Talking to Strangers on Planes: A Holiday Travel Tale

I’m not usually one of those people who enjoys airplane banter. More often than not, I still choose to unplug when flying. I can’t see emails, receive texts or obsessively refresh my social media accounts- and I like it that way. The most tech I usually do is listen to my ancient iPod Shuffle, if I can find it (those things are too small) or watch a movie chosen for me by Richard Branson. Or watch the map of the plane in flight- I like that. Conversation with strangers in confined spaces makes me itchy.

But last night I had the distinct pleasure of sitting in the same row with the best airplane stranger ever. It wasn’t a very full flight, so there wasn’t that forced conversation you might have with someone whose flesh will be touching yours periodically and awkwardly for the next few hours. It wasn’t a celebrity, an author I’ve been reading over my just-finished semester in grad school, or a long lost acquaintance .

It was a 93 year -old woman from Lincoln, Nebraska. She was on the second leg of her flight to see her son and family for Christmas. She had Kleenex spilling out of her sensible purse (which she kindly offered to share) and what my grandmother would have referred to as a “lovely permanent” hairdo. She kindly asked for some help managing the non-arthritis friendly seatbelt.

She was super sweet, with a little bit of sass. While we were sitting on the tarmac waiting for clearance to take-off, she commented that we weren’t going to get there anytime soon at this rate and she could walk faster. When looking at a advertisement for Madame Tussaud’s in the airline magazine, she commented that the woman in the picture looked so  beautiful, “just like Marilyn Monroe.” When I broke the news that it actually was a picture of Marilyn Monroe she laughed and said “Well, that’s why I should be wearing my glasses when I’m reading these things.” We shared a laugh when her zipper got stuck and she almost walked out of the bathroom before she noticed it. Her major feedback on the flight- they should sell some nice candy. Peanuts are no good.

We talked about our families- she lived in Los Angeles in the 1950s and 60s where her husband was a police officer before moving back to Nebraska. She had been a widow for about 25 years and this was her third time out flying out by herself to the east coast for the holidays. I talked about how special it was for my grandmother to take a similar journey to spend time with us when I was younger. She enjoys travelling, but it had been a long day for her.

When we got off the flight, I offered to help her get to where she needed to be, but she insisted she would be fine. So, as you do after a flight, you part ways with your fellow passengers, likely to never cross paths again. But I’m so grateful for the chance to have shared a few hours with her- to have pleasant conversation, get a little nostalgia about my own childhood Christmases, and maybe to see a glimpse into a potential future.

I hope she got where she was going safely and is enjoying her family. And I thank her for her small gift to me. Maybe it’s not so bad to talk to strangers in confined spaces after all.

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