. She becomes my seatmate. Her name is Laurie. Traveling to Cincinnati, she’s finishing the last leg of an international trip that began in Tel Aviv, Israel, where she now lives. Cincinnati is home to some of her family and a house she wants to sell.

In age and manner, she is grandmotherly. Yet her spirit is free. “YOLO,” she says of her adventurous move to Tel Aviv. “You only live once.”

She rummages through the bags at her feet. “Security kept stopping me at the airports. Pulling my things out. They even kept some of them. Two of my bags were lost in Madrid. I don’t know when I will get them back.” Her bags meet the Amtrak carry-on rules. Passengers are allowed two personal items weighing less than 25 pounds and two carry-on bags weighing less than 50 pounds. Anything else has to be checked for a fee.

From one of her bags she lifts two over-the-door metal hooks. “I can’t use these in Israel because the doors are thicker.” She pulls out a large roll of toilet paper. “Never want to be without this,” she explains. Next, is a plastic grocery bag holder that allows the carrier to hook several bags on to it. Her documents are covered in dark plastic sleeves. I understand why security officials might be suspicious. There are more items mashed up in her bags. She thinks them clever and useful for her family here. Some of the smaller pieces are gift wrapped as presents for her nine grandchildren.

I believe I’ve met my first train traveling hoarder grandma.

Grandma's on the train with gifts

Grandma’s gifts

She opens the lid of a white Styrofoam food container and begins eating Chinese food with a silver fork. A half hour later she pulls out another Styrofoam container with brisket and cabbage. She cuts it with a plastic knife.

Before retiring, Laurie worked as a registered nurse in public health.

“I grew up in Park Ridge, Illinois,” she says after learning I am from the Chicago area. Park Ridge is the suburb where Hillary Clinton was raised. Laurie looks to be around Hillary’s age.

“Did you know Hillary Clinton?”

“Yes, I did. We went to Maine South High School together. She was very smart. Hung around with all the smart kids.”

Laurie has four grown children who she says “are in a competition to see who disagrees with me more. One tried to get me committed.” The two things she and her ex-husband of 30 years agree on: “We don’t like the person our son married and we don’t like the person our daughter married.”

The train is scheduled to arrive in Cincinnati at 3:17a.m. but it is running late. She’s glad. “I told whoever picks me up that I would take them out to breakfast.”

A weary traveler, she leans her head against the train window and falls asleep. I ponder why Laurie seems obsessed with the belongings in her carry-on bags yet is willing to break ties with her house in Cincinnati and the USA.

When I reach to turn the light on above my seat to read I find it doesn’t work. I ask the conductor if there is another seat I can occupy and he accommodates me. I move several rows up in the same car. The landscape outside the train window is completely dark for a long while. Where are the towns and city lights? My eyelids get droopy. It’s 9:55pm. Goodnight world, wherever I am.