Emden

Despite a limited travel schedule, I set out on the long and varied journey to Emden, built to spend a day and a half with Alice because it’s been 8 years and she is important to me. As I get older, I more heavily realize the importance of key people in my life, and how it keeps getting harder to stay connected while proverbially adulting. It is still beyond me how so many years have passed and I didn’t even realize it until we sat on the couch and did the math together. This globe sure spins fast sometimes.

I go to work at 6am to try and cram all of my projects in by 11am in order to leave early to drive from the Oakland Coliseum area to San Francisco International Airport. I hadn’t been able to find a reasonable flight from Oakland Airport, 5 minutes from the office, to Springfield, Illinois during Thanksgiving. It didn’t help that I was too busy to properly shop this flight in the first place, so flying out of SFO ended up being the best I could do with the time and budget I had.

Before setting out I kept second guessing the time I had allotted for the drive to the airport, concerned that I’d underestimated any complications and potentially miss my flight. I would only have an hour to complete the commute and make it comfortably to my gate. My housemate had recommended that I skip driving altogether and take BART, but that was estimating an hour and a half with a few too many transfers for me to have confidence that I wouldn’t make an error with my novelty to Bay Area public transportation, plus I couldn’t leave work that early anyway. Google Maps claimed 45 minutes to the lot but with it being the day before Thanksgiving I knew that could swerve at any moment.

Fate appeared to be with me as I hit very little traffic and made record time. I discovered the SpotHero app the night before so I was able to secure parking in advance at nearly a 3rd of the going rate. We got a nice windy rainstorm thrown in to the scenario so crossing the Dumbarton Bridge with limited visibility slowed everyone greatly. Miraculously I still made it to the lot in 35 minutes and breathed a sigh of relief.

My relaxing state was short lived as I fought with the barcode scanner for 10 minutes before finally calling tech support. I had researched to ensure that this app was valid, and saw it got a thumbs up from Forbes and other renowned tech and business outfits so it caught me off guard to be hitting this snag. The free minutes I’d gained on the commute were quickly slipping away and my anxiety increased as I saw the shuttle I intended to be on drive past me to exit the lot, as I realized that I had no idea how often it ran, or how long it would take before I figured out how to get into this damn pre-paid parking situation.

Luckily, tech support was spot on. There was another machine that had signs all over it warning “Do Not Take Ticket If PrePaid Online”. Peyton assures me, despite the signage, I should take a ticket so I can make my flight and we’ll get the barcode snafu figured out when I return from my trip. As I go to retrieve the ticket I see a help button as well, which she encourages me to engage, and the voice on the other side nonchalantly reports, “Yea that machine always gets weird when it rains”. He confirms the plan to take a ticket and figure it out on the return. Tech in the rain, go figure!

While waiting for the shuttle I have the pleasure of helping the next two people stuck at the gate with my newfound knowledge. The shuttle finally arrives after about 20 minutes and we’re off to the races. I will never stop praising my Global Entry card, especially in moments like this. In airports of any size I am at my departure gate in a matter of minutes with my shoes, toiletries, and electronics remaining exactly where I originally placed them. Magic.

After an hour drive, a finagling of parking, and my first flight under my belt, I change planes from a sardine stuffed Boeing 777, to a scarcely populated puddle jumper landing me in Springfield, Illinois. Upon arrival, Alice and her sister Marie pick me up for another hour drive to their little country town.

Even though it’s 11pm by the time we near her home, it doesn’t stop Alice from giving me a local tour of Hartsburg to show me her school house and the local sites of her youth. It is a literal school house, the likes of which I’ve only seen in western movies, and I feel transported in time. Next, we drop off Marie and then arrive at Alice’s where we gab on the couch past both of our usual bedtimes. By now it’s been 10 hours since I began my journey, but the time change would have you believe 12 hours if you look at a local clock, and Alice has some stunning antique clocks in her home. I can’t stop staring at how beautifully intricate every detail is. It’s been so long since I’ve seen her that I don’t want to miss a moment in her congenial presence, but our eyelids put up a fight and we call it day.

We sleep until our hearts content the next morning and enjoy tea and toast as we slowly come to. It’s Thanksgiving day but we accidentally miss most of the televised Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, instead catching up with the stories of the past near decade. It’s already 3:15pm by the time we realize we’re about to have company and better get the food going. The doorbell rings.

