Memories of a Railway


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by Donna Sinclair

One of my earliest memories is of my mother and me in an Ontario Northland Railway dining car on the way from Temagami to Englehart.

I keep saying, “Are we there yet?” even while I swing in circles, around and around on the red-leather-and-chrome stool beside her. “Mmm…,” my mother says, as she drinks coffee and exhales cigarette smoke, and we both look forward to seeing my grandmother.

It was the old days.

I went south to university on that train, my large steamer trunk in the baggage car. By the time I came home at Thanksgiving, I was almost a city girl, gazing out the window as the landscape shifted from farmland to the forest I loved (but no longer exclusively).

One summer I ran an elevator at Alberta’s Banff Springs Hotel. I wore a navy uniform with white gloves, and pretended to fight off the casual but efficient advances of the bellhops, all purportedly med students, the crème de la crème of the summer staff.

We had been ferried across the country on The Dominion in a sort of railway cattle car for students, three days and nights sitting up on hard seats. On our first day at work, someone from the Canadian Pacific Railway (our employer) took the time to lecture the young women on the importance of not getting pregnant that summer.

Much later, living in Northern Ontario but often working in Toronto, I went south when required on the ONR’s Northlander. The railway was experimenting with a business class: an attendant folded out a desk and brought a sandwich, and for five marvelous hours I wrote, read, slept.

When the meetings in Toronto were finished, I caught the northbound train. Standing in line, waiting to board at Union Station, I always saw familiar faces and was half-way home before we left. Outside the window the trees rushed past, as before, close enough to touch, red in autumn, tender green in spring. I saw the hidden side of small towns, the vegetable gardens and the children playing on back yard swings.

Years ago my father, catching the train south for his grandson’s birthday realized he had forgotten his heart medication. The conductor held the train briefly so he could get it. We had a wonderful party. Back home a few days later, his heart stopped for good.

I loved trains back when every station had a garden crowded with vivid annuals and often edged with white-painted stones that would make today’s gardeners wince.

I love trains now, although the gardens are gone. Railways do less damage than broad salt-laden freeways, and they don’t spell the death of little communities along their route. They are a victory of public good over private ownership. And they have always connected Canada to itself and to its past.

Sometimes I dream of laughing children riding a train, hurtling through the night to grandmother’s house. I wake up smiling, connected to myself.

A journalist for more than 30 years, Donna Sinclair is an award-winning writer who has traveled widely in Canada, Africa, Central America, Britain, and Eastern Europe. She is the author of The Spirituality of Bread, The Spirituality of Gardening, A Woman’s Book of Days, A Woman’s Book of Days 2, and numerous other titles. Donna lives with her husband Jim in North Bay, Ontario.

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Categories: Daily Life, Donna Sinclair


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