When Karen Borrell’s brother Phil suggested a family cruise from Montreal along the St. Lawrence River, she declined at first, and then decided to meet him and his wife after their cruise, traveling with them by train to their childhood home in rural New York. But two months before the trip, she broke her foot and was walking with a brace. Things got worse from there. Fortunately, modern cell phones came to the rescue. Shared Stories is a weekly column featuring articles by participants in a writing class at the Norwalk Senior Center. Bonnie Mansell is the instructor for this free class offered through the Cerritos College Adult Education Program. Curated by Carol Kearns
By Karen Borrell
My reunion with my friend Liz in Montreal was all that we hoped for, except that the very next day, I felt the ache and warnings in my body that signaled I was fighting some invasion. I was determined to ignore it as best I could and not put a damper on our time together.
We enjoyed our outings, touristing the libraries and museums, but I lost my voice by the second evening. After the next day I had a sore throat and a growing heavy cough.
On the day of my brother’s arrival, Liz took me early in the morning to the train station where I would meet Phil and his wife after their cruise. The three of us would go by train to Albany before renting a car and driving to our childhood home in the Adirondacks.
At the station, I left Liz watching my luggage at intervals while I strode up and down, looking for Phil and Gail who were to meet me there at 9:00 AM. No sign of them.
Finally I got a baggage carrier who checked my ticket and led me down the stairs to the right train, the right car, and put my luggage in place. I kept stepping out of the train, hoping to see Phil and Gail arriving. I finally spoke to the conductor, who led me through the whole length of the train while I scanned the passengers for my family.
Then the conductor said, “We leave in two minutes; are you going or staying?” I told him I would stay. In my mind I thought the ship must be late coming into Montreal, and decided the best thing for me to do was to continue with the plan, and somehow they would catch up with me in Albany.
The October scenery outside my window was all that I had looked forward to: lakes, rivers, mountains, and vibrant yellows and oranges with an occasional flash of bright red, and many shades of green. It was beautiful. Only an infrequent house or two broke up the landscape. What a lovely change from my city life.
But I was concerned as to the whereabouts of Phil and Gail. I had wild thoughts that they would hire a cab, and try to catch up with the train. Or maybe they would hire a light plane and meet me in Albany.
After crossing the border into the United States, I got a text message from Phil. Clearly unaware of my situation, he said that their ship would dock tomorrow morning!! He and Gail would meet me at the Montreal train station, gate 58, at 9:00 AM the next day. I was on the train a day early!!
Fortunately, he also mentioned that they decided to take the train to Schenectady, New York, instead of going to Albany. I panicked, jumped out of my seat and began running through the cars, fighting with the heavy safety doors until I finally found the conductor. He calmly assured me that this was no problem and no change in price.
When my blood pressure came down, I looked up hotels in Schenectady on my iPhone. I thought it might be nice to stay downtown where I remembered I used to shop on special occasions, and where my other brother Ric had attended Union College.
There were two choices. One hotel was $215/night and the other was $70/night. In an economically depressed city, I decided the cheaper one would be okay.
I texted my plan to my brother and then had time to think about how I had made such a mistake as boarding the train a day early. Why hadn’t I noticed that the date was wrong? Lizzy hadn’t noticed it either, nor had the baggage carrier, the conductor, or the border patrol when they were checking my papers. How had I skipped an entire day?
When we reached Schenectady, passengers stepped out onto a platform with stairs. I struggled down two flights with my large suitcase and my flight bag. I was still sick and my head was pounding. A man at a small desk downstairs called a cab for me, but it took almost an hour for the cab to arrive.
By now it was almost 6:00 PM, and the short ride to my hotel brought me to a shabby neighborhood with people sitting outside on their porches. They were sitting on dilapidated steps, smoking something that I suspected was illegal.
My cab pulled up in front of a building with a small glass door, and a sign blinking, “Open, Open!” The pleasant driver placed my luggage inside the door. Stepping up to the window, I saw a woman ironing and two small children playing near her.
I told her I had reserved a room, but she but couldn’t find any trace of my transaction in her computer. As she continued looking, a very scroungy man came into the small office, popped a wrapped object into the small microwave, efficiently heated its contents, grabbed it and left for the street again.
