Sunday, September 15, 2013

unplanned visit

My grandparents, my father's parents, lived in Presque Isle, Maine.  In 1978, Presque Isle was the launching point for the first successful trans-Atlantic balloon flight and my grandparents attended the launch celebration.  I know this, not because I actually remember them telling me about it, but because I had a favorite bumble bee yellow T-shirt which they purchased for me at the event.  My brother had one that matched in a slightly bigger size.  I imagine that they were thinking of their grandchildren that day in 1978, maybe wishing a bit that we had been there to enjoy the day with them, as they stood in the field, later delivering the shirts to us and telling us the story of the flight of the Double Eagle II.

Elliott loves this shirt and has worn it often since my mother pulled it out of a bin a few years ago.  And because he loves the shirt so much, and loves the movie Up, this article about a man who attempted such a trip more recently caught my eye.  

After seeing the movie Up last year, Elliott spent months trying to raise small toys into the air with balloons he scavenged from birthday parties and other such ballooned events.  He loved the story for the balloons, and for the animals so hilariously and lovingly depicted in that movie.  

I loved the movie, too, but more for the relationship between the old man and his wife.  My breath caught when their chairs, each unique, different, and worn stood beside each other in that floating house, as a symbol of their relationship, even after she passes away.  Two similarly quirky and worn chairs sit in my grandparents’ camp in northern Maine, referred to as Grandmother and Grandfather’s chairs, centerpieces of the cabin, to this day.

Each year when we spend time at this cabin in Aroostook County, we see advertisements for the Crown of Maine Balloon Fest.  This festival, much different I am sure from the launch in 1978, allows spectators to observe the assembly and launch of balloons by pilots and their teams.  Then people who have purchased the limited number of tickets are taken by these pilots on a short scenic ride. 

This year, the timing of the event happened to coincide with our time in the County so we made a spur of the moment decision to drive into town.  There at the fairgrounds, the balloons filled the fields with bright billowing colors, ropes glinting in the sun, small teams of people working together quietly and skillfully in order to get their balloons out of their trailers, out of huge duffle bags, attached to the baskets, filled with air, and then -- after countless loud bursts of air and fire -- airborne.  

As we watched, an older couple came to stand next to us in the crowd.  I noticed them out of the corner of my eye.  They were more formally dressed than the rest of us, and something about the way they were standing next to each other, just the two of them, the man with his hands in his pockets, the woman with her purse and a scarf, smiling and quietly enjoying the scene, reminded me just then of my grandparents, gone now for many years.

My reminiscing was interrupted by the dramatic moment when one of the rising balloons got caught in the electrical wires overhead, causing the basket to tip almost sideways, and making the crowd gasp, and then breathe out in relief when the balloon pilot expertly disentangled the basket and continued upward.

I turned to the couple, who had grabbed on to each others’ arms during those moments and were looking concerned.  I spoke with them, just a bit, and talked about what had just happened, commenting on how frightening that moment must have been for the riders, and how relieved we were that they all seemed okay.  She lessened her grip on her husband's arm.  And then we smiled at each other and wished each other a good night.  

I felt as though that moment had bridged the time between 1978 and now.  As if we, my grandparents and I, had finally seen the balloons together.  The swirl of associations between place and event and time and people had given me a window into memories of my grandparents, and how they were with each other.  I smiled to myself and then slowly returned to the present.

I hadn't expected a visit with them, but it is one I will remember, perhaps even more than the fluttering fabric of the balloons.

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