My maternal grandmother was a woman named Helen. My memories are of her round, smiling face, and her soft, benevolent nature. She was a good human being. She was also an avid traveler. In the fifties, she drove her five children from Seattle to New York, and then shuttled them across the Atlantic, keeping them in tow until they reached the southernmost tip of Italy, a magical place called Sicily. My grandfather was a professor of physics, and he was teaching in Italy for two years. So the family lived there together, and my mother still glows when she tells stories about her younger years in the Italian countryside.
After the children had grown up, Grandma became a travel agent, and once her husband had died and the children had scattered, she began her own world travels, exploring Europe, Mexico, Africa, and even India. When I left for this trip, my aunt Patricia gave me a very special gift- it was my grandmother’s traveling wallet, made of well-worn black leather, soft and pliable. Flipping it open, its various pockets and compartments are labeled in gold: Passport, Continental Currency, U.S. & English Money, Rail & Steamship Tickets, Baggage Checks. I was touched to receive that gift, and I’ve carried it with me every day for the past six months. I feel like a piece of Grandma is with me.
Grandma also passed her love of travel onto my mother, who in turn passed it on to me and my siblings. Mother took us on our first big trip when I was sixteen. We went to Italy. We stayed in a beautiful appartamento near the center of Rome, and many of our friends, cousins, aunts, and uncles came as well. Every night, the adults made pasta dinners with fresh ricotta, and tomatoes and basil from the garden. We kids spied on the local youth culture, tough-looking teenagers who wore leather jackets and lounged on motorbikes. We ate gelatto every day. From then on, our love for travel was born. My sister, brother, and I have been lucky enough to see distant parts of the world, from Australia, to South-East Asia, to Europe, and now, to India. I thank my mother for planting the seed in us then, which has blossomed into a healthy, fruitful tree of life experience and cultural awakening.
When I was twenty-three, I decided to drop out of college again. I had seen “The Beach,” and decided that the blue lagoons of Thailand were calling my name. Seattle had nothing left to offer me. It was time to explore. I merely mentioned the idea to my sister, and she was in. There were only three things left to do: Get a job waiting tables. Drop out of school. Tell my mom I had dropped out of school. When I broached the idea to Mother, I was cringing a little inside. No one wants to tell their parents they’re dropping out. Mother was sitting in her office at the university where I was also a student, and I was expecting her to be disappointed. What mother wouldn’t be a little upset? I was several weeks into the quarter, and I had already left and returned to school several times. I wasted no time. I spat out my plan to her and waited, my fingers clenching and unclenching at my sides. She smiled. “I think that’s a great idea, Sarah,” she said. “I’ve always said that if I could give my children a college education, or a trip around the world, I’d do the latter.” She winked at me. “And although I don’t have money to send you around the world right now, I will completely support you in any way I can.” From that moment on, she rooted on my sister and I as we worked and saved money. When we set out for Asia in October, she had tears in her eyes, but she was happy.
My mother is a beautiful woman. Last year, I walked into that same office on the same university campus, intending to say hello. It was always wonderful having my mother work at my school, because I could pop in for a visit anytime. I think we both loved it. On this particular day, I walked down the hall, shook out my coat, and poked my head into her office. She was sitting at her desk, her back straight, but when she heard me, she turned around and smiled. She was wearing a red sweater, and a black and white scarf around her neck. Silver earrings hung from her ears. Her eyes were lightly lined in kohl. She took my breath away. I don’t think I told her then how beautiful she looked, but I should have. I do remember thinking, If I can look that good when I’m sixty, bring it on!
My mother has always been beautiful. In the summertime, she hauls out a bucket and tools, and plants herself in the garden. Her favorite gardening outfit is a stretchy black halter top and red nylon shorts. She sits at the edge of the lawn and plucks weeds, her olive skin glinting in the sunlight. When she dresses up, she wears slinky black sandals that show off her small, tan feet. She’s passed on some of her good physical attributes to my sister and I, but I will always covet her shapely legs and black Irish skin tone. Lucky.