The lady saw that I was wearing an Om charm on my necklace. She told me that she was from India (which I had already guessed), and I told her that I had been there and it was a very interesting visit for me. She seemed delighted and quickly assured me that there was a room for me and gave me one on the first floor. This was very fortunate for me because it turned out that there was no elevator.
Room 132 turned out to be very decent and clean! The bathroom fixtures were all recent and immaculate.
By now I needed something to eat, and the manager told me there were places “down the hill.” Putting my coat on over my purse, I started to walk, avoiding eye contact with the porch people along the way. I worried if I would be able to make it back up the hill.
Finally I saw the Union College campus, and then the edge of downtown. Ahead was the Proctor Theater that I had attended years ago. Its marquee was still blinking, advising patrons of that evening’s production. Across the street was an Italian restaurant with outside seating.
The sun was still warm, so I sat outside enjoying my meal. The waiter packaged up what I could not finish, and I headed back to the hotel up the hill. It was difficult and I stopped to rest often. By now I knew that I had a fever and was really quite ill.
I tried to look my best whenever I passed a curious individual. It was getting dark, and I was the only person who looked like me and my age. I wanted to look like I knew what I was doing and where I was going. I walked passed the porch people who appeared not to have moved since I first crossed their paths.
Safely back in my hotel room, I pushed the blinds against the window with a sweater, wheeled my suitcase against the locked door, and shoved an arm chair behind that. After calling my husband to tell him about my mistake with the dates, I went to bed, falling asleep almost immediately.
Phil texted me the next morning that they would rent a car and pick me up in the afternoon, so I headed for the office and my “Continental” breakfast.
The lady manager was busily waving a smoking stick of incense around the different gods that decorated the walls, and I smelled the agreeable scent that was so much a part of my memories in India. She greeted me pleasantly, and we chatted about the importance of acknowledging the deities.
Breakfast turned out to be minimal. There was coffee, but no cream or milk. I took one of the two English muffins that had been set out, and she gave me some jelly packets. Before leaving I asked about the charge for staying later than the 11 a.m. checkout time. I paid it and headed back to my room, where I fell back to sleep despite having the coffee. Later I ate the cold leftovers from last night’s dinner.
About 3 p.m. there was a knock at the door. It was the husband and manager. He said I had to leave, that my time was up! I told him that I had expected to be gone by now, that my brother was late but would be arriving any minute. I knew that the train did not arrive until after 4 p.m., but I wasn’t going to tell the manager that. Fortunately, he walked back to the office.
Trying to make things look better, I put my suitcases outside my door, as if my departure was imminent. Then I sat on the bed and waited.
At 4:30 p.m. the manager came back to ask what was happening. I told him that my brother had arrived and was on his way, but that he told me he got lost. The manager just shook his head, but he was very decent to me.
At 5 p.m. he appeared once more, just as my brother arrived! All was well!
Reunited at last, Phil, Gail, and I quickly left Schenectady behind and soon approached Amsterdam, where my family had lived for about seven years. We passed familiar streets and places, commenting on different memories, not stopping, but full of all the good and bad that flashed in our separate thoughts, some mentioned, others not. There were changes, but the city was still alive and surviving the loss of Mohawk Carpet Mills, the large broom factory that my friend Sylvia’s father owned, the pearl button factory, and Chalmer’s Knitting Mill.
We stopped for a nostalgic supper at a familiar diner on the north edge of the city, and then wound our way up the country roads to the mountains and the cabin we would be staying in. Marion, a long time friend, greeted us. The cabin was stocked with snacks and drinks we might want.
Marion was a city girl who met and married my brother’s very best friend Paul. Paul was from generations of hunters and rural-survivors. After their children were grown and gone, Paul and Marion retired from teaching at an upstate university, and took over his parent’s rental cabins on the lake. Grandma Wilbur, his mom, had lived to be 101 years old.
Marion greeted us with a huge breakfast in her home the next morning. Phil had knocked on my door in the middle of the night, concerned about my coughing. I was determined not to ruin the time for any of us, and did everything I could to pretend I was not that bad.
I was so happy to be there, and I’m sure that helped. As we sat at breakfast, plans were made for our short five-day visit. It would be a whirlwind of remembrances.