First Flight

by Carol Grant

In the early 60s, my closest friend Lynn and I decided to take our first vacation as independent adults. We had just completed our first year of employment..she as a physical therapist and I as a graduate nurse and we had managed to save a small amount out of our meager salaries. Lynn’s parents had just returned from a trip to Mexico and they told us how reasonable everything was and encouraged us to go. They made it even more enticing by describing their itinerary. It all sounded so simple: a direct flight via Air Canada to Mexico City where they recommended their hotel and the city sights to explore and then on by bus to Taxco, San Miguel de Allende and Acapulco.

We decided to purchase our tickets and then shopped for our travel outfits. We bought  new summery dresses with pinched waists and very full skirts, cute pillbox hats (inspired by Jackie Kennedy, of course), white gloves, handbags and very high heels. Those were the days when people really dressed up to travel by air! I seem to recall that we both dared to buy our first bikini bathing suits as well!

Oh yes, did I mention that this was a first flight for both of us? We were both extremely nervous but we tried to look very worldly and sophisticated as we climbed the exterior steps of the small “prop” plane in our wobbly high heels. We tried to appear nonchalant as the small plane began to roar down the runway and seemed to take a lifetime before it actually rose above the ground. I was amazed and enthralled as I looked out of the window to see my city below. I glanced at Lynn and  to my shock realized that she was perspiring profusely and her face had a distinctive green hue. I then remembered that Lynn had always suffered from car sickness and was in distress as the plane wove and slanted as it climbed and turned south. I grabbed the small paper sac from the pocket in front of me just in time and Lynn was very discreet in her misery. Gradually, when the plane reached its desired speed and altitude, Lynn’s normal color returned, and we both calmed down and chatted about our upcoming adventures.

To our mutual dismay, after a smooth flight of several hours, the plane started to vibrate, the engine seemed to stop and then restart again and we seemed to be rising and falling in the sky. Everyone in the cabin, including the two stewardesses (before the days of “flight attendants”), looked very concerned and frightened. I admit that even my sturdy stomach became queasy and my mouth became very dry. After about 10 endless minutes, the pilot announced that there was engine trouble and that we would be making an unexpected landing in the Mexican town of Tampico located on the Gulf of Mexico!

The plane sputtered , shook and  groaned as it gradually descended. We were instructed to bend our heads down onto our laps.  We were all shocked by the loud sound the plane made just before the landing gear was released and then the wheels actually touched down on the tarmac.  The pilot immediately pressed on the brakes and the plane came to a very abrupt stop. Our plane had landed! Needless to say, there was a spontaneous cheer and many people uttered “Thank You, God” or “Gracias, Deo.”

When the stewardess opened the door, we were literally hit by a sensation of being on a different planet as the heat and humidity was like a moist barrier that we had never experienced. We were helped down the stairs and led into a very small one story building which had a large picture window,  one small unoccupied desk, a single restroom, a large ceiling fan revolving slowly  and several old metal chairs scattered around the room. There was no air conditioning and the heat was stifling. This apparently was Tampico’s very local Airport Terminal!

Within ten minutes after our arrival, there were at least fifty people, including adults and children who were outside the dirt streaked window and peering in to get a glimpse of the extraterrestrial beings who had just arrived from outer space! Thus began our first evening in Mexico.

The four Air Canada employees (two stewardesses and two pilots) tried to reassure us as they were attempting to converse with the local authorities and airport employees. They told us they were trying to reach their Air Canada supervisors to get instructions, but the telephone connections were very limited. They did learn that there were no local airline mechanics nor spare parts available. It would be a very long evening…

As the sky darkened, the parade of  window gawkers gradually dwindled and we surmised that  probably most of the town had paid us a visit. However, it seemed to us that they had been replaced by men of all ages who surveyed us with leers, hand gestures and comments that we could not hear or translate, but seemed threatening. The prospect of spending the night in this suffocating room was alarming.

Finally, the Air Canada pilots informed us that we were going to be saved! An AeroMexico plane on its way from Mexico City would pick us up and return us to the city before dawn. We were all very relieved until an old graffiti-decorated plane careened recklessly down the runway and stopped in front of the  building with a shudder. The “crew” descended and entered the waiting room. The two pilots were dressed in old jeans with stained T shirts and wore cowboy boots and sombreros! The two women who accompanied them were large, buxom females with dyed-blonde hair who wore mini skirts, tops cut off to expose their midriffs, and stiletto heels. This motley foursome was to be our saviors?

