Both Sides of the Tracks

“My grandmother’s family was from Bohemia” Dan begins, “Czechoslovakia, gypsy blood…Catholic.” He continues, “she had jet black hair and striking features. She was beautiful.” Dan’s grandfather, at least by appearance, was quite the opposite. “He was Norwegian and looked it.“

“She was oldest of 10 kids,” Dan describes, “There was one of the boys, one of the youngest, who she doted on like he was her own. “ Dan begins reliving the story. “He’s playing on the tracks, just up the street here,” Dan points, “he and some other kids are darting under the train between the wheels.” Dan’s face is impassive, “He doesn’t make it. The train slices him right in half.”

The story slows. There would have been a grimace, a pause, but Dan continues. He has told this story before. It is a memory of a memory. “My grandmother couldn’t take it, she wanted to get out of there as fast as possible.” The story regains momentum, “Her dad takes her to Union Station to put her on a train going west. He’s got a Ford, a model T. They race to the station but just miss the train. Her dad, my great- grandfather has the station master call to the next station and tell them to hold the train. They jump back in that car, drive at top speed and catch up to the train that keeps going west; this time with my grandmother on it.”

Dan is smiling now, “In the meantime, my grandfather is on the same train heading out to the new hotel that James J Hill built in Glacier, the Sperry Chalet, right by the Great Northern Railway. He’s a musician, part of a quartet; he and his buddies are planning on making some money up at the Chalet.” Dan prepares carefully to weave the threads of his tale together, “The train’s been waiting at the station for a while. The guys in the quartet find out that they’re waiting for a young lady. They begin egging each other on to find her and find out her story. My grandfather volunteers.” Dan holds the one thread carefully and picks up the other, “Now my grandmother is headed for the same place. She’s going to Glacier too, to the Chalet to work as a maid — or something.” The threads are tied together quickly, but delicately, as if a curtain is drawn on the scene, “So that’s how they met,” Dan finishes.

“Well you can imagine,” Dan starts up again, pulling back to survey this tender image from a distance, “this match was not popular; a Catholic and a Lutheran. That just didn’t happen.” It was too late for objections though, the two were already married. They had chased up some local pastor or chaplain and children came soon after.

“It was a long time later, just 15 years ago at a family reunion, that my cousin was looking at the family tree and started doing the math. ‘Oh’ he said, ‘so I guess my mom was at her parents’ wedding!’ I looked at him and just said, ‘I guess so’— in the moment I didn’t think much of it.”

Dan pauses dramatically, “But my mother was mortified. The news went through the crowd like an electric charge; everyone felt it before they knew it.” Dan pauses again and shakes his head, “Now this was 2004, you would think that it wouldn’t be such a big deal, I mean, people are having kids before they get married all the time…” His voice trails off.

This was a new ending to the story it seems. The memories are laid out like photos in an album. We are at the last page and it is as if someone has gone in and changed the order. In Dan’s telling, the story becomes richer, the pictures gain color. But for others, grandmothers and mothers, aunts and uncles; it would have been better had the old familiar photographs remained as they were: black and white.