“Please know that I am aware of the hazards. I want to do it because I want to do it.”
When I was growing up, my parents often travelled to faraway lands. It didn’t worry me during the day, but at night I dreamt over and over again that they died in a plane crash. I dreamt it so often that I taught myself how to control the story. Just as the plane was about to hit the ground, I would tell myself to wake up and not to worry, it was only a dream. One night, probably from boredom or just curiosity, I let the dream finish its terrible trajectory. This night the plane crashed. Everyone aboard was killed. At the funeral, my father was quietly lowered into the ground. My mother, by contrast, sat straight up in her coffin right before they closed the lid and said, “If you think I am taking this lying down, you are sadly mistaken.” She got up and walked out. I never had that dream again.
So you can imagine the shock when she did die. Not violently in a plane crash but quietly in a bed following a stroke. The doctors had prepared us for what was coming, but I didn’t believe them. After all, she had defied so many expectations and predictions. After a skiing accident, they said she might not walk again. She walked. Snow blind on Everest, she found the path. In jail in Algeria, she got out. Dead in my dreams, she quit her own funeral.
So you can see why I thought, of course, she would make it. When I arrived at the hospital following the call from my father, she was singing “A Spoonful of Sugar Helps the Medicine Go Down” from Mary Poppins and asking for bourbon. Even at the very end, even when the nurse whispered, “I think she’s gone” and began to check for a heartbeat, Mom took a huge, deep, gasping breath that made us all jump out of our skin. See, I thought, she isn’t ‘gone’. Not my mother. But a few minutes later, she was.
But this is supposed to be a travel story – about an adventurer - an old-school, lady traveller to be exact. Please note that I did not say old-school woman traveller. My mother didn’t set much store on feminist activism. I think she was bored with it. Instead, she just did her own magnificent thing. As the Reverend Tom Midyett said at her service, “Nan was an artist” with all the individuality that statement implies.
The sweetest words my mother ever heard were always, “No, you can’t do that.” Maybe she never intended to do it. Maybe she didn’t want to do it. But the minute something was forbidden, she would get a really fun, terrifying glint in her eye. I think she lived for those moments. And then she was off, to Africa, to Antarctica, to New York, to altitudes and deserts and rivers and castles, to all the places that for all kinds of reasons she was not supposed to go. She was Boudicca in a Chanel suit, Sacagawea leading Lewis and Clark, Gertrude Bell mapping the Middle East - always leading the charge against convention and expectation.
And just when you thought she’d done it all, she’d head off again. ‘Where’s your mother now?’ was my favorite question as a child. It still is. So where’s my mother now? It’s hard to say. Off on some adventure, causing trouble, I suppose. I hope.
I like to think of her this way. On her very first trip - 15 years old, excited, apprehensive, about to board the train in North Carolina bound for New York City and Julliard and my father and us, her children, and everything that happened after that including Antarctica and Algeria and Everest. My mother taught me this. We travel because God gave us two feet, a strong heart and a sense of adventure. We travel because, aware of all the hazards, we still want to do it.