Train Spotters

Claudette Sutton - September 13, 2009

Thursday, late afternoon. My mind is a big to-do list, with a few boxes still unchecked. I've just wrapped up a meeting, picked up my mail, run an errand in the Railyard and am heading to a friend's house to drop something off. Just as I'm about to turn left in front of REI, to cross the tracks and leave the Railyard when - ding, ding, ding, lights flashing - the Rail Runner approaches.

The crossing gates drop down. I wonder if I can still get out of here if I go straight, but before I can answer my own question I notice, out of the corner of my goal-obsessed eye, two people just outside my car: a big man and a little boy, about 2 years old. Their backs are to me, eyes on the approaching train.

I get it. Unlike me, they're not rushing to get anywhere. For the time being they are exactly where they want to be.
This is an apple and honey moment: a father and son waving at a train. The man hoists the boy onto his wide shoulders as easily as I'd lift a teddy bear. The white train with the big red roadrunner painted on its side chugs up slowly to the Santa Fe Depot. The man holds his son's legs to his chest as the boy's pudgy arm waves wildly, not an ounce of stress in his little curved back.

I remember times like this with own train-loving little boy, a couple decades ago. Sometimes on our way to preschool we'd hear the Santa Fe Southern coming in, horn blaring and bells clanging, and I'd zip around the Guadalupe area streets to see it up close as it arrived. On a lucky day we'd stop right in front of the crossing gate near Alvord School, for a full-on, unobstructed view. His early years were dotted with experiences of watching trains, garbage trucks, backhoes, front end loaders....

So I take the car out of gear and settle back, feeling suddenly privileged to be able to do nothing but watch. I'd love to freeze the moment (where's my camera? I left it at home), but as any parent will tell you, you can't stop time. It's a particularly hard message to ignore at this time of year. A few weeks ago my friend Nina's older daughter started kindergarten. Another friend's youngest son just entered sixth grade, the last year she'll have a child at the elementary school where her family has had children for 16 years straight. In two weeks, my son will get on a plane for Granada, Spain, for his junior year of college. My niece Emily just started college in New York; my nephew Michael just got his first apartment. Wherever we fall on the parenting spectrum, September seems to remind parents - no matter what we learned in science class - that time doesn't move at a consistent pace. Sometimes it zooms.

It doesn't take long for the train to pull up to the depot and the crossing bar to go back up. I'm vaguely disappointed to have to get back into my late afternoon rush. I catch one more, long look at the little boy in my rearview mirror as I drive off. I wish I could help this little boy always remember being perched on Dad's shoulders, waving at a train to beat the band. But I can't. A child's milestones seem to me this September afternoon like two-toned snapshots. There's the color of joy for present magic. There's a lighter tint of mourning, for moments suddenly past.

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