By Jennifer Magnuson
I am an anxious mother. Whether it was born from choosing to have five children or brews organically in my slightly imbalanced brain, I am at times unable to turn off the switch that prevents rational concern from erupting into full-blown panic. I firmly hold truck with the theory that once parents are entrenched in the teen years, a prescription for Xanax should automatically be doled out at the next check-up, much like the AARP cards that arrive in the mail when you are still in your forties, thank-you-very-much.
This holiday season my husband and I decided to travel with our three youngest kids to a small town in Oregon to ride The Polar Express. The prospect of riding an actual train to the North Pole has propelled our five and eight year-old boys into paroxysms of glee.
On the drive to the station, our twelve-year-old, whom we had hoped held one more season of Santa-driven spirit, sulks in the back row of the car, escaping as best he can through earbuds delivering steady zaps and whirs of skrillex music to drown out the uncool chattering of his little brothers. With two older teenagers under our belts, we should have known better. The first year of middle school brings a special brand of pained self-awareness; his only words uttered during the two hour drive are, “Do not tag me on Instagram.”
Still, we are fools this time of year, going through the motions with the optimistic amnesia of parents who forget that each December 26 heralds vows of escaping to Hawaii next year, we really mean it this time.
Our drive through the Columbia River Gorge is punctuated with rabidly excited squeaks and inquiries of are we there yet along with an occasional sigh, exaggerated in its loudness so that we might know the angst carried with each exhalation. It isn’t until the torrential rains pick up, the kind that whip a large SUV around bendy turns, that I regret not packing any anti-anxiety meds. We white-knuckle our way through sheets of rain into the town of Hood River, where our family time is to begin. My breath is shallow at this point.
With an hour to kill before boarding, my husband Bob wisely suggests we cool our heels at a nearby pizza joint so the kids can get something to eat, and I, a glass of wine. The man is keenly attuned to my anxiety levels — if only out of self-preservation. At the mention of wine, my breathing slows.
The pizza parlor is packed with locals and visiting families; children in pajamas and Santa caps spill from booths while beleaguered-looking parents stare into their phones. The air crackles with frenetic energy, and my younger boys happily join their brethren. They race to the back of the restaurant, loud with the trills and clangs of coins being plunked into video games and glass-encased claws for a chance to win a piece of plastic that will be promptly thrown away even though it cost eleven dollars in quarters to win. It smells like pepperoni and stale socks. I tell Bob to hustle with my wine.
Despite the warm zinfandel, my tension levels are rising. It is now evident to me that everyone in this restaurant is conspiring to tap into my biggest phobias to see if I will fall off the edge before we even get to the station. To my right, a toddler is licking pizza sauce from a tabletop. I shudder, down the rest of my wine, and avert my gaze. A young girl is army-crawling underneath a booth; I force a smile and imagine the floors are extra clean. A small boy runs past our table, bouncing a trachea-sized rubber ball. I mentally brush up on my Heimlich techniques and tell the kids to finish eating their pizza (but take small bites and chew slowly, please).
Finally, the moment arrives and we are seated in the train car. My shoulders relax slightly as I listen to my boys exclaim, “It looks exactly like the real Polar Express!” They are quite literally bouncing in their seats, clutching their golden ticket as they wait for the conductor to punch their initials, just like the movie!
The train jolts to a start, and my heart rate climbs. A tinny announcement comes on, welcoming us to the Polaaaaaar Express! My youngest claps his hands. The oldest has reinserted his earbuds. As the train car rocks gently from side to side I ask my husband if this is normal. I am used to the smooth rides of city metros or the speed trains from our experiences living overseas. He shrugs, “Sure.”
I wipe the thick condensation off my window and look out to see that the Hood River, which feeds into the Columbia, is white-capped and swollen. The water is so high it is swirling past trees and from my perch looks to be nearly level with the train tracks. I regret not having a second glass of wine.
Teenagers in old-timey waiter costumes walk down the aisles unsteady while dispensing watery cocoa and little brown cookies. I notice with satisfaction that they are at least wearing gloves. We are definitely rocking back and forth, and I try to subtly find the emergency exits. My husband, of course, notices and places his hand on my leg. Christmas music plays, and the train car erupts in a discordant version of Santa Claus is Coming to Town.
I hear what is obviously an axel breaking. Everyone is oblivious to our imminent doom and continues singing. Then, the train stops, and my heart with it. “Uh oh!” says the announcer. “Looks like we will have to stop the train…” So this is how I will die. Somewhere in the Hood River Valley, trapped in a train car. Our teenagers will be orphaned and brotherless, and probably forget to erect a memorial in my honor. “Our conductor needs to scare some caribou off the tracks.” At this, my boys gasp again and sputter, “This happened in the movie!”
Of course. I knew that. I have seen The Polar Express seventy-four times. I may have to remind my doctor to adjust my milligram dosage when we get home, because even though I may know this, my nerves are now drawn tighter than Snookie’s cornrows on a Mexican vacation.
Another costumed waiter comes by to pick up the trash, and she taps my youngest on the nose with her finger, making a little boop! sound as she does it twice more. My oldest son can also read me like a set of Minecraft cheat codes and picks up on my annoyance. “It’s okay, mom,” he says. “She’s doing that to all the kids, not just Henry.”
All the kids? I mentally tally the possible number of head colds on the train and try and lower my shoulders while practicing a yoga breath.
The car fills with noise; Santa is finally here. When he gets to our seats, he sits down next to my youngest, who is so awestruck he simply looks up at Santa and mumbles, “Ninjago” when asked what he wants for Christmas. My son’s wide-eyed expression, coupled with his fresh crew-cut is straight out of a Norman Rockwell painting. Santa makes his way through the train car and I look at my oldest, who is busy on his phone. I lean a little closer and see that he has snapped a picture of Henry gazing up at Santa with adoration. It is the perfect picture. I try and act cool when I see that he is posting it to his Instagram. My heart swells; I’m okay now. I’ve got this.
Next year, Hawaii for sure.
Jennifer Hillman-Magnuson is the author of Peanut Butter and Naan: Stories of an American Mom in the Far East.