Nearly every summer over July 4 since the kids were two we’ve gone to Minnesota to see Jason’s family. The first, which was twenty-one years ago this very weekend, was quite a milestone, taking four two-year-olds on a cross-country trip. We decided to take the train, which provided several advantages: neither of us had to drive the seventeen or so hour trip, it was less expensive than flying by far with discounts for kids, and we could travel at night when the kids would be sleeping. We’d just board, settle in, and sleep our way to vacation. What more could one want? The one drawback was that the train didn’t go exactly where we needed it to. We didn’t want to go all the way to Chicago then back west to get to St. Paul, adding another day’s travel plus more money spent on tickets and more time corralling toddlers on a train, so we arranged with Jason’s dad—who loved road trips anyway—to drive down to Osceola, Iowa (four hours from the farm), and pick us up.
Everything was falling into place. I even got the brainy idea to sew some new clothes for the trip. I found some great light cotton plaid, which would be terrific in the Minnesota summer heat, and it came in all the kids’ colors so I made them coordinated outfits. Then I went nuts and made myself a dress out of the same fabric in a fifth color. Then I went completely off the deep end and made Jason a matching shirt in the sixth color. He was very kind and didn’t balk (he should have balked) and he agreed to wear it. Our dear friend Linda kindly offered to drive us to the train station on the evening we were to leave at 9:00 pm. We got packed, loaded, and delivered to Union Station in Denver. It was going to be a great adventure.
After checking in, we learned that there was going to be a delay with our train. So we settled in to wait, hoping the hour of extra waiting would go quickly. It was already past bedtime and we needed the kids to hold on a little longer. As updates came in, they kept pushing out the arrival time of our train. Finally they admitted a train had derailed in front of ours and they didn’t know how long it would be. They told us it could be several hours and we should go home and stay on stand-by. Since the drive home would be 90 minutes and Linda was already in way beyond the call of duty, I called and woke up my grandpa who lived less than three miles from the train station and asked if we could sleep on his living room floor for a few hours. Linda delivered us there and we quickly got the kids to sleep. Every hour or so I called the station for an update, and finally at 5:00 they said we should come to the station. We called a cab, requesting a van, but only a sedan came. When we protested and said we needed to strap in four car seats, he assured us a cab was like a city bus and no seatbelts were required. With trepidation, we let him stow the car seats in his trunk and Jason and I piled into the back seat of the cab, each of us holding two sleepy kids and praying we’d get to the station without any mishaps.
At the train station, we found a bench and settled in to wait. By now, the kids were disrupted enough that they weren’t going back to sleep. It just happened that the bench we sat on had in front of it one of those velvet ropes swung between two brass posts used to direct people in line. We noticed a group of people was growing on the other side of the rope. And they were talking among themselves while looking and pointing at us, we who were all dressed in matching plaid, screaming out to the world that we were some kind of circus act idiots. One of them finally got up the nerve to ask us a question about the kids, then they all just fired away, interviewing and observing us like we were on exhibition at the state fair. They watched us for quite a while, but we had to be about the business of parenting and directing four tired, hungry, and disrupted toddlers. Spencer was especially being boisterous, provoking his siblings. Several times, I told him something like, “Okay, ornery, leave Pierce alone.” By the time the train finally came ten hours late at 7:00 am, one hour before we were to supposed to have been dropped off in Iowa, we had one diaper per kid left, one juice box per kid, and only a few gold fish. It was going to be a long day!
Once we moved our pile of belongings, including four car seats, luggage for a week for six, and all the activity and survival supplies onto the train, we found seats and settled in. Running on about two hours of total sleep wasn’t going to help me cope at all. What a relief when we started rolling down the tracks. We’d adjusted the plans with Jason’s dad by phone, and asked him to please come stocked up on diapers, food, and drinks.
Before long, we noticed there was a lot of activity in our train car, with many people squeezing past our rows of seats. Finally, a woman stopped who had been at the head of the crowd asking us questions behind the rope back at the station. She turned around in the aisle to face the people following her, with us centered between them, and she explained who we were, that the kids were quadruplets, and how old they were. She said she didn’t know all their names yet, but she knew the one in blue was (she used a nasal French accent here) Henry, or Aun-REE, as it would sound to us. Turns out, she’d formed tour groups and brought people by in shifts to see us, relaying the info she’d ascertained while we were on display behind the rope. She’d heard me call Spencer “ornery” several times and interpreted that to be his French name. I don’t know if she charged for her tours, but I should have insisted on some kind of cut.
We were so exhausted, when 1:00 pm came around, we were relieved to get the activity around the kids settled and them down for naps. By the time we landed in Iowa and got off the train, we were out of everything and could only hope that Jason’s dad knew how to buy diapers. It was with great relief that not only did he bring a large box of the correct size, but also a Suburban with seatbelts for all of us, and sandwiches and drinks for everyone. Then only four more hours in the car—which got us to the farm long after midnight—and we were ready for vacay.
If I’d known how hard it would be to spend a week with everyone in Minnesota staring at us, or distant relatives arranging secret meeting times to show up and gawk at us, or trying to take care of four toddlers in someone else’s [unfinished, under construction] home, which wasn’t baby proofed and had open electric outlets with bare wires and three stories of roughed in stair cases without railings and balconies without banisters, I would have just turned around and gone home that first moment the train official suggested it. For the trip home, I dressed every person in a completely different outfit and made eye contact with no one. And when we got home, I turned Jason’s shirt into a rag. He wouldn’t be needing it anymore. So much for matching outfits. Never would I make that mistake again!
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