by Barbara Reck
The Amtrak conductor stepped quickly off the train for the six-minute station stop in Ashland, a very small Virginia town. But within seconds, something seems unusual.
I was traveling south from Washington, DC, toward Charlotte, North Carolina, and onto Florence, South Carolina, to meet up with family and friends, so very anxious to quickly move on. As I glance out from my window seat, my mind is rather blank. Then I see a 1950s-style gasoline station, an old theater marquee and some grape vines growing near the walls of this very small train station. It reminds me of my childhood and suddenly a very evocative feeling comes over me.
Then something unusual does indeed occur. I watch as the train conductor swiftly approaches a small family of viewing locals, which includes a Down Syndrome girl about 10 years old. She was wearing an official conductor's train hat that was identical to his own. He headed toward her, nodding slightly to acknowledge the nearby parents, and proceeded to give her outstretched hand a high five. It became obvious that this has happened many times before on this, perhaps his regular route. A wide Julia Roberts smile never left the young girl's face as they shared a few words. As he slowly stepped away to return to his duties, she saluted him with a tip of her cap. He acknowledged that move with a matching gesture in tipping his own official hat to her.
Seconds later, taking the cap off entirely, she swings it in a wide arc above her head, wildly waving good bye to him and to all the passengers on that side of the train — including me. She must have seen the many responsive returned-waves from the passengers but what she could not have seen were the tears streaming down my face. My own Down Syndrome sister died over five years ago. I only wish I'd made more time in her lifetime to cause her to smile that big.
As my own memories rush forward, we pull out of the station. In my mind's eye, I see my sister — and my mother too. It was always my mother who made sure my sis got properly transported to events like the Special Olympics — often traveling on a train because my mother never learned to drive. It was indeed my mother who displayed winning race medals all over the house. It was my mother who took the 500 photos of her that they both treasured. The one I remember most vividly was my sister with a huge, wide grin, just like that Julia Roberts grin I am now seeing. My sister was hoisting a trophy over her head.
Today, I rarely mention my sister to any of my friends — but that is about to change because of this train trip and this nameless but kind conductor, who I think anyone can assume had given this young child his own official hat at some earlier point in time.
I feel certain it is not too late to make someone else's sister smile that big smile or to motivate others to be generous with time and attention to their own siblings. My first proactive start to that goal was in writing this article as I was once again on an Amtrak train heading south.