My mother is good friends with all of my friends. Even when I’m far away, they go over to the house to visit her, or meet up with her for dinner at a restaurant in town. My best friend Brigitte has looked to her as a second mother ever since we were children, and it’s so nice to show up to my parent’s house from time to time and find that Brigitte is already there. My other nearest and dearest, Alita, used to drive out there to hang out with my mom even when I was too busy with studying to go. “Okay, then, I’m gonna go anyway,” she’d say. “Do you want me to bring you leftovers?”
Mamacita is a wonderful cook. She whips up creamy potato salad, superlative coleslaw, homemade lasagna, tender pork roast, Mexican feasts, and cake with sprinkles. She loves to entertain, and anytime she gets the chance, she will lure people over with her cooking. Before I left, we had a huge bon voyage party, and my mom fed over a hundred people with ease and grace. It was delicious and seemingly effortless. I love going over to my parent’s house and eating a huge dinner, and then lying down on the couch with a magazine. Mother will no doubt show up several minutes later and make sure I’m comfortable. “Honey, do you need a blanket?” she will ask in concern. “Or a glass of ice water?” When I was young and would get sick, she would make me “nests” on the couch- huge stacks of blankets and pillows that I could burrow my way down into. She loves to make sure people are comfortable.
When my dad gets into one of his notorious snarls, my mother remains admirably cool and collected. We will be driving down the street, trying to get to the zoo, or the restaurant, or the freeway. Suddenly we’ll hit a traffic jam. Watch out. Daddy will start freaking out behind the wheel, saying, “Where the hell am I going, anyway? Would you look at this goddamned traffic jam!!” All the kids tense up in the backseat. A black mood has descended. But Mother will straighten up and take a slow, deep breath. She’ll say, “Now Ron, just calm down and take a left here. Okay? See? Now we can just squeak through this alley and end up on the other side of the traffic, no problem.” She speaks in her most steady, soothing voice, and more or less navigates us through what would otherwise be a hair-pulling mess.
Mother is also inherently optimistic. One time my brother and I were gloomily discussing how the human race is like a cancer on the earth. Mother was genuinely bothered. “Children!” she said. “I think we’re here for another reason! You can’t only look at us as a cancer.” John and I battled back, determined that morbidity should carry the day, but Mother wouldn’t hear of it. “Enough,” she finally said. “If you kids are going to be so depressing, then you are banished from the kitchen!” We left, muttering to ourselves about how some people just refuse to be realistic, but her view stuck in my head for years, and now I’m inclined to agree with her. I hope we’re more than a cancer!
When Mother got married, she wore a bohemian blue dress with huge sleeves and a plunging neckline. A ring of yellow flowers crowned her head. She looked gorgeous, like a voluptuous, dark-haired fairy princess. I’ve always thought that if I get married, I’m going to look like that. No white dress up to my neck, thank you very much! Across the ages, she has demonstrated the same such beauty and charisma, from the photographs I see of her as a child with her hair in twin braids, and a striped shirt sliding off her shoulder, to the pictures of her holding me when I was a baby, her hippie eyes stoned, and her smile absolutely gorgeous. She beams when she is happy, and her smile lights up the room. I struggled before writing that, by the way- her smile lights up the room– no good author uses such cliches- but… it’s true!
Her smile does light up the room. It’s magnetic and expansive at the same time. I love to see my mother happy.
Mother has also been wonderfully supportive of my writing. I don’t know if any of you have noticed, but she is always the first to comment when I put up a new piece of work. She loves it! When I mention that I’m heading to a new destination, she wants to know exactly where it is so she can find it on a map. When I write a story using descriptive language, she can be counted upon to notice and compliment my style. When I ask for literary criticism, she discreetly points out misspellings and grammar mistakes without making me feel bad. She has always been an avid reader and a talented writer, and I can look to her as a dependable editor now that I have begun to write. It’s nice knowing that you can share some of your innermost writing with your mother, and that she will support you and cheer you on, despite the sometimes racy content 😉
So thank you, Mama, for being such a spectacular parent! We were meant to be together in this life. It is so wonderful getting closer to you as time goes on, and I look forward to knowing each other for the rest of our lives!!!