Alice is a self made woman and at 76 years young she still doesn’t need a thing from anyone. She seemingly effortlessly handles the entire meal while I get to know her sister, brother-in-law, and his son. She finally accepts my pleas to help and lets me carry the finished dishes to the dining table.

Everyone is chatting as if we already know each other. Marie even starts to wonder if she’s met me before. I wonder too, but it isn’t so. The day turns to night and after swapping tales and stuffing our gills, we clean up and part ways. Alice and I don’t make it as far into the wee hours this time, and I sleep like a log in the quietest home in all of Illinois.

It’s only been about 34 hours since I arrived but I’m leaving this next day. I want to cram in as much as possible. There are some pretty big bird feeders outside that I’m hoping to fill while Alice is still sleeping, but she’s hidden the seed from the resourceful country mice, and consequently me, so I can’t find it anywhere. While searching, I go outside and find there is a cemetery right here on the property. Alice’s house is a converted church, next to the old railroad depot. She told me Seth was buried here, but it was dark when I arrived and we never ventured out of the house the day before. I had wondered if it was commonplace to have a backyard burial in the state of Illinois. Stepping outside and realizing where I was, it suddenly made a lot more sense.

I walked up and down each aisle, marveling at the worn carved words on mossy, tilted gravestones from the early and mid 1800s. There was a cemetery on my high school campus at Andover, and I was that weird art kid that used to go there and write poetry at all hours. I don’t know what has always drawn me to old cemeteries, but my perception heightens and I am reeled into the stories of the souls here in this shared sacred space. I hadn’t spent time wandering a cemetery this way in decades, but it was somehow natural for me to stop at each headstone and imagine the lives and times of the dearly departed solely based on the names and dates engraved in stone centuries ago.

I arrive at Seth’s Stone, but actually see Alice’s first which startles me for a moment. I hadn’t imagined her passing yet. She’s absolutely spritely and it simply hadn’t crossed my mind. Next to her stone lay both her husband Jeffrey and son Seth. I take a deep breath and have the conversation I’d been needing to have with Seth for 11 years. There was a lot to say and in my sadness I simultaneously feel gratitude to feel his presence and express the thoughts I’d been holding that I could never tell anyone but him. I cry, then regain my strength, and go back to my task of trying to fill the bird feeders.

I fail yet again at this final attempt to find the bird seed and cave to asking Alice, resilient Alice that needs nobody’s help, but I just wanted to do this for her! She is so selfless and caring and I somehow have nothing worthy to offer her. I wasn’t going to take no for an answer even though she protested multiple times the day before. I am so amped up on this task that upon seeing her I practically demand to know where the bird feed is kept, not realizing that she had barely wiped the stardust out of her eyes and didn’t need me sassing her first thing in the morning. So I drink my tea while she has her breakfast and we enjoy more great conversation. After breakfast, she shows me the secret stash, a big metal trash can that I walked by a half dozen times in the garage. I had actually looked in another trash can at one point, and it was literal trash so I hadn’t proceeded with that curiosity again. We drag it out and fill the giant feeders together. I’ve always been a bird enthusiast so it’s exciting when they come flitting about the window by our cozy spot on the couch.

After a tour of Emden, a quick visit to say hi and bye to Marie, and then a tour of Lincoln where Abe is eternally revered, we head back to Springfield Airport. I’ve been to tiny airports before, but I’ve never experienced one that had no personnel present and every gate is locked down. For a moment I panic and question if it has been cancelled for some reason. Emden is in the middle of Springfield, Peoria, and Bloomington, all of which I had been referred to. Had I booked a hacker fare leaving from a different town and forgotten? I call Alice and asked her to wait a moment so I can get my bearings before she heads home, just in case. She has only made it to the stoplight down the road so I’m assured that I won’t be stranded as I navigate this ghosted airport.

A few minutes later a man with a PPE vest emerges from a staff door and I ask him, naively, if the airport is operating normally. He informs me that the earlier flight had been canceled so the staff dispersed, but he believes the evening flight is planned to depart as scheduled so people should be showing up shortly to open the airline kiosks and security gate. I call Alice back, feeling a little silly, and she is on her merry way once again.

Now reversing the route, I calculate that the amount of time spent traveling to and fro Emden, Illinois adds up to more hours than I spent awake there. Nevertheless, the commute was shorter than the 8 years that slipped by, and worth every minute.

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