Night Train

by Sarah May Wilson

The intermittent bumps of the rail connectors jostle me against the vinyl seat back. Aside from that I am quite comfortable. I didn’t expect a train to be so accommodating to its passengers. Looking up and out through the window to my left, I have two distinct views.

The first is of almost pure ebony. The majority of my perspective is coated in a blanket of darkness. There is no moon to offer light but an occasional beacon from the passing buildings illuminations break the monotony of my view. Even with no landscape showing itself at this hour, I can still feel the world passing by.

Businesses, offices and family houses are hiding in the dark, concealing themselves from the curious eye. I imagine houses with gated yards, sandboxes and practical clotheslines-because in this town, mothers work at home, raising children and keeping the home. The burly, loud-voiced fathers, the kind that watch football every Sunday with a beer in hand and a neighborhood buddy in the next chair, work their forty in the local mills. They spend their weekends mowing the lawn and playing catch with their kids. These neighborhoods have barbecues in the summer and each do their part to help raise each other’s children with either a swat to the bottom or a pat on the head, just like their own.

This neighborhood that is hiding from my view is a community, They are all in the fight to pay their bills, to send their kids to college to make better in the world than they did and to find a happy existence. These families come together to celebrate birthdays and school sports or to grieve the loss of one of their own. This is the epitome of small town America at its finest. I imagine these neighborhoods sleeping in the darkness as I fly by on the commuter train.

The second view I see is of me. It’s the reflection of darkness that can’t be escaped. I peer into the window and a woman stares back at me. The eyes are the opening to the soul but the spirit within those eyes is tired, tired of always being strong. Her soul needs to rest, to rejuvenate and to move on from letting go of the pieces of her world. These brown eyes have a haunted, shell-shocked appearance. I see the grief and confusion as they look back at me.

I know we share the same feelings. She too had things to say, amends to make, that never came to pass. Like her, I will have to find resolution in my own way, in my own time and place. Looking at her takes me back to another season, in another life.

Mama would teach me things when I helped her hang laundry outside. With each few clothespins I passed, she would try to impart adult knowledge in me to take into the future. Some were practical: always hang your wash out in the morning so it has all day to soak up the sun; fold the clothes as you take them down, so you save precious time later. Some of her messages were more philosophical: sometimes in the basket of life a red sock will find its way into your load of whites-don’t be angry or cry-accept that life knew you needed some pink underwear; or when you find the passion in yourself you need to find a way to walk it into the rest of your world because life without passion is only a shell of a life. One of these most memorable lessons came on an especially hot summer day.

It was an unbearably sweltering August day. It was the kind of day where no shower could clean the sweat from the back of your knees. I must have been twelve. I remember my age because previously on these hot kind of days I would have run around with no shirt on trying to cool off. On my twelfth birthday, Mama and I went shopping for my first bra. The especially overbearing heated day had me regretting the excitement of my first step to womanhood as I quickly learned that the ever tight and uncomfortable nature of the lycra in hundred degree temperatures was hell on earth.

We were hanging laundry as we always did. At twelve, I had also begun to be more than a passer of the needed clothespins, I had been promoted to assistant hanger. I handled the towels. I remember accepting my new role with the utmost importance. As the oldest daughter, I was the first to help Mama with chores and I enjoyed bragging to my younger sisters about my new role as Mama’s helper.

I started to pull the first towel out of the basket being careful not to drop any other wet laundry onto the ground. When I started pinning it up, Mama took a deep breath. I knew an important lesson was coming. Mama always breathed deep before an crucial lesson. It was like she was channeling her strength to pass on the weight of the world. But this time was different. Instead of working together as usual, she stood to the side and watched me work alone.

She began, “This may be the most important thing I ever teach you.” I stopped what I was doing to look Mama in the eyes. “No,” she urged. “Keep going.” I continued to hang the wet towels but my ears were open wider this day for Mama’s words than they ever had been.

“Someday later in life, you are going to meet a man that makes your heart soar. This will be the man that you change your dreams and wants in life for. You will incorporate his goals into them to make dreams for both of you, together.”

“Mama,” I interrupted. “We’ve already talked about boys and marriage.”

“I know honey, but this is a little different.” I nodded and kept on with the towels.

“You will change and change more, and change again what you want out of life as a woman, as a wife, and then as mother. You will joyfully accept his achievements and your children’s successes partially as your own because you were supporting them while they became great. You will rejoice in all their accomplishments. Then days will eventually start to creep in where you are less involved. And that’s good, that’s what raising children is all about-giving them the tools to be successful on their own. That’s a wonderful thing to see as a mother. But what is left behind is a woman who doesn’t know who she is beyond her husband and her kids. She doesn’t know what she wants, if anything, for her remaining years.”

I snuck a glance away from the clothesline to Mama’s face. Her eyes were focused on something off to the side. She had a faraway look, like she was in midst of remembering another time.

“Some days you may feel empty-like you have nothing left to show for all your time spent supporting others. You will try to remember what your dreams were long ago, when it was simply you. I’m telling you this so when you meet the right man, you will know to hold onto a piece that is only about you. You will marry and have babies but that piece of your dreams from before needs to find a way to survive. Write it on a paper and keep it somewhere safe, confide in your family or friends so they can remind you or tuck it away within you to a place that is only for you to visit. That way when you find those inevitable lost days beginning, you can recognize them for what they are and pull those dreams out for you, for your successes, for your future.”

I looked at Mama when she finished speaking. Although the sun was still sweltering, I could see the goosebumps that had risen on her arms. Her eyes were wide and her cheeks were shining with wetness.

“Mama, are you okay?”

“Did you hear what I said? Do you understand what I mean?” she asked.

“Yes, Mama, I believe I did.”

She smiled a small smile, one of those that didn’t reach her eyes. “Then I am great. Now let’s head inside and figure out what to fix for tonight’s supper. A big girl like you should start learning the ways of the kitchen.” I beamed up to Mama, her serious life lesson tucked away at the idea of learning to cook for the family.

Even now, decades years later, I can feel the sweat on my forehead and the sun’s heat encompassing me as I look into the mirrored reflection in the darkness of the night. I can still remember my childlike understanding as my mother was trying to teach me an adult lesson. It was one I held onto, the most important one, as she had told me that August day. I followed her words as I accepted a man into my life and then lost him from it in a flash of a moment. I kept it close to my heart as I gave our daughter the support she needed to find her own successes.

Even today, I could hear Mama’s lesson echo through my head as I laid her into the earth, to her final resting place. All of her words of that sweltering summer’s day rushed back to me like waves crashing on a beach.

I look into the eyes to the soul of the reflection in the dark window and know that the time had come to pull those dreams back out. It is the time to take the steps to become me again.

Category: Featured, Short Story, SNHU Creative Writing, SNHU online creative writing, SNHU Student