Rescuing Grandma

Chocolate Can Kill (Emily Harris Mysteries) by Annie Acorn

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It was two weeks before Christmas and all through our small house, everyone was stirring, and there was no quiet around.  Finally, we all settled into our seats at the dining room table for Sunday dinner, Richard, my first real boyfriend, a welcomed guest.

The previous day, we had decorated our live tree, cleaned the house thoroughly, and completed more of our Christmas baking.  The nativity was displayed on the credenza with care, and a wreath had been hung upon our front door for my paternal grandmother and great-aunt had boarded an L&N train that very morning and were chugging along the tracks as we ate on their way to join us.

Life has a way of surprising you, though.  Just as we had all settled down to our plates full of food, the wall phone in the kitchen cried out for attention.  Father arose from his seat, his silverware hitting his plate with a clatter.

“But how could that happen?” We heard him ask in the kitchen.  “So when is the next one?”

Silently, we waited, our forks poised at the ready.

“Stay where you are.  Cincinnati’s a big city.  I’ll find out when to pick you up, and I’ll be there to get you.”  And with this, he hung up.

The train my grandmother and great-aunt had boarded in Columbus had been delayed by a huge storm in the Chicago area.  Consequently, they had missed their connection in Cincinnati and were now waiting for the next train that would be heading our way.

The atmosphere slightly more sober, we finished our repast and cleared the table as Father checked on what would be their new schedule.  Realizing they would actually arrive at our home quicker, if we drove to Cincinnati and retrieved them, a new plan was hatched.  Richard, a senior in high school, volunteered to help drive.  Mother packed sandwiches, chips, and some of our fresh-baked Christmas cookies, as we donned our coats and warm gloves – it being in East Tennessee that year unseasonably chilly.

My father called the train station to let the travelers know that we were coming.  Twice they were paged to no avail.  Hanging up the receiver, his face filled with concern, he turned to my mother.

“You go ahead and get started,” she said.  “I’ll keep trying.”

And so it was that Father, Richard, and me headed out of town towards the Cumberland Mountains.  This was pre-interstate, pre-power steering, pre-power brakes.  We considered ourselves lucky to have heat and a radio in our green and white, tank-like Mercury Monterey with its push button transmission and jingle bells hanging from the rear view window by a red ribbon.

When we left the sun was shining.  By the time we reached Kentucky, having successfully negotiated the 24 miles of curvy road, by which I mean hairpins, gray clouds had begun to float in.  Still, we were making good time, and at this point, Richard took over the driving.

“It should take us about five hours total to get there,” Father informed us.

As usual, I was in charge of the map and followed our progress.  We all three sang along with Christmas carols that poured from the radio, each song sung marking off several miles.  As we approached Cincinnati, large snowflakes began to fall, quickly beginning to accumulate along the side of the road.

“Sleigh bells ring,” we all crooned, our faces filled with smiles.

Coming over a hill, we caught our first glimpse of the train station that always reminded me of a huge antique radio.  Entering the vast, high-ceilinged building, the first thing we heard was my grandmother and great-aunt being paged – a sign that Mother had been unable to reach them.

Worry immediately filled Father’s face as he searched the huge open space for his mother and aunt.  A few seconds later we located them – sitting upright and still on the first of many long pew-like benches, calm smiles on their faces, another elderly woman perched right beside them.

Father hurried towards them as their faces lit up.  “Didn’t you hear the operator calling your names?” he asked as they hugged him.  “Mary must be trying to reach you.”

“Of course, we heard it!” Grandmother immediately exclaimed.  “How nice of you to let us know you were thinking of us all afternoon!”

“You mean you never responded to the page?” Disbelief had replaced worry on my father’s face.

“Were we supposed to?” My great-aunt piped in.  “Should we have said, ‘Thank you?’”

Upon learning that the woman beside them had been on the same train as theirs and had also missed her connection, Father with change jingling in his pocket headed for a bank of pay phones to make two calls – one to my mother, whose dialing finger was surely swollen beyond all recognition, to reassure her and one to the woman’s family in Lexington.

“If they would meet us at a specific point on the road, he would bring the husband’s mother to them,” Father told them.

