Friday, May 14, 2010

Train Lovers

By Cheryl-Anne Millsap
Special to The Spokesman-Review
Home Planet
May 13, 2010

The thing about going somewhere is that, if you’re lucky, you have someone to tell goodbye. Someone who is sad to see you go.

It’s the same coming home. For the fortunate, there is someone there to welcome you. Someone who missed you and is happy to see you again.

It used to be that when you sat at the gate in an airport, waiting to depart, you got to witness all kinds of goodbyes and hellos. You could see men and women rush into one another’s arms when a plane landed. You witnessed tender embraces, last kisses and that lingering brush of hands at departure, palm against palm then fingertip to fingertip, prolonging the separation until the last possible moment.

Now, as any flier - frequent or not - knows, most hellos and goodbyes are said at the curb. A wave, a quick kiss and out of the no-parking lane as fast as possible. From that point on all passengers are the same. Stressed. Suspicious. Caught in the machine that air travel has become.

But, if you travel by train, ah, well then, you see it all.

Train stations are still places of hand-holding and long goodbyes. Of people running into embraces and the loud chatter of reunion.

Sometimes, on the train, you see other stories, as well.

Sitting in the observation car of the Empire Builder, watching the Columbia river roll past, I noticed a woman sitting across the car. She was on her cell phone, talking to someone. The connection was spotty so occasionally the call was lost and she would have to punch in the numbers again. What held my attention was the tone of her voice. It was so high and cheerful I assumed she must be talking to a child. But, then I realized I was wrong.

“What did you do today,” she asked. The voice on the other end of the signal must have talked about a project of some kind.

“Well, it was sweet of you to do that,” she said. “You are a sweet man, you know. That’s why you’re my husband.”

Paying more attention, I could hear the brittle edge in her voice. She wasn’t quite as cheerful as she sounded.

They talked a minute or two more and the signal was lost again. Finally she ended the call by making a kissing sound into the phone.

I went back to my book and was immediately lost in the novel. The next time I looked up and glanced over at the woman, she was still sitting in the same place but was now snuggled up against a man. Her head rested on his chest, under the curve of his left arm and his right hand was on her knee. They were silent, staring out the window at the sunset.

For a moment, I was confused. I’d heard her talking to her husband just a few minutes before. A man who was obviously far away. And now, suddenly, he was there beside her.

But, of course, he wasn’t.

I realized that the silent couple, lost in their own thoughts, must be lovers. At least one of them, the woman, had another life. He wasn’t wearing a ring.

There was a sadness to the way they sat so close together, touching, thinking. I tried not to watch them but I was captured by the tableau. The miles passed.

After a while, when the sunlight disappeared and the only thing in the window was one’s own reflection, an uncomfortable image to stare into, they got up and walked back to their seats.

I don’t know if they stayed on the train or got off at my stop.

In the business of arrival, gathering bags and departing the train in the dark, I forgot to look for the couple. I don’t know where they went.

I can only imagine her, carrying her bags, walking away from the man on the train, palms brushing, fingertips touching, into the arms of the man on the phone.

On a plane, they wouldn’t have had the time to sit, holding one another. On a plane, I wouldn’t have noticed them at all.

Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a freelance columnist for The Spokesman-Review. Her audio essays can be heard each week on Spokane Public Radio and are frequently picked up by public radio stations across the country. She is the author of “Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons” and can be reached at

Thursday, May 13, 2010

The Ties That Bind

Cheryl-Anne Millsap
Special to The Spokesman-Review
May 11, 2010

Slipping into a parking spot across the street from the high school, I turned off the engine and waited for my daughter to come out the door.

Enjoying the quiet of the car, a welcome respite from the noise of a busy day, lulled by the warm sun made even warmer by the window, I relaxed as I watched the students as they gathered outside. Some were waiting for rides others were just socializing, happy to be released.

I noticed a pair on the corner, a girl and a boy who couldn’t have been more than freshmen. They still had the fresh, slightly awkward look of of a pair of leggy, yearling colts.

They were standing close together, and I could see that they were both focusing on something in the boy’s hands. Then, I noticed the cord dangling from their ears and I realized they were sharing the earphones for the boy’s iPod. His music was hers. While she studied the screen of the music player, the boy studied her. When she glanced up, he looked away, embarrassed to be caught. Occasionally she risked a peek at him, through her lashes, quick and surreptitious. It was a dance of glances.

He kept looking out at the street, scanning the cars going by, watching for his ride. He must have seen it coming because he quickly said something to the girl and reclaimed the earphone, coiling it and stuffing it into his pocket. Then, a bit stiffly, he leaned over and wrapped his arms around the girl. She returned the embrace.

They looked like a couple stepping out onto the dance floor for a first slow dance. There was a bit of hesitation, a slight distance between their bodies that hinted of first kisses and sweaty palms. When his mother pulled up to the curb he hurried to the car and they drove away.

