Lessons in Grace - My Family Travels

My mother is terrified of flying.

Her feeling extends beyond fear into a kind of paranoia — a sickening feeling that humans were meant to be earth-bound, not to traverse the skies. Consequently, I have never been on a plane before, but horrific stories of crashes, hijackings, and bombings have quelled any thought of protest on my part.

Inconvenient, yes, but certainly justified.

For this reason, my sisters and I found ourselves headed to North Carolina on a 15-hour train ride. It was our first summer vacation in several years, and we were ecstatic. As we took our seats, an elderly woman looked up from her newspaper and offered a quiet smile.

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Her face was like a loaf of baked bread: brown and rough and creased, yet her dark eyes were soft and gentle. As we sat down, the woman tucked the newspaper away and folded her bony hands over her only baggage: a small, brightly-colored purse that sat in her lap.

“Y’all sisters?”

An innocent-enough question, one that I have fielded many times before.

“Yes, we’re each two years apart.”

“Oh. That’s nice.”

There was silence for a moment. Through the window, I watched the city of Manassas, Virginia glide by. Such a thin pane of glass separated the two worlds: the cool, small space inside the train and the sprawling landscape outside. One does not encounter much diversity in my small New England town, and I eagerly took in the new surroundings: the expanse of busy streets and historical buildings, steeped in antiquity. In my small town, the landscape feels as if it comes from the well-thumbed pages of a favorite book — so familiar that I have internalized it. The petite shops and businesses ease into sloping hills, dotted with white churches like cows on farmland. At times, my town feels so small, so predictable, that it seems as though it could be laid out in its entirety on the palm of my hand.

“Where y’all headed?”

I looked up, startled, into the woman’s keen gaze.

“Um, Raleigh, North Carolina.”

She nodded slowly, as if mulling over this last exchange.

“Your mom here?”

“No,” I replied, looking over my shoulder. I meant that she hadn’t come back from the bathroom yet, though I think the woman — Grace, we later learned was her name — had misunderstood. She shifted in her seat and a mixed look of trepidation and anger flooded her face.

“There are teenagers getting killed out there,” she muttered.

In response, I offered a slight nod and laughed uncomfortably, unsure of how else to react. In the distance, a baby let out a mournful wail; the man in seat behind us coughed. I edged toward my sisters and pretended to suddenly become immersed in Jane Eyre.

Grace persisted. Her voice trembled as it rose into a shrill, bird-like warble, “Getting killed everyday, out on the streets…Mmmm-hmmm. Y’all can’t go out there alone.” She sat back in her seat, rocking anxiously, her face overcome with uneasiness, her mind analyzing the situation and struggling to come up with a solution.

“Well,” she decided, her voice suddenly resolute, “My stop’s not too far from Raleigh. I’m coming with you.”

Shock became a palpable presence at that moment. I could not believe the beautiful, delicate kindness of this stranger. We thanked Grace but refused her offer just as my mom returned. She got off at her stop minutes later, but even after she was gone I still felt humbled and deeply touched by her graciousness. This profound experience is the most memorable of that trip.

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