My Grandmother passed away earlier this month and although I could not make it to her memorial service in upstate New York, I did send along the following anecdote to share with those attending. I will miss her but she lived a very full life and lives on in her stories.
Laura Kennedy, my Grandmother, was a great storyteller. She told her stories in such a way that you knew they were perfected over time, improved with each telling. They were so good that when you knew she was about to launch into one, you took it in and let it wash over you, knowing that you would hear something new and were guaranteed to be entertained. Here is one of my favorites.
I’m not sure when this story takes place. I do know she was in Europe and on her way to Japan so maybe it was when she set out to meet my mother’s parents for the first time before Dad married Mom. This would put us in the early 60’s.
Of course, traveling from Europe to Japan by airplane was way too efficient. My Grandmother lived in a different age. An age of steam and fur coats. Efficient modernity caused her nothing but trouble. I remember my uncle gifted her a new refrigerator once her old hulk gave out. This new fridge was gleaming and featured amenities such as water dispensed chilled from the doorway and an automatic ice machine that kept the bin in the freezer topped up. When Uncle Peter called a few days later to check in on his Mother to see how she liked the new gadget, she asked him exhaustively to get rid of the “infernal device” as she couldn’t get a wink of sleep. Probed further, she explained that she had to come downstairs at least every three hours to empty the ice bucket because she feared the freezer would overflow and jam up and the “thing just wouldn’t stop!”
No, a stratocruiser from Paris to Tokyo would not do. She preferred to travel under steam on the Trans-Siberian Railway out of Paris to Vladivostok and connect with a cruise ship to taker her around Honshu over to Yokohama. It was two weeks but she had time and probably was secretly looking forward to some time alone to indulge herself in some reading. In preparation, she brought along a boxes of books.
Two Weeks! She was going to improve her mind during the trip and I could imagine that she shoved in several weighty tomes, maybe she even had that entire series of Arabian Nights books that she had in the Blue Room. There was probably an Olivetti in a trunk somewhere as well just in case an inspiration struck her while rolling across the steppes. You know, no less than fifteen pieces of luggage, steamer trunks, probably several hat boxes. That’s how Grandma rolled. All steam and romance.
Of course, with the kind of convoy required to move such material, unless you were a logistical genius, you would be delayed getting from Point A to Point B. Grandmother was most definitely *not* a logistical genius. We’re talking about the lady that kept her manuscripts in the oven because, if there was ever a fire, “that would be the *one* place something wouldn’t burn. Creative, yes. But not very practical.
So of course she was late getting to the station in Paris and almost missed her train. She got there just in time, all flustered, found her carriage and eventually her compartment and began to arrange her things.
She was about to settle into her seat when she popped back up and thought about pulling down her first book. Like starting a delicious feast, where to begin? As she was about to sit back down when the train lurched and she dropped her glasses, which she had been holding in her hand, on the bench in front of her. As she fell forward, she spun around and landed with a plop into her seat, her legs thrown out from under her. She then heard a multi-faceted *crack* and *crinkle* and instantly knew what happened. She had sat on her glasses!
As she rose slowly to survey the damage and it was evident that the lenses were beyond repair. They were utterly destroyed, not just cracked but actually ground down, tiny shards of plastic, powder, and bent wire was all that remained. There was nothing that could be done. The train was now gaining speed and headed towards the outskirts of Paris, two weeks, fourteen days, 336 hours of rolling boredom lay before her.
The days dragged on. The green countryside of France gave way to the grey potato fields of Poland. In the evening it grew cold and she discovered there was a small crack up by the window that let the air in. Laura found that by chewing the rough Russian bread, she could soften it into a rough ball and use it to stuff the hole and stop the breeze. During the day, when it got hot, she would take out the bread dough to let some air in, and then repeat the process with some new bread each evening. Days went by as they rolled over the tundra – the image of Grandmother, staring at the fake wood-grain paneling on the walls of her train compartment, unable to see more than a grey smudge of sky over frost-covered fields, the sole highlight being the daily “filling of the hole” exercise still sticks with me as some kind of Kafka-esque punishment. Grandmother had hoped to read Russian novels during her trip, instead, she was living one!
Eventually, she fumbled her way to some of the other compartments. Realizing that her First Class cabin was really an isolation tank that would drive her insane. She made her way to the second and third class cars and ran across what she describes as a raucous carriage full of Russian cossacks. The trip was eventually salvaged by playing drinking games with the soldiers.
She may have been exaggerating. She always stretched the truth a bit. Maybe they weren’t really cossacks, maybe the glasses weren’t really broken. Who knows. I never really pushed her on it. It was the story and her joy in telling it that counted. And that’s the message.
You really don’t need vision to see.