Today is Mother’s Day here in the U.S. of A., and this year, I’m more grateful than usual to have had the mom that I did. My mom was a hoot and a half. She had spirit, and presence, and she sure knew how to have fun. She was tirelessly curious, and never afraid to look foolish in the name of fun or adventure — which is why we had so much of both.
She always said she was happiest when she was “eatin’ or goin’ somewhere, or, better yet, goin’ somewhere to eat.” We definitely have that in common! Mom and I had our mother-daughter issues, of course, like everyone else, mostly because we were so similar, but I can sincerely say that, the older I got, the better friends we became. By the time she passed in 2006, my mom really was my best friend.
These days, as I clean out my house, getting ready to sell it so I can hit the road indefinitely, my mom is in my mind so much. You see, this isn’t the first time I’ve done this. One night, in 1976, when I was nine years old, my mom came into my room and woke me up and said “Hey Quinnie, how would you like to spend your birthday with the eskimos?” I blinked at her in the dark and said “Okay,” and went back to sleep. Shortly thereafter, there was a For Sale sign in our front yard. My folks sold our house, got rid of all our junk, bought a big Dodge van and a travel trailer, took my sisters and me out of school, and the five of us–along with Ruby the dog–hit the open road and explored the whole North American continent for a year. People said they were crazy. An endless road trip in a gas guzzling van, when there’s a gas crisis on? Take your kids out of school? Sell your house and leave your job, in this economy? You can’t do that! Well…Mom knew better. And thank God she did. That year was wonderfully life changing. (Although, I didn’t get to spend my birthday with the eskimos — we spent it in a KOA campground in Del Rio, Texas. I remember I was so intent on going swimming on my birthday–which is in January–that I insisted that my mom let me jump in the campground’s pool, which had a paper-thin sheet of ice on it at the time. She knew me well enough to know it was easier to just let me do it, and learn my lesson. Which I did.)
There was no place my mom didn’t want to go. No different culture she didn’t find fascinating. No people she didn’t want to talk to. No new cuisine she didn’t want to try. No wild critters she didn’t want to see, pet and feed. I inherited all of that from her. She would start planning her next adventure before she even unpacked from the last one. She dragged my poor dad all over the world, and her enthusiasm for discovery made even a cranky old homebody like him happy to accompany her anywhere she wanted to go. It didn’t matter if it was a day trip from home, or a long-haul flight to the far corners of the earth, my mom was most happy and at peace when she was going someplace new and different.
Somehow, she just knew that a change of scenery, shaking things up a little, was the cure for most anything that could ail ya. I was a pretty good kid, for the most part, but in my latter years of high school, I was bored, unchallenged, and ditching school a lot, hanging out with my boyfriend, but still getting good grades, so the school was sort of at a loss as to what to do with me. My mom was so smart about the way she handled the situation. Rather than engage me in a futile contest of wills, she packed my truant ass off to Germany as an exchange student for my senior year! She even founded our local chapter of the American Field Service, so I could be eligible to go through that organization. The day she put me on the plane to Frankfurt, when I was 17, was the first time I ever saw her cry. But she knew what she was doing. That year abroad was wonderfully life changing for me, as well. Horizon broadening doesn’t even begin to cover it. What a visionary she was, my mom.
I always said my mom’s house looked like the gift shop at the zoo. The walls were covered with interesting masks and folk art that she collected in her travels. She bought a hand-embroidered Mola in Panama that had the city name–Colon–featured in the pattern. She framed it in a shadow box and hung it in…the bathroom. Of course! Where else would you hang Colon-related art?
My mom had a lifelong fascination with China, and was very disappointed when she planned a trip there in 1989 that had to be cancelled as a result of the June Fourth Incident in Tiananmen Square. She was so upset about what happened there, but never stopped wanting to go. So, she and I planned a trip to China together in 2006, just the two of us. We had the best time, planning our itinerary…Beijing, Xi’an, Chengdu, Guilin, Hong Kong….it was going to be epic. We were both so excited.
Then, not long before we were supposed to leave, we found out she had terminal lung cancer, and the doctors said she might not last through the trip. She told me she still wanted to go, but she didn’t feel right about putting that kind of pressure on me, under the circumstances. I didn’t even hesitate. “Mom, we’re going, and that’s that.” It was unthinkable to me to deny her this last wish out of fear. “Are you sure?” she asked, knowing very well that she might not make it back, and I would be the one to have to deal with anything bad that went down while we were there. “Of course,” I said. “I can manage having to get your body home from China if you drop dead on me during the trip, but I can’t handle living my life knowing I could have made this happen for you and didn’t because it was too scary.” And she totally understood. So, off we went.
It was a phenomenal trip. We had a pretty ambitious itinerary, and she was getting kind of weak, but her spirit never flagged. We walked our behinds off, all over every city we visited, up the steps of countless temples, down the Great Wall, into the rainy canyons of the panda refuge, and up and down the aisles of every supermarket we encountered (exploring foreign supermarkets is my travel obsession), and she never complained. Her joints and bones were affected by the cancer at that point, and she had trouble walking, so I found her an acupuncturist in every place we stopped, and it kept her on her feet and on the go.
I remember, once, outside of Hong Kong, the doctor was so sweet, he was concerned about me sitting in the waiting room for so long while my mom was being treated, that he brought out a VHS copy of The Sound of Music and put it on the TV in the waiting room for me to watch! It was dubbed in Mandarin and subtitled in Cantonese, but the songs were in English.
It was such a poignant time to spend with her, and I’m so grateful for it. I could see her soaking in every detail, registering in her mind that this was her last trip, savoring it like a last meal. It was sad, but beautiful, too. She didn’t waste a moment of her life feeling sorry for its impermanence. I hope I am fortunate enough to have that kind of wisdom when it’s my turn.
When the wheels of our flight home touched down at SFO, we both exhaled loudly, tired from the trip, relieved to have made it back in one piece, and bracing ourselves for what we both knew was ahead. And it wasn’t long before she left us. But I feel her presence all the time, especially, like now, when I’m embarking on a travel adventure. That day a few months ago, when I was notified that I was being laid off from my firm, instead of the wave of panicked nausea that I expected to experience, I felt like an angel flew through my head–in one ear and out the other–and sprinkled across my brain the glittery idea that I could use this change in circumstance as the opportunity it is, and do what I have been dreaming about doing for so long: travel the world. I don’t have to think too hard about who that angel might have been. I know it was my mom. I feel her approval in every step I take toward this upcoming grand adventure, and it gives me comfort and certainty that I am doing the right thing. I expect it to be wonderfully life changing, just like every adventure she created for me in the past. And, I know she can’t wait to go with me, in spirit, in my heart, everywhere I may go.