In our planning for this trip, we allowed Amtrak Vacations to set up the hotel in LA and train connections to San Diego. When we saw the name of the hotel, The LA Hotel Downtown, we were a bit concerned and have to admit that it sounded a bit like it might be on the seedy side.
What a wonderful surprise to discover that the hotel is simply beautiful. Courteous and professional staff. Really nice rooms. Decent restaurant. Actually far nicer than we anticipated for just an overnight before getting on another train.
Christmas morning we enjoyed breakfast and headed back to Union Station. We were fairly excited to get to San Diego to surprise Mama for Christmas dinner. Union Station is a really pretty old train station. Archways, wrought iron hanging chandeliers, gorgeous tile work, and woodwork galore. Photographer's heaven!
The Pacific Surfliner is Amtrak's commuter train between Los Angeles and San Diego. It runs along the beach communities and has some spectacular views. Takes a little over 2 hours for the whole run.
My sister, Deb, picked us up at Santa Fe Depot. Hugs and excitement, laughter and anticipation over the surprise. A quick drop of luggage at her place and off we head to see Mama.
A side note on Mama... Have to admit here that for 7 weeks, I'd been lying to her about our train trip. Told her we were going to Chicago on the Empire Builder. Just didn't want her to realize how close we would be which would give her ideas about us getting to San Diego. With family drama at a high peak, the surprise was too important as a gift to her. From the train, I'd been emailing her about Montana, Wyoming, etc. She bought into it completely! In fact, so much so that she emailed me on Christmas Eve requesting that I wait until 2 p.m. to call on Christmas day so that I could speak with Deb, too. We set her up so well.
At 2, Deb dropped us off at the corner, a couple houses down. She parked in front of Mama's house, running inside and asking, "did she call yet?" I waited about 5 seconds, then dialed my phone. Mama looks at Deb and tells her that she just made it in time. Hilarious!
Here's the conversation, as best as remembered:
Mama: Merry Christmas, your sister just walked in, so your timing is perfect.
me: Merry Christmas, Mama! Are you having a good day?
(--at this point, I send the Man walking down the street to go up to the door while I watch from the in front of the neighbor's house)
Mama: not bad, just put the prime rib roast in the oven.
me: yum! I think that's what we will have for dinner here on the train.
Mama: wait, the dog is barking. Molly, be quiet! Oh, wow, there is a man walking down the street that looks just like your husband!
me: really? Wow, that's interesting. What's he doing.
Mama: just walking down the st... wait, he's coming to the door. Probably one of your brother's friends and he isn't here. I have to go to the door and tell him. Hang on a second, okay?
--I'm cracking up and hoping that Mama doesn't hear me laughing in both the phone and through the kitchen window. I watch the Man walk right up to the house, reach for the door to open it and hear him announce, "I'm here to see my favorite Mother-In-Law!"
As Mama realizes it really is the Man, she grabs the phone and says, "where the hell are you?!!"
Then she sees me outside, laughing at her. I love the memory of the look on her face. Too bad no one caught it on camera. It was priceless. She was so bumfoozled, she actually asked if we could stay for Christmas dinner. When she found out that we were there for 2 days, she was thrilled.
Hugs and laughter and more hugs. A fresh pot of coffee. Silly conversation about what a wonderful surprise. Dinner and good wine. Deeper conversation about life. Simply a precious time.
Eventually we left for the night, telling Mama that we were going to the San Diego Model Railroad Museum in the morning, then would be back late afternoon for more time with her...not to mention dinner. We figured out what Mexican food we all wanted, and from where, so that Mama didn't have to mess with anything. We wanted her to relax and enjoy the time with us.
Another moment of precious to my heart happened while staying at Deb's place.
In the last few years, Deb has converted to Judaism. She does not celebrate Christmas now, but instead has totally embraced the Jewish culture, celebrating Hanukkah instead. I honor her decision and life, and some years I send her small gifts that she can open each night of Hanukkah.
We discovered that when Deb found out we would be in her home over Christmas, she went to the trouble of having personalized Christmas stockings made for us, filling them with small thoughtful gifts. My heart still smiles at how lovely this was for her to do.
In the morning, we wandered around Balboa Park, ending up at the museum when they opened. The museum is very cool, with a variety of sizes of train layouts. It was such fun to watch the Man and Deb as he told her all about the different sizes of toy trains. The different layouts are interesting to see, with detail work in each one that amazes me.
In time, we had seen all the layouts. It was time for Deb and I to get a coffee while the Man took pictures. We agreed to meet back inside the museum, set our watches and separated for a bit.
Deb and I had such a good time of "sister talk" over coffee. I finally got brave enough to admit to her that I'd been battling depression. She hugged me and admitted that she had been battling, too. Neither of us had wanted the other to worry, so we both tried to hide it from the other. I'm glad it's out in the open now, where we can encourage each other.
At the appointed time, we finished our coffee, heading back inside the museum to find the Man. It was with great joy that we arrived to find him actually inside the Lionel layout, checking out the inner workings with the guys from the club that run that portion. The absolute grin of a 5-year-old who has been given the keys to both the candy and toy stores was spectacular. My heart still feels the jolt of happy from that look.
Time presses for now, but more soon.
...may there be mercy in the sharing of memories.