Relieved, they quickly agreed, this being a time in which one easily trusted strangers.

The large station windows clearly revealed that the snowflakes, now smaller, were falling faster, and we quickly loaded the three ladies’ luggage into the trunk.  Father held the door, and my great-aunt took the middle seat in the back with the other two women packed in nicely beside her – all three of them being rather pint-sized.

“On Dasher, on Dancer!” Father joked as we cleared the parking lot.

By now, it was dark, and the defroster was pressed into service to keep the outside world visible.  We all munched on sandwiches, chips and Christmas cookies as the occupants in the back seat related details of their various journeys.  Farmhouses sporting lighted decorations blinked us along our way.

We barely paused in Lexington to leave our new found friend with her family as the roads were beginning to get slick.  Hairpin curves in the Cumberland Mountains can be treacherous, and the mood in our vehicle sobered.  Outside the world became a blur of white snowflakes as the now fewer farmhouses had turned off their lights.

Wisely, Father pulled into a gas station in Corbin and purchased chains – $35 installed – an exorbitant price in 1963!

Chains on, gas tank full and ourselves refreshed, we again took to the road, it now being well after midnight.  Richard had done much of the driving on the way up, but Father was now well ensconced behind the steering wheel.

The windshield wipers metronomed away the miles as we slowly made headway until we were a few miles past Jellico on the 24 miles of curvy roads.  At this point, what traffic there was came to a screeching halt in our direction.  It was then that we noticed that no one was passing from the other way.

Father turned off the car, intermittently turning it back on for a few minutes to keep the women and children, as he put it, from freezing.  At some point while we waited, my head nodded onto Richard’s shoulder and his arm passed along the car seat behind me.  The world became warmer and more comfortable.

Slowly, news of the problem ahead traveled from car to car – a tractor-trailer rig had jackknifed and wedged itself beneath a railroad overpass several miles north of Lafollette in our direction.  Until traffic backed up far enough to reach a house with a phone, help couldn’t be summoned.  Finally, taillights up ahead indicated that the jam of vehicles was beginning to make its way slowly forward.

At 6:00 a.m, we dropped my grandmother and great-aunt off at our house and proceeded towards Richard’s, which was across town.  Having successfully delivered my knight in shining armor home, Father and I headed back along empty roads, a highly unusual eleven inches of snow blanketing our community – the result of what was being hailed on the radio as the storm of the decade.  Halfway to our goal, our car ran out of gas.

Resigned, Father left me alone and trudged a half mile to the nearest gas station, where he purchased a metal can and enough gas to enable us to reach the pumps.  Eighteen hours after we had set out, we finally returned home, our mission accomplished.

Having already fed and snuggled our visitors under warm Christmas quilts, Mother greeted us with a hot breakfast.  This we enjoyed before we both, utterly exhausted, fell into our respective beds.

Looking back on those eighteen hours of travel – almost to the day a half century later – I realize how many things I learned in those few short hours because of the experience.

You never know what awaits you around the next corner for one. A single phone call can make a huge difference is another. So much of life is a matter of chance – bad weather, a missed connection and life changes.

My grandmother and great-aunt, sitting upright and ready on the hard seat of the pew-like bench showed me grace and decorum that can, but often doesn’t accompany patience.  My father’s offer of a lift to a stranger was a wonderful example of how we should always be available to help others.  My new boyfriend’s shoulder gave me a treasured glimpse of what it would be like to lean on a man.

The cost of the chains taught me both that not everyone is nice and life isn’t always fair.  Father’s trudge through the snow explained why he had always insisted that we keep our tank half full, a lesson that translated itself further into such things as saving for a rainy day.  The tractor-trailer stuck under the overpass showed me clearly that just when you think you are well on your journey, Life can and often does find another way to delay you.

The most important lesson of all, though, was that no matter what time or effort is involved, having family join and surround you at the holidays is a pleasure worth fighting for.  Father and Mother, my grandmother and great-aunt are all gone now, but in my memories they remain.  What memories will you build within your family, church and/or community this season?

Merry Christmas!

Annie Acorn

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