It has been awhile since I winged my way deep in the heart of a plane-load full of families to a summer vacation destination. And, I admit to being a little envious of those folks in the frequent-flier section who practice the art of indifference while the rest of us schlep past on our way to the double-digit rows. With the right attitude, however, there is a lot to be gained from tossing oneself into the great economy-class salad bowl of life.
Perhaps it is the magic of a long-anticipated holiday, or perhaps it is a paradox of unease and eagerness about venturing into the unknown, but travelers are generally a chatty group. They feel expansive. They want to share.
And when people share, every connection, every conversation is like stepping through the looking glass into another world, only the wonder of it is that when you get to the other side, it feels remarkably familiar.
On one leg of my journey, I sat next to two teenage girls flying back home to Birmingham, Ala., from camp. From them I learned that manners still matter as they punctuated each of their responses with, "Yes, ma'am," or "No, ma'am," in sweet Southern accents. In them I witnessed that universal quake of excitement and fear as they teetered on the brink of adulthood.
On another leg, I was determined to be annoyed by the man seated next to me as he overtook the armrest and immediately began shaking his knee. My agitation only lasted long enough for him to share that he was on his way to his mother's funeral. Like the Birmingham girls, he was also navigating one of life's most challenging transitions, the realization that he was going to spend the rest of his life without his mother in it. He was welcome to shake his knee as much as he needed.
When it came to sightseeing, one of the most memorable parts of the journey was the hour that my husband and I spent wandering through Robert Todd Lincoln's home with an Orthodox Jewish couple from Brooklyn. It began with a, "Would you mind taking our picture?" the common courtesy extended to fellow travelers that invites interaction, and continued with a shared walk to the observatory, restored Pullman Palace Car and, of course, the gift shop.
While strolling through pristine grounds on a white-fluffy-cloud day, we also sauntered through each other's lives, sharing stories of children and grandchildren, discovering commonalities at every bend in the path. Different coasts, different faiths, but there we were, four people, as comfortable with each other as old slippers.
Another highlight was the Blue Benn Diner in Bennington, Vt., one of those sacrosanct places where the 1950s have gone to live. The waitresses are appropriately no-nonsense, breakfast is served all day, and the patrons' glances linger just long enough on your face to register mild curiosity before their attention is drawn back to their thick coffee mugs.
If you follow the unwritten rules of diner dining order quickly, and never ever ask for substitutions then the waitress is likely to warm up a bit, and you discover that she is not all that different from the waitresses of the Mil's, Mel's and Merle's-like diners of California's Central Valley. And somehow that knowledge makes the world a gentler place in which to live.
On our last night before flying home, we had the good fortune to stay at a nondescript motel that had large-enough common areas to host family reunions. Fortunate, I say, because trading a few hours in an antiseptically aromatic room rewarded us with much more than life's salad bowl; we got to glimpse the whole buffet. Through the looking glass, we gathered images of generations relaxed back in plastic lawn chairs, assembled around tables strewn with half-empty wine bottles and playing cards; kids squealing as they jumped in and out of the pool with favorite cousins, making some of the most treasured memories of their childhoods. Those were life doesn't get any better than this moments for those families. And, it really doesn't.
I've got some pretty good photos as souvenirs of that vacation Fenway Park, the Berkshire Mountains, Fort Ticonderoga but the snapshots imprinted most vividly on my mind did not make the album. They are impressions of places of order and goodness, of people of curiosity and camaraderie, and of the hope engendered by the human desire to connect.
Susan Hart Snyder is a writer who lives in Rancho Murieta. Read more about her or contact her through her website at susanhartsnyder.com.