I admit I’m an awful traveler. I love being other places, but getting there? SHUDDER. I am especially bad at air travel. I hate the cattle-call feel of airport terminals. I hate wending my way through security lines that take twice longer than they should because people don’t follow instructions. I hate the hurry up and wait feeling of getting to the gate and the inevitable jockeying to board fast to score overhead space. And I especially hate sitting next to less-than desirable seat mates—the non-stop talker, the heavy breather, and the snorer. By the time I buckle myself in, I usually find myself in a graceless state, fuming at humanity’s stupidity and ordering the strongest spirit in the beverage cart.
I recently took a trip to Phoenix. I was meeting my sister-in-law there, so flying solo. Without my husband's presence to shame me out of my poor travel attitude, I was, to put it mildly, in a state. I was fuming and crabby and, I can only assume, showing it. I grumbled my way to the back of the plane, irritated by the smug, calm countenances of the people in first class. I settled into my seat and stuck my nose into my guilty pleasure gossip magazine. While trying to wall myself off with Blake Shelton and Gwen Stefani, I was jostled by at least three families with young kids, each seated around me in a radius that ensured I would not get through the flight scream-free. Blake and Gwen couldn’t protect me from the loud kid chatter, the 64 crayons dropped at my feet or the parents cursing under their breath as they struggled to shove Dora the Explorer luggage overhead.
I had sunk to a new low of travel funk because I normally have great empathy for families traveling with young kids. My sons were young enough that I still experienced the occasional kid-travel flashback. I’ve flown with sons with ear pain, distaste for all toys brought for the trip and fury at having to leave their 10 favorite stuffies at home. I’m usually the one with a reassuring smile and a few kind words for harried parents on planes. Truly, I am. But that day, empathy was gone. I find that every nine to twelve months I need at least 72 hours of no interaction with anyone under the age of 21 to maintain optimum sanity. I was long overdue. This long weekend with my sister-in-law was a getaway that I really needed. While I knew I’d miss my boys, I also knew that life would be much improved after I’d had some me time. I’ll also say that living with my two sons and husband can sometimes feel like I’m living in a locker room/testosterone-fest. This weekend was going to be all about spas, shopping and froofy drinks. I didn’t actually run, but I might have trotted out of the house that morning to get into the cab that would whisk me away from the madness. The last thing I wanted on this flight was to hear or interact with children.
Of course, the universe wasted no time in doling out the comeuppance for my awful attitude, by placing a young mom and her three-year-old son as my two seat mates. Oh, and her one-year-old daughter was to fly in her lap.
You can't do anything but laugh when the universe sticks it to you that quickly. So I smiled at the young mom and held her over-sized diaper bag for her as she arranged her kids and got settled. The little girl had a particularly bright smile with a wide-open face. She locked on to me with such an earnest eagerness that, despite myself, I tucked my gossip rag into the seat-back pocket.
As she reached past her mom’s restraining arms to make a grab for my sparkling earring, I remembered a story I’d heard the night before. My husband and I had gone to dinner with good friends. They attend an interfaith family school with their children on weekends, determined to raise their family on a strong foundation of both Catholicism and Judaism. They heard a holocaust survivor speak at a recent program put on by the school.
Now as a 44-year-old Jew, I thought I’d heard all of the variations of holocaust stories that there were to tell. While the horror is truly unimaginable, I thought I at least understood the parameters of it. But this story knocked me for a loop. The speaker told my friend of one of the youngest survivors, only four-years-old when he went to the camp. The child was separated from his parents, who were immediately sent to the gas chamber, while he was taken through the gates into the camp proper. When I think of concentration camps, I first think of physical hunger and deprivation. My friend teared up telling me about how the emaciated Jews clamored to hold the child as he came through the gates. They had been deprived of youth and innocence for so long, they ran to it—nearly fought over it—when it arrived in the form of this boy. By the end of her story, I was crying too. Here we were: a Jew and a Catholic in a fancy Italian restaurant crying over the treasure of children and the essence of spirit they hold. The thought of being deprived of that was a torture that had never occurred to me.
You can probably guess that I spent a good part of the flight to Phoenix playing with and holding that little girl. I also felt a radiating appreciation for my boys, rowdy and wild and loud as they are. But mostly, I felt grateful for knowing that most days you can find a bit of beshert—something God has given you—in what feels like comeuppance if you’re open to it.