The four pilots attempted to communicate, but appeared to be floundering until one of our passengers who was bilingual came to their aid. It was announced that the Mexican crew would be going into town to have dinner while our luggage was transferred to their plane. We all felt helpless by this point but really had no choice…stay in Tampico for the night or risk our lives flying with the “cowboys”? No one could say when the Air Canada plane would be viable again so there really was no choice except to board the rickety old relic which awaited us.

After about two hours, our Mexican “saviors“ returned, laughing and obviously well lubricated! We reluctantly boarded their “spaceship” which was even worse on the interior. Seats were broken, litter was everywhere, empty bottles were strewn under the seats and in the aisles and the rank smell was overwhelming. The two “cowgirls” were no help so we grabbed the least stained seats we could find and soon discovered that even the seatbelts were  broken. The take-off was very loud and shaky but we were finally aloft. Of course, flying in total darkness was another new experience for us and I know that I prayed the whole flight. Meanwhile, the two Mexican women spent most of their time going in and out of the cockpit from which we heard much laughter.

The crowning event of that flight was the serving of refreshments to the passengers. The women came down the aisle, which was already littered with debris, holding metal trays filled with tall bottles of Mexican BEER! One of the women tripped on the torn carpet almost beside us and the whole tray crashed to the floor. The beer splashed us and the odor wafted throughout the plane. I joined Lynn, who was already making use of one of the brown paper bags she had found on the seats. The other woman hastily went to the restroom and came back with a roll of toilet paper, which she didn’t offer to us but unwound up and down the aisle’s stained, torn and soggy carpet!

We actually landed smoothly at the Mexico City airport just as dawn was breaking over the city. Our taxi driver must have wondered how these two disheveled young women dressed to impress, but reeking of perspiration, beer and vomit, ended up arriving at the airport at 5am on an antique Mexican plane.

The rest of the trip exceeded our expectations and our Air Canada flight home was smooth and uneventful.

The following year Lynn and Iwent to Jamaica, but that is another story…


This essay was stimulated by the topic, prompts and support given to the study group “Guided Autobiography”  by coordinator David Grogan  in the Spring 2019 session. Thanks also to my co-students in the group who listen attentively and support me in my writing efforts.


My Pilgrimage to Brother André’s Heart

by Carol Grant

Try to imagine yourself as a young child of 7 or 8 attempting to interpret the rites, rituals and iconography of the Catholic Church in the late 1940’s. I attended an English Catholic Primary school in Montreal staffed by lay teachers whose responsibilities included teaching us our daily Catechism lessons and preparing us for our First Confession and Communion Rituals. Every Sunday and Holy Day, I would attend Mass with my family and sit through the seemingly endless ceremony which was celebrated in Latin except for the priest’s Homily which might as well have been in Latin since the content was never relevant to young children. We were surrounded by Catholic icons which included images of the Crucifix portraying Jesus almost naked with a crown of thorns in his scalp, a stab-wound in his side and hanging by nails driven into his hands and feet onto a wooden cross. Statues of various male saints wore pained expressions as arrows pierced their bodies and others representing women with rapturous poses gazing upward to the heavens were mounted on pedestals around the church. Several paintings of the “Sacred Heart of Jesus” exhibited Christ with a bare torso in which there was a bright red idealized heart encircled by a ring of thorns usually lit by a red votive candle. Often the ceremonies included priests proceeding solemnly down the central aisle swinging silver containers of burning incense, which smoked as it rose and had a very distinct unpleasant odor.

I recall vividly the terror I felt when at age seven—-the so-called age of reason—- I had to “make” my first Confession. We students knelt side-by-side in the pews waiting until it was our turn to enter alone into the closet-like enclosure where we had been instructed to kneel and wait in the dark until the priest slid open a small wooden window. When it opened, I could barely see the priest and trembled as I began the prayer we had memorized: “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned…” We had been told to relate our transgressions, which could include being disobedient to our parents or teachers, lying, stealing, using bad words or having “impure” thoughts. The latter was the sin that our teacher never explained to us. At seven?

