Anna Maria and the 14,000 suitcases

It was their once-a-year visit. I hoped I was ready…

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By Dan Connors


The night before they arrived, I had a dream about luggage.

 

In my dream, I was dragging bags along a train platform, desperately looking for my car, which wasn’t where I had parked it. Realizing that it had been stolen, I took out my cell phone and proceeded to dial wrong number after wrong number after wrong number until my frustration and anxiety grew so large that I snapped awake.

 

I wasn’t surprised I was feeling anxious. On the day of my dream, Ted told me that he and his wife, Mary, would arrive on the 11 a.m. train and were carrying “14,000 suitcases.” He laughed after he said it, but I wasn’t so sure he was joking.

 

Ted and Mary stop to visit me once a year as they pass through town on their way home from vacation. They get off a morning train and spend a few hours with me before climbing back on an afternoon train for the rest of their trip.

 

In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever had a conversation with Ted and Mary when they weren’t in the midst of some sort of travel.

 

It started six years ago when I was accompanying a Catholic Digest pilgrimage to Fatima. About an hour into our flight to Lisbon, and as a large group of passengers  behind me started cheering and singing in Portuguese, I got up to stretch my legs and head toward the rest rooms. A tall man grabbed my arm.

 

“Hey!” he shouted in a southern drawl loud enough to be heard over the drone of the engines and the happy singers. “I recognize you from your photo. You’re Dan Connors, the editor of Catholic Digest!” I smiled and shook his hand. “I’m Ted,” he said. "So you put this whole trip together for us.”

 

No, I replied, much smarter and far more experienced people than I had arranged this Catholic Digest pilgrimage to Fatima. I was along as a fellow pilgrim to pray with and spend time with some Catholic Digest readers.

 

Ted was full of questions about the trip and about Catholic Digest, and we stood in the aisle of that jumbo jet and talked for over two hours. He told me about his work, and his wife, Mary, and their life together, and what had drawn them to respond to the Catholic Digest ad for this pilgrimage. I told him how I had come to Catholic Digest, what I had done before, and how this was my first trip to Fatima — as it was for him and Mary.

 

Talking to Ted made the flight go faster, and Ted and Mary and I spent a lot of time together over the next week. We talked together, ate together, laughed together, and prayed together. Their love for the Blessed Mother was very strong, and I smiled happily at their excitement and humility when they were chosen to lead a decade of the Rosary at the evening procession at the shrine. Over that week I grew to know them, like them, and love them.

 

I have, however, not yet grown to love their luggage, which increases with every visit. The last few years, we’ve walked to a restaurant near the train station because my car was too full of bags to carry us anywhere. Last year my small station wagon was so full that I had to squeeze in around the suitcases to drive it to a parking place. So when Ted joked about 14,000 suitcases, I feared the worst.

 

I mentioned this to Bret Thomas, our CEO, on the morning of Ted and Mary’s arrival, and he generously offered to provide his car for luggage storage. “Just give me a call,” he said.

 

Relieved to have a backup, I drove down to the station and was lucky to get a parking space near the platform. I heard the train horn blow in the distance and hurried to the tracks, wondering at which end of the train they might be riding. I was about to head in what would have been the wrong direction when I spied our stationmaster wheeling a large, empty luggage cart the other way. “Hi,” I said as I fell into step beside him. “This cart must be for my friends.”

 

The stationmaster had no time for pleasantries. “Unbelievable,” he said. “And the guy’s been in the military! Hasn’t he ever heard of packing light?”

 

I said nothing else, and stepped back as the train arrived. The door slid open, and the conductor asked the crowd waiting to board to step back, please. Then a suitcase came shooting out of the train door. “Hey!” cried Ted from behind the next bag. “It’s Dan Connors! Hello, Dan Connors!”

 

It was my five seconds of celebrity. Everybody waiting to board turned to look at me, wondering who Dan Connors was and why his presence was being announced from inside the train. Their wonderment soon turned to annoyance, however, as another suitcase and then another kept sliding onto the platform. Suitcases, tote bags, they just kept coming.  And people began turning to look at me. Evidently, Dan Connors has a great deal of luggage and likes to delay people trying to get on the train!

 

I smiled meekly. I’m just here to meet them, I wanted to say, but thought it best just to step back a bit.

 

After several more bags, Mary came out pushing a baby stroller. She hugged me and then hurried back to help Ted and the stationmaster load the baggage cart. Wanting to stay as far from the bags as possible, I looked down at the beautiful 2-year-old who looked up at me. “Hello, Mister Dan!” she said in a sweet, soft voice. And then as the train pulled away, she waved to it and said, “Bye-bye, choo-choo!”

 

Who cares about suitcases? I stooped and smiled at Anna Maria. “Hello, Anna Maria, welcome to New London," I said. I asked her how her train ride had been. She smiled. “Bye-bye, choo-choo!” she repeated.

