I’m writing onboard Amtrak’s Acela train, headed to see Dustin in Washington, D.C. Note: If you happened to be anywhere near us on this trip, I apologize.
The boys and I boarded the train from Boston’s South Station, where no one in their right mind wanted to be seated next to us. With our pile of bags, blankets, toys and Lindell, who was already wearing a monkey shaped neck pillow and carrying his green stuffed duck named Lindiddy, we were virtual people repellant. This made grabbing a four-person seating arrangement with a table in the middle (prime real estate in train travel) easier.
We were in serious travel mode, with miniature and travel versions of every board game known to man and no short supply of coloring books and crayons. I thought other travelers would be, too.
However, it quickly became apparent to me onboard the train that we were in the presence of 9-to-5 business professionals traveling along the northeast corridor for important meetings and exciting weekend plans. They wore suits and high heels. They carried sleek briefcases and messenger bags. They talked on their smartphones. And few of them made use of the luggage bins at the front of the car or compartments overhead. They were traveling light.
The boys and I were loaded down like pack mules, and we occupied our seats like we were moving in. Coloring books, electronics, board games, snacks and more stuffed animals spilled out of my bag. Lindell curled up with his blanket and monkey neck pillow. Ford and Owen fought over the snacks. Bodily functions were proudly announced and quickly shushed by me.
The train hadn’t even left the station yet.
Passengers who had just settled down beside us quietly moved away when they realized.
Late boarders thought they had scored: a whole car nearly empty and with seats free for the taking. Soon, these travelers smiled sheepishly and pretended to see someone they knew in an adjacent car before slinking away.
The boys and I stretched out in our space, a wide buffer surrounding us that no one in a suit dared to penetrate.
We unpacked more goodies and games.
Lindell said he felt sick to his stomach.
Travelers moved farther away.
As we went south, however, the train grew more crowded and unsuspecting travelers were forced to sit beside us. One young lady and her boyfriend with trendy black shoes slid into the seats across from us. If they didn’t already have birth control, they were about to get it. We were like animals in a zoo for them. I’m not sure the boyfriend, in particular, had ever seen so many primary colors and plastic toys.
I ignored the man’s gawking as best I could, even as I increasingly felt embarrassed and, well, just plain regular. There was nothing fancy about the way the boys and I were traveling. I was even wearing flannel.
When the twinkling New York City skyline came into view outside our window, the kids gasped and pressed their faces against the window. This, of course, only encouraged more parallels with a zoo.
The boys have never been to New York City.
“I think that’s the Empire State Building,” Owen said.
“No, it can’t be,” Ford said. “The Empire State Building is bigger.”
“No, that’s it. I know it is. I’ve seen it in the movie Elf.”
The man across from us smirked and looked away. I sighed. We had come so close to not mentioning Elf or SpongeBob SquarePants. Now we just looked silly.
By 10:00 p.m., the boys had curled up in their seats as best they could and started to fall asleep. Lindell drooled on his monkey neck pillow, and Ford’s cheek was pressed against the glass. Games and half-eaten snacks littered the table.
I tried to make eye contact with the man across from us. I wanted to smile knowingly, as if to say, “I’m sorry,” and “They’re only kids. It’s their first time on a train. They’re a little excited.” But the man never looked back. Each time one of the boys mumbled in their sleep or briefly snored, he rolled his eyes and sighed loudly.
The man couldn’t get out of his seat quicker when the conductor called their stop. He nearly ditched his girlfriend in order to not miss the chance to leave. I waved goodbye to him as Lindell snored softly, mouth open and drooling, on my shoulder.
For the rest of the trip, I alternated between feeling depressed about our current state of affairs — I was “that” mom on public transportation — and responsible for reducing the world’s potential birth rate.
Then, at D.C.’s Union Station, as the boys and I came through the gate with all our gear in tow, I spotted Dustin. He was smiling like he hadn’t seen us in years. He ran to hug the kids and me. He grabbed the drool-soaked neck pillow without flinching. He reached out to hold grubby hands.
And it was at that precise moment that an old cliche finally made sense to me: My three wide-eyed, sticky-mouthed and tired kids were a vision that perhaps only a mother and father could love.
Maine author and columnist Sarah Smiley’s writing is syndicated weekly to publications across the country. She and her husband, Dustin, live with their three sons in Bangor. She may be reached at www.Facebook.com/Sarah.is.Smiley.