The girl, clutching her books to her chest in the way of schoolgirls in the movies and romance novels, turned to walk down the hill. As she hurried toward her own ride, for a moment, she forgot herself and skipped one little skipping step, like the little girl she had been not so very long ago. She got into her mother’s car and away they went.

Watching my own daughter make her way to me I thought about the scene I had just watched. About the way the pair had been tethered, sharing a single pulse of music, shoulder to shoulder sneaking peeks at one another, before joining their mothers.

I thought about the women who were even at that moment asking “How was your day?” and “What did you do today?” and getting only shrugs and noncommittal grunts in return.
I glanced over at my own child as she grunted and shrugged at my questions.

I realized then that each of us, the three women in a crowd of parents driving home with our silent, precious, adolescent cargo, on some level, still believes that the cord that bound us to our offspring is still intact. A spider’s silk umbilicus of love and worry and pride.

But what we haven’t thought about is who might be replacing us at the other end of that thread. A girl. A boy. A new love. A new song.

Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a freelance columnist for The Spokesman-Review. She is the author of “Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons.” Her essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and public radio stations across the country.

The Sweetest Dance

Happy Mother’s Day. Another column from the archives…

The Spokesman-Review
June 5, 2006
Life’s tender moments dance into our hearts
Cheryl-Anne Millsap
Staff writer

The dance starts before we are born.

Babies wait in the dark, moving in time to the beat of a mother’s heart and with the rhythm of her steps.

As newborns and infants, they curl, warm and safe in our arms. We hold them close and sway unconsciously from side to side, in the ancient, instinctive movement that soothes a child.

In a few months, when they find their feet, they jump and bounce, squealing with pleasure.

Of all the tender moments I have shared with my children, I think I’ll remember the dancing the most.

I loved it.

Supported by my hands around their sturdy bodies, they danced in my lap, pushing into the air. Their bright, round, full-moon faces smiled at me as they chewed on fat little fingers. Laughter bubbled up out of them.

Together, we took baby steps with lullabies and nursery rhymes.

As toddlers they reached up to me, stepped up on my toes and wrapped their arms around my knees or held tightly to my fingers as I waltzed around the room.

We giggled and wiggled with silly tunes from Sesame Street.

We boogied with pop music on the radio in the kitchen and danced jigs around the house listening to old bluegrass tunes and folk songs.

Some nights, they came to me quietly, slipped their arms around my waist, and we swayed to Frank Sinatra, Miles Davis, Etta James and Diana Krall, moving slowly around the living room. There was comfort – given and taken – in the embrace.

And love. Love set to music.

Occasionally, when we were feeling silly, we tangoed. Or we moved like Apache dancers across the room, dipping low at the finale.

We twirled and pirouetted to Tchaikovsky. We were the graceful Swans in Swan Lake.

Then, one by one, my children outgrew me.

One by one they let go of my fingers and my knees and my waist. Now my son towers over me. Even my daughters are taller than I am.

Now, only my youngest, almost 11 and almost eye-to-eye, will occasionally, absent-mindedly, step up on my feet and signal she wants to move.

I’ll twirl us around the room for a minute before she pulls away to go up to her room or outside to play.

I’m back to being a wallflower.

It’s OK. No one dances with their mother forever.

Or do they? When you think about it, it’s all a dance.

From the moment they’re conceived, we skip to the tune our children play. After they’re born, even when they’re standing on our feet, they’re really leading us.

Anyone who has raised a teenager knows how it feels to be outmatched; out of time with music you can’t even hear, trying to keep up with fancy footwork. As the years pass, as I grow old, the choreography will change but we’ll still be dancing.

Children grow up and away. That’s what life is all about. Making your way, holding on to others until you’re strong enough and steady enough, and the music comes through clear enough, to make it by yourself.

If you’re lucky, you find a partner. And it starts all over again.

Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a freelance columnist for The Spokesman-Review. She is the author of “Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons.” Her essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and public radio stations across the country.

Appalachian Tale

Cheryl-Anne Millsap
Special to The Spokesman-Review
Home Planet
May 7

Taking the red-eye morning flight, I watched the watery April sun rise in the sky as I left the Inland northwest and flew across the country.

My work took me east, but there was another, stronger, pull. I needed to see the mountains again. Not the jagged, new mountains of the west. But the old, old mountains of the east.

I spent two days driving though the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. And in some ways, it was two days spent driving through my own head.

Mile after mile, the familiar landmarks caught my eye. I haven’t been in the area for years but I was surprised by the instant recognition. I had no idea how deeply, and how permanently, the scenery - the mountains and rivers and coves, the tumbledown cabins and ruins of old farms and homesteads - had been etched into my mind. Passing the traditional National Park signs, reading the road signs, with their poetic names like Nantahala, Pisgah, Maggie Valley, Cades Cove and Cherokee, I was lost in the traces of other journeys.