 

A few feet away, the stationmaster had finally managed to get most of the luggage on the dangerously overloaded cart and was trying to wheel it down the ramp, but it crashed into the railing and got stuck. Ted, Mary, and I started running relays from the stuck cart over to my car, while Anna Maria sat slightly to the side supervising the operation. With the back seats down, the storage space in my car seemed huge, but bag after bag filled it almost to the top. The front passenger seat and floor were next, and then the driver’s seat, with a briefcase and bag on the floor in front of the brake pedal. That was the end of it. The door just managed to close. Relieved, I called Bret and cancelled the backup, and then I escorted my friends up the hill toward the diner.

 

For the next three hours I had no thoughts or anxiety about luggage. I was back with my friends talking about our families, our jobs, our world, our faith. Mary told me of caring for Ted’s mom, the banking industry she used to work in, and their trips here and there. Ted told me how he’s gotten so serious about practicing piano that he actually has his first gig coming up. But this year much of our conversation revolved around their new daughter, Anna Maria. Every year during their visit, Ted and Mary had expressed their dream, hope, and prayer to adopt a child. They worried about being seen as a bit too old, but were content to leave that in God’s hands. They are a loving couple with a lot of love to share, and I too prayed that their dream might come true.

 

And then, in the past year came the call, and a quickly arranged flight to China, where they met and fell in love with their little girl. Like many girls in China, Anna Maria had had a difficult life before Ted and Mary. She had been found abandoned on the streets at birth, and survived a hard life in an orphanage until her adoption. Ted and Mary feel lucky that their baby girl survived to be born at all, and doubly lucky and blessed to have their daughter. Proud parents, they showed me photos of Anna Maria’s baptism and spoke hopefully of how her health and personality have both blossomed since her time in the orphanage. For her part, Anna Maria spent her lunch eating small pieces of turkey, quietly practicing her pronunciation of “no” — the number-one word in the two-year-old’s official lexicon — and taking photos with my cell phone, which she commandeered immediately and seemed to master very quickly. She also found her way into my phone contact list and kept trying to call people, while I spent my time trying to talk with Ted and Mary while continuously hitting the “end call” button.

 

The time came to head back to the station. We took a few things out of the car so that I could drive it up to an illegal parking spot even closer to the tracks. As I watched for police, we ran our relay unloading bag after bag while Anna Maria, tired from her photography work, gently settled down in her stroller for a nap.

 

With all the bags up on the platform, we waited for the train, spending a last few cherished moments together. A conductor getting on in New London walked up to the luggage pile, looked at it in disbelief, and said, “How many of you are you getting on?”

 

"Just the two of them and the baby,” I replied.

 

Ted and Mary smiled at the conductor, who was still gazing at the bags. “You know,” he said, “there’s a two-bag limit per person.”

 

“Oh, is there?” said Ted, acting genuinely surprised.

 

“You’re lucky you’re not flying,” said the conductor.  "They’d charge you a fortune for all this.” Ted, who loves trains and would take them anywhere, admitted that was true.

 

As the conductor walked away, Mary said, “We should pack lighter next year.”

 

“My love,” said Ted gently and penitently, “isn’t that what we said last year?”

 

The train pulled in. The door that opened was not the one where we had placed the bags. I jumped into action, running bags to the door where Ted grabbed them and tossed them on the train. I ran back for more, and then more and then more. We got them on, the baffled conductor shook his head one last time, and as the train began to move, I heard Ted’s loud voice call out, “Bye, Dan Connors! See you next year, Dan Connors!” I stood wheezing on the platform and raised my hand to wave goodbye.

 

As I walked back to my car, I realized that despite my luggage anxieties and feeling that I hauled enough of it to qualify for a Teamster’s card, I had taken great delight in their visit and in the joy they shared with me. Exhausted as I was, I was very sorry to see them go. I realized what a boost they had given to my outlook and my faith. They take such exuberant joy in living life — whether it involves praying for a daughter or over-packing for a week away. Their faith is strong and simple, but not naïve. They’ve both had more than their share of suffering and putting things on hold to care for others. But they feel God guiding their lives, and they express their gratitude to God with almost every breath.

 

The world is full of Teds and Marys and Anna Marias. Their annual visit reminded me to pay more attention to the people like them who surround me every day, and who remind me, in little ways, that faith and love and caring for one another are always more important than the two-bag limits we often see around us.

 

I’m looking forward to their visit next year — even if I have to rent a truck.

 

Who are the people in your life who refresh your outlook and bolster your faith? Please write and tell me. I’d love to hear from you.

 

-Dan

Editorial Director Dan Connors

Dan is currently Editorial Director at Bayard, Inc. He served as Editor-in-Chief of Catholic Digest from 2005 to 2011. He was previously editor-in-chief of Today's Parish. Prior to that, he was managing editor of Pastoral Music magazine (the National Association of Pastoral Musicians, NPM), and managing editor of Emmanuel magazine. He has worked with parish leaders for 26 years and has been an active parish volunteer. His wife, Deborah, is pastoral associate at St. Mary Star of the Sea Parish in New London, Connecticut.