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2012 Winter Issue 4 (February 3, 2012)

Lost and Found: learning to read the map

February 3, 2012
By Casey Markenson

My mother was waiting on the platform when my grandfather stepped into the subway car. Then the doors closed, and he vanished.

My grandfather used to travel with a compass in his front pocket and a map in his back one. However, he rarely reached into either pocket, because his innate sense of direction was immaculate. On the rare occasion that he did need directions, he would turn to the sun and the moon to steer him to his destination; he did this so subtly that no one even realized he used the sky to navigate. Since my grandfather relied on natural guideposts, he was at his best when he was outside and on his feet. Traveling underground was one of his two navigational weaknesses.

As my mother watched my grandfather disappear into Manhattan’s many tunnels, she began to cry, then scream, then wail. My grandmother stood beside her, unaffected by her husband’s sudden disappearance; she was used to him disappearing, exploring,and eventually returning.   

My grandfather’s second directional nemesis was navigating while driving. What’s more,  getting lost on the roads inflamed his wicked Irish temper. As my mother got older, she realized that by looking at a map before a car trip, she could divert his fury. And so my mother became the navigational understudy: if my grandfather became too angry to fix the damage of taking a wrong turn, he would throw the map over his shoulder in her direction. In the passenger seat, my grandmother would shake her head and roll her eyes, well accustomed to this routine.

My grandfather reappeared minutes after he vanished from that platform, but briefly losing him incited my mother’s fear of being lost forever. In fact, she refused to ride the subway for years after her experience on the platform as a seven-year-old. When visiting Manhattan as an adult, my mother would research the subway route online beforehand, triple check the map, and then ask local friends for directions.

My grandfather never asked for directions. My mother says that was his downfall. Perhaps the ability to slurp down one’s pride and ask for help is part of the lesson here; however, asking directions is precisely what my grandfather was doing when he stepped onto the subway car and the doors closed. What’s more, asking directions was precisely what he did when he turned to the sun and the moon for guidance. I wonder if the tragic flaw in this situation instead relates to dealing with anger; perhaps when we are furious, we cannot read the map. Perhaps when we are consumed with anger, we are better off letting the person in the back seat navigate for a little while.

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