As a child, on family road trips, in the days before seat belts, I daydreamed in the back of the family station wagon, winding along the serpentine roads, following the curves of the ancient mountains covered with dense forests. My grandfather loved the Smoky Mountains and whenever possible he drove us there. Long weekend getaways meant a midnight departure so that we could reach the park just as the sun rose. In the summer, the car was packed with the big canvas tent, Coleman stove and cooler, folding aluminum lawn chairs and a big iron skillet; all the necessary equipment for a week or two of camping by Deep Creek.

In my memory, the mountains were deep and dark and mysterious. Clouds rested in valleys between peaks and we often drove right through them as we climbed. Lush green undergrowth crowded the narrow roads and the air fell cool and moist through the open window onto my upturned face.

Later, as a new bride, married to a man who’d spent his own time exploring the Appalachian forests, I returned. Our honeymoon was a pilgrimage to the mountains and we spent the first week of our marriage hiking the trails and driving the scenic roads.

Then, a few years later, when the children came along, we carried them to the mountaintops, as if to hold them up and show the Gods what we had created.
And now, well into middle-age, with an almost empty nest and a marriage as weathered and tested as any granite face, I had to go back. I wanted to meet the mountains on my own terms.

So, I drove. And I looked out the windows at a landscape that changed has very little while I have changed so much. I leaned into familiar hairpin curves meeting my own history in the tight turns. I turned my face up to the gentle spring rain. I surrendered to the ghosts.

Flying home at the end of the week, I looked out the airplane window and thought about the impact the Smoky Mountains have had on my life. Tall and quiet and filled with tradition, they are the shadowy guardians of my sweetest memories.

Now, a continent away, I live between two different mountain ranges. To the west, the Cascades throw up their snowy peaks and sleeping volcanoes. To the east, the Rockies, a great wall of razored stone, claim the horizon. They are signposts whenever I travel around the region I now call home.

But deep inside me, in the secret place the little girl, the bride and the new mother still live, a range of rolling, hazy mountains own the landscape.

As my plane approached and the patchwork of land beneath the wing grew closer and closer until we touched down, I was glad to be back. But I was equally grateful to have had another chance to go back to the old places, the old mountains, to follow my own Appalachian Trail.

Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a freelance columnist for The Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Washington. She is the author of “Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons,” and her essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio as well as public radio stations across the country.

Swept Away

Cheryl-Anne Millsap
Special to The Spokesman-Review
April 14, 2010

I was busy with other things. My mind was on early spring chores like clearing away the winter clutter of boots, shovels and mate-less mittens; sweeping last year’s bitter-end-of-autumn leaves and pine needles off the patio; tidying up the garden getting it ready to plant again, to fill with new green growth.

I certainly had enough to think about.
But, suddenly, when I wasn’t paying attention, while my back was turned, a longing for the ocean swept over me in a wave of pure desire. Scraps of memory, images of other trips to the coast, distracted me and tripped me up. I lost my forward momentum. I lost my place.

I don’t know what happened. Maybe it was the basket of stones I’ve gathered on past trips that sits in a corner of the patio. They’re always there but I do forget to stop and look at them. Maybe it was the way the wind whipped at my hair and pulled at my clothes while I worked, the way it does at the shore.

All I know is that in an instant, I didn’t want to putter around the house anymore. I just wanted to get in the car and drive until I hit the edge of the continent.

Now, all I can think of is getting to the wild and rugged Pacific coast. I want to run away to a favorite cottage tucked into the hillside of a quiet little town. Just for for a few days.

I didn’t realize I was so hungry for solitude. Now, I am craving time to myself to walk on the beach with the sound of the waves in my ears and the sting of the wind against my skin. I want the luxury of sitting by the fire, my hands wrapped around my coffee cup, beside a window that overlooks a wide horizon of endless water and sky. I want time to think. To solve problems. To make resolutions. To surrender to an ancient and inescapable rhythm.

A long time ago, I fell in love with the Oregon coast. And like any true love, it never goes away for long.
I was busy when I drifted into daydreams about the sand and the waves. My hands were occupied when my mind caught the current and was pulled out to sea. For days now, as I do all the things that are expected of me, as I work and drive and put meals on the table, my mind has been miles away watching clouds scuttle across the sky and sea birds wheel and dive.

The idea of running away surprised me and wrapped its arms around me. Why should I resist? Why shouldn’t I turn around and return the kiss?
So, my calendar is open with red circles around empty squares. The number of the rental agent is on my phone.
The sea is calling me. And I could never play hard to get.

Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a freelance columnist for The Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Washington. She is the author of “Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons,” and her essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio as well as public radio stations across the country. She can be reached at