Family Flight Paths

Propped up in bed with the 1918 Spanish flu, Lydia Burkholder of Nappanee, Indiana, sighed restlessly. An Amish ten-year-old and my eventual grandmother, she longed to go outside. Her fever had broken but her mother thought she should rest, so as the family ate the noon meal downstairs, she sat alone with a plate. There was absolutely nothing to do. She listlessly picked at her food, then at the threads of her quilt, her head falling back onto the pillow.

Her brothers’ shouts, the scrape of chair legs, and the slam of the screen door brought her upright. She heard an engine’s drone. The boys were probably running to the end of the lane to perch on the fence and watch another automobile drive by. She wished she could run with them. But no, this sounded lower-pitched, louder. “Look! Look!” yelled her brother Ray. What was happening? Surely Mom would understand that she couldn’t just lie here. Sliding from the bed, Lydia scooted across the room and down the stairs. The family now clustered in the yard, strangely quiet, craning their heads up. She joined them and found her own voice gone. How did a machine float in the air like a bird? It was impossible. Where was it going?

My aunt’s story doesn’t reveal what kind of airplane Lydia saw; perhaps it was a mail plane or training war aviator. Her family couldn’t have known much about it. The Amish kept to themselves and eschewed news from the outside in their dedication to a less worldly life. Lydia hadn’t traveled beyond a twenty-mile radius. Had she even heard of airplanes?

Wherever that plane went as it flew over the Burkholder farm, forty-six years passed before a member of the family boarded one. My mother, Lydia’s oldest, left the Amish community in her twenties to make her life in Kansas. On a fall day in 1964, the phone rang in the farmhouse she shared with my father and infant me. Her sister, still at home, had walked to an “English”—the Amish term for non-Amish—neighbor’s house to use their telephone. She told Mom that their mother was dying. If Mom wanted to see her, she needed to come right now.

Dad drove Mom and me to Wichita and put us on a plane. Mom was nicely dressed and looked composed, but inside? Butterflies. She’d need to make a connection in Chicago, and boarding in Wichita had been confusing enough. The seats of the plane were grouped so they faced each other; Mom’s seatmate was a young man with a briefcase, calmly reading the paper. How could he be so nonchalant? Mom gripped me and the chair arm tightly and bit her lip hard as the plane roared and finally lifted.

When a starched steward served their meal, the young man lowered his paper and smiled as Mom juggled me and her dinner. He offered to hold me so she could enjoy her food. She gratefully accepted, then confided her anxiety about her connection. She had no idea how to find the right plane; what if she got lost and missed her flight and was lost in Chicago with a baby and nowhere to go?

Chicago was her seatmate’s final destination. He’d be happy to help her, he said. “But I have one condition.” He paused, and she looked up from her plate. “I’ll carry the baby, and you carry my briefcase.” Sparkling eyes met hers. “I’m meeting my girlfriend, and I’d like to surprise her.” My mother blushed and laughed, agreeing to his terms.

When they landed in Chicago and stepped off the plane, his girlfriend stopped her forward rush and gaped in confusion. Who was this woman with her boyfriend’s briefcase? And what in the world was he doing with a baby on his shoulder? He grinned at her, tossed her his coat with his free hand, and told her he’d be right back.

He and Mom left her standing speechless and began their trip across the terminal. It was a long run, but Mom’s companion steered them there safely. Baby and briefcase were hastily exchanged. Rushing up the plane’s stairs, Mom threw her relieved thank yous over her shoulder. Despite the Chicago cold, she panted, and sweat stung her eyes. She stepped onto the plane, and the door closed behind her. Hers was the last seat on board. She was forever grateful to make it home to Nappanee to see and speak with and hug her mother.

Though I didn’t fly again until I was seventeen, my twin sons began traveling regularly as babies, visiting many more places as children than I had. Last winter, during a new pandemic a century after the one that kept Lydia in her sickbed, I picked up my masked son at the San Diego airport. He’d arrived from college in New York state, where he’d experienced a first semester of incredible growth in a brand-new place.

My heart swelled and my eyes welled up as I watched him stroll out of baggage claim, more solid and self-possessed than I remembered. He’d seemed a long distance away, and now suddenly here he was. I marveled over how he could leave his dorm room in the Hudson River Valley that morning after breakfast and walk out into the balmy Southern California air the same evening. Which place felt more like home to him now? Where was he headed next?

Unlike his great-grandmother, my son won’t experience the breath-taking birth of a new age of human-made birds. Nor will he thrill, as his grandmother did, to the magic and mystery of a first flight with crisp linens, luxurious seats, and the novelty of lifting off in an adventure to retell for life. But Lydia, in her twenty-mile-radius realm, could never have imagined the ease with which her great-grandson navigates the world, or how at home he feels wherever he lands. To each generation is granted its miracles.



Michelle Goering has been writing forever, but not for herself until recently. She is a musician with a professional background in publishing, married and the mother of twin college-age sons. A resident of San Diego, Michelle grew up on a Kansas farm. She is a member of the Bahá’í Faith.

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