While traveling this summer, I had one day that was particularly bad. I was alone with my three kids and we’d been bumped from our original flight to a later one. We were seated in random seats across the very last row of the plane, and everyone was exhausted. As we got on, I instructed Claire to hold Tommy’s hand and make sure he didn’t fall in the crack between the airplane and the tarmac.
When we got to the last row, a kind woman there offered to switch seats so that all three kids could sit in a row. She said she didn’t mind and then offered me the aisle seat across from the kids, while she took the middle seat next to me.
It took forever to situate the kids, but since the plane was already late, I didn’t want to stand up in the aisle. “Claire,” I said, “I need you to put on Tommy’s seat belt. Then, get out his headphones and help him with the iPad.”
“Okay,” she said and did it without further comment. He whined that he needed something to eat. “Share one of your zucchini muffins with him, please.” Again, she got out the food and slowly gave him pieces. Then he couldn’t figure out how to play the game on the iPad, and I watched her show him how to do it.
“They’re very well behaved,” the girl sitting next to me said.
“Yes, I suppose they are doing well right now,” I replied.
We started chatting. She was a 19-year-old Marine, headed somewhere for recruiting duties. She was enrolled in an intelligence program run by the Marines, and she was bright eyed, but she had an ability to easily talk to me. We discussed her training and the great respect she had for the women who were trailblazing new paths in the military ahead of her. We talked about her hometown, and I told her about mine.
“I wanted to go to college,” she said, “but that didn’t really work out. My mom – she was a single mom – worked hard for us. But college wasn’t something I could do at 18. So I got in the military. I’ll stay in it for life, but I want to go back to school at some point. The military will help me.”
I was impressed with her ability to plan out her future. I work with a lot of kids around her age, and I can tell those who really have themselves together. She was one of those people. We started talking about her mom, as she had spoken about her with such reverence. Eventually, I told her that I was also a single mom. I told her about Shawn, and she looked sad, though not surprised. When someone responds like that, I know that I’m talking to someone who has seen sadness in life.
“My parents were divorced when I was little,” she said, “but my mom wasn’t a teacher like you. She worked in fast food, so it was impossible to travel. Mostly, I just took care of my little brother and sister.”
“That must’ve been hard,” I said. She nodded. “But there was harder stuff since then. Boot camp, for example.” I laughed. She was a sweet girl.
Just then, Tommy started acting up. I watched Claire get multiple things out of her bag for him to play with, and then give him the toy that she had been using. She made funny faces at him, and when I turned to her, she shrugged her shoulders at me.
“Sometimes, I worry that I put too much on my daughter,” I told the Marine.
Just then, the plane started to shake. I turned immediately to Claire. “Put on Tommy’s seat belt,” I said to her. She did, and I turned back to my conversation with the 19-year-old.
“She reminds me of myself at that age,” the girl said. “I had to do all that stuff with my little brother and sister. But, you know, it made me better, I think.”
I was in the last row of a smelly airplane, and we bumped up and down, so she couldn’t see that I wiped away tears. “I bet your mom is proud of you now,” I said.
“I hope so,” she said.
“Oh, I know she is,” I said.
We chatted a bit more, and eventually, we landed. She helped me with the kids, and we said goodbye.
I wish I could meet her mom. I wish I had thought to get her contact information, so I could send her this post. But mostly, I wish I could tell her that I replayed this conversation a thousand times since then whenever I worried about my kids.
Maybe someday in a dozen years, Claire will sit on an airplane and inspire a newly single mom in the same way this girl did for me. I hope so.