Our First Communion Ceremony was supposed to be a Happy Celebration and we looked forward to wearing our special white Communion dresses, stockings, shoes and veils. Our teachers told us that we were going to be “Little Brides of Christ”, a very perplexing concept. The Church rules required us to fast from Saturday at bedtime until almost the end of the 11am Mass when we would have the Communion wafer put onto our very dry tongues and hear the words “Body of Christ” from the priest… again quite an incomprehensible image. Some of the children felt faint or nauseous because of hunger or dehydration mixed with the pungent odor of the incense and had to be removed by their parents. Fortunately, I didn’t disgrace my family and there are photos in our albums showing me as a smiling miniature “bride.” Older students told us we would receive special gifts from our relatives and friends but we were somewhat disappointed when these turned out to be Rosary beads, small prayer books with the Latin and English translations or bookmarks with pictures of the Virgin Mary or female saints.

Despite our personal difficulties with these ceremonies, the following week our teacher told us that as a reward for behaving well at these Catholic rites of passage we were going to go on a day-trip or a “pilgrimage.” Unlike today’s schoolchildren, we had never been on a field trip so this was a very exciting adventure. In Montreal’s center there is a small mountain called Mount Royal, a large urban park overlooking the city. On its northern slope, an immense Catholic Basilica built in the Beaux Arts style of Paris’ Sacré Coeur, and named St. Joseph’s Oratory, rises above the surrounding neighborhoods. Visitors and parishioners must climb hundreds of stairs to reach the church entrance. In Quebec and beyond, this church or shrine has the reputation as a site where many miraculous cures have occurred and it is a tradition for many of the worshippers or supplicants to go up these stairs on their knees. Many of these people are disabled and drag crutches and canes along with them. I had often observed this spectacle when we had passed the church on a streetcar because the location was close to our neighborhood. Our teacher explained to us that many of these people had been cured of their illnesses because they prayed specifically to a deceased man known as Brother André. She told us that he had originally lived on the mountain as a hermit alone in a cave and later in a small wooden hut that he had built. Stories of his ability to cure the sick and heal the disabled were the catalyst for the construction of the Basilica, which was dedicated to St. Joseph, Brother André’s favorite saint. All of these accounts seemed like fairy tales to me but we were supposed to believe everything our teachers told us so I was both suspicious and intrigued by her stories of miracles occurring less than a mile from my home.

On the appointed day of our adventure, our teachers shepherded about 20 first graders onto a streetcar and upon our arrival in front of the church we too had to climb the many stairs where we could observe closely the people of different ages and abilities praying on each step. Many were clasping rosaries and prayer books as they labored upward. We entered the interior of the massive shrine and were amazed by its opulence and grandeur but especially moved by seeing hundreds of canes, crutches and wheelchairs displayed in a large corner of the church or hanging on the walls…proof to our young impressionable minds that this was truly a miraculous place!

Our teacher had told us that after we toured the Basilica, we would experience the highlight of our pilgrimage, which would be a visit to the actual wooden hut where Brother André had lived and prayed. It was there that we were going to see something VERY special…his HEART! “Yes, there were Valentine cards in the 40’s!” and we certainly thought we knew what a REAL heart looked like…shiny, bright red, symmetrical and signifying love and romance so our excitement was hard to contain. Lined up two by two, we were led from the large edifice to a path that wended its way into the dark woods behind the church. Each of us held the hand of a classmate as our anticipation mounted until we came to the humble wooden house about the size of a small garage with a very narrow door. We had to follow one of the teachers single-file (and let go of our friend’s hand!) into a narrow, dark corridor lit only by a few small flickering votive candles suspended on the walls above us. The hallway was over-heated, dark, stuffy, and had an overpowering stench. Suddenly, the teacher stopped and we were all standing crowded against a soiled and fingerprint smudged glass partition, which had replaced one of the walls of a small room and was set up like a museum diorama. We were told to stop and look closely at the tiny room, which had a low ceiling and an old dusty, frayed gray carpet barely covering the moist brown earth below. In the background of the room, there was a small cot, one small desk, a prie-dieu or prayer-chair and many religious icons on the walls. As instructed, we inched our way slowly along the glass partition. As I reached the middle of the room, my eyes were drawn to a small wooden pedestal that was pressed against the other side of the glass. On it a tall dark red votive candle was pulsating and about 4 inches in front of me, there was an old bottle about the size of a large dill pickle jar filled with a murky, gray-green liquid in which floated an object about the size of my hand. It was not RED at all but was the color of stained dark brown cardboard that was cracked and peeling. It was not shaped like my imaginary Valentine heart but was an irregular BLOB of something indescribable! EWWW! GROSS! are the terms a contemporary seven year old would utter. We had been instructed beforehand to pray silently when we saw this relic of Brother André. However, I am sure that I only prayed to get out of that stifling dank tunnel as soon as I could!

When I did some research for this essay, I learned that the famous heart relic had been stolen a few years ago and was missing for several months. The police discovered it in a nearby Montreal neighborhood and returned it to the Basilica where it is now displayed in a secure and elaborate gold and jewel filled miniature shrine…a far cry from a humble pickle jar!

This essay was inspired by my participation in the IRP study group “Guided Autobiography” superbly coordinated by David Grogan. The assigned topic was entitled “My Quest for Meaning” and it stimulated these childhood memories of my early religious education. I am still on that quest but am no longer haunted by theories of sin, penance, retribution or damnation which weighed so heavily on that innocent child of long ago.


by Carol Grant


As far back as I can remember my mother had a deep fear of cancer. She was convinced that any twinge or unusual symptom she experienced was an early sign of the dreaded disease. When I was eleven or twelve, I returned from school one day to find my mother in a distraught condition, crying and pacing to and fro in our kitchen. She was saying between sobs, “I know it is cancer and I’m going to die.” She had discovered a lump in her breast and was going to see a surgeon but, she lamented, “What is the use? I am going to die anyway.”

I recall being terrified and feeling helpless during the subsequent weeks awaiting her appointment and the biopsy results. Her surgeon must have been a loud and blustery individual because she quoted his surgical philosophy which was, “When in doubt, cut it out!” The images that statement produced made my terror and imagination go into overdrive. The days dragged interminably as we all awaited the biopsy results. When they were reported as benign, the whole family sighed in relief. However, from then on, my mother was on an educational campaign as her surgeon had encouraged her to tell  her friends and her daughter the importance of self breast examination and early reporting of any abnormality.  I was in the stage of early puberty and had not yet developed breasts or menstruated. My mother decided it was the ideal time for “the talk.” She must have been overwhelmed with all the information she was determined to share with me. She later told me that she had never been prepared by her mother or anyone about menstruation and that she thought she was dying when she first noticed blood between her legs. I surmise that may have been one of the sources for her cancer phobia. So I empathize with my mother’s determination and discomfort as she struggled through her lecture. Somehow in her hurry to get it done, she combined the information about self breast examination with a minimal explanation about menstruation, leaving out the location of that phenomenon. When she was done and leaving the room, she turned back to say: “If you see any blood, be sure to tell me right away.” I was left with the impression I was going to bleed from my nipples! All I could remember were her surgeon’s words, ”When in doubt…”  I was terrified with the prospect of growing up and becoming a woman.

Needless to say I took my mother’s message about breast exams very seriously and each night, I would prod and poke my budding nipples and small breast mounds. They felt bumpy and irregular. Were they “normal’ or should I ask my mother but then, she would drag me to her knife-happy surgeon!  Later, when I did mature and ended up with  small breasts, I wondered if all that prodding might have impeded their growth! At the same time that I was “blossoming”, my two older brothers delighted in teasing me, mainly about my physical appearance. Their favorite taunts included, “You’re as flat as a pancake!” or “You have two raisins on an ironing board!” Great help for an adolescent girl’s self esteem.

My mother’s preoccupation with self breast exams must have sunk into my subconscious, because in my career as a nurse and health educator I was diligent in teaching women the practice of SBE and the importance of early detection and investigation.  I even brought home the American Cancer Association’s rubber breast models with their hidden nodules and lumps for my two teen age daughters to explore and the testicle models for my adolescent son to probe and prod. I hope that I didn’t freak them out as their Nana had done to me despite her good intentions.

My mother’s conviction that she would die of cancer never came to pass. She lived a long and healthy life with only minor health issues and died at age 95 in April 2005.

I was diagnosed with early stage breast cancer one year later in April 2006.

I celebrated my Ten Year Survivor Anniversary of being Cancer-free this year.






It’s only a test-
Will the magic rays give me
glow-in-the-dark breasts?

Loud jackhammer sounds
searching for cancerous cells-
Am I lost or found?

Body as bullet
sliding into the chamber
RAT! TAT! TAT!-Got me!

Please don’t move! Don’t sneeze!
Is this how a coffin feels?
Breathe. I AM alive.

forty-five minutes to bear–
let me out of here!

Radiation Session:
Lying on belly
breasts hanging through peepholes-
Double attraction.


My essay “Breasts” was composed for the Health and Wellness assignment in the IRP study group “Guided Autobiography” in the Spring semester 2016. This group was superbly guided by Coordinator David Grogan who established a safe and confidential environment which allowed his students to disclose and share many intimate moments of their lives.