When my mother’s death was imminent I took on a project of documenting her life. I had just been laid off from a job that I loved because of a pissing match between two media moguls. Some people see a shrink when times get tough, I dove into a labor of love, exploring the world through my mother’s eyes.
My mother was a gutsy lady. She did solo trips until well into her 70s. With her first trip to Europe on a cruise down the Danube from Germany to Hungary, she was hooked.
My first jaunt through Europe was with my mom. She had just lost her beloved husband George and I had just been downsized from my job producing radio talk shows. We licked our wounds as we wound through the British Museum and posed for pictures with historic figures at Madam Tussaud’s Wax Museum in London. Our eyes basked in the glory of the masters at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence and the masterpiece that is Venice.
A weekend in Barcelona was like a slap-stick comedy of misinterpretations. The week before we got there, there were bombs blamed on the Basque separatists. Undaunted, we had tickets and we were going. As we arrived at the hotel included in the package deal we booked in London, some one was yelling that his luggage had been stolen from the lobby. My mother always insisted that we look at a room before accepting it – a very good practice that has saved us from the hassle of changing rooms after all the paperwork has been done.
Good move. We refused a room at the bottom of an air shaft in a hotel off Las Ramblas and were in a cab headed for another hotel when we heard explosions. We did not speak Spanish but we spoke some French. Thinking it was a terrorist attack we asked the cab driver to take us to the airport. After much pantomime fun, we learned that Barcelona had been awarded the 1992 Olympics. They must have been celebrating with canons!
Then there was the bidet in the new hotel that was like a geyser. No dainty, bubbling stream here. This was a full water show. We fought over it! My Subaru car key could open that hotel room door. Not much in the way of security but that bidet was impressive.
My mother wanted authentic paella. The hotel put us in a taxi and sent us to a tourist trap. The cab driver said he would take us to a restaurant the was less touristy. We were nervous when dropped us off in a warehouse district. The place was small with long tables for generations of big families. It was a Sunday afternoon and the after church crowd filed in. No one spoke English. The choices were a chicken or “mixta” paella. We wanted to know what was in the mixta so they showed us a tray of all kinds of fish and then returned to the kitchen. In an effort to get the waiter to bring back the tray so we could point at what we wanted, I said langustinos. He thought I had said langosta, the word for a spiny lobster. Out came a mouth-watering lobster paella that we devoured with our forks sparring for every last grain of rice. The other diners oohed and aahed at our meal. There was a whispered din of “Americanos” and “langosta”. Then the bill came. Paella normally ran around $15 or $20. That little lobster tacked on 40 bucks! It was a much more expensive lunch that we expected but worth every peseta.
Then there was the restaurant by the Picasso Museum. The museum was closed that day so we stopped nearby for lunch. We each ordered a carafe of wine. The carafe looked like a beaker from science class but it had a long tapered tube off the side of the base bubble. Every time we tried to pour, wine went everywhere. Ugly Americans that we were, we didn’t know that you were supposed to drink from the spout. Then another plate of shrimp arrived with heads attached. A dozen eyes staring at us struck our funny bones. We made spectacles of ourselves and had three weeks of pee-in-your-pants fun!
As I assembled the photos for her memorial I was struck by her extraordinary life itinerary. There were pictures from Red Square in Moscow and palaces in St. Petersburg from her tour of Russia.
Her painting of a camel in front of the Zenobia Hotel in Palmyra hangs in our guest bedroom.
In Jordan, her stories of the lost city of Petra and the sprawling Roman ruins of Jerash jettisoned them to the top of my must-see list. They didn’t disappoint. That trip still ranks at the top of my favorite places list.
She was fearless. Her Middle East trip ended in Jerusalem when they were opening a controversial gate. All of the American network news anchors were doing live shots from this historic event. Everyone was bracing for violence. Besides the beauty and history that is Jerusalem, my mother’s comment? ABC news anchor Peter Jennings was very handsome in person.
Before pirates took over the waters along the coast of eastern Africa, Mom and her third husband snagged a deal on a 30-day cruise and tour from Athens to Cape Town, South Africa. As I wear a necklace she bought in Kenya, I imagine the people who carved the wooden animals that hang around my neck. I can’t wait to discover my own treasures there.
Every time I see pictures of Table Mountain in Cape Town, I can hear my mom telling me about the majestic views and wonderful restaurant she found. Johannesburg reminds me of her story of a long, hot layover that was not pleasant.
As she studied Chinese ink painting techniques her desire to go to China grew. She booked a solo ticket on a group tour that included a cruise down the Yangtze River before they flooded the gorge. There was the meticulously carved marble boat that I must find. She brought my dream of seeing the terra-cotta army in Xian to life and made me want to see it all the more.
And then there’s the most stunning jacket made for her in Hong Kong. It was black silk with a round, gold Chinese shield on the front. It was a wearable piece of art and she loved it. She looked sensational in it. It represented her sense of style and adventure and she will wear that jacket for eternity.
On this first of September, what would have been her 84th birthday, I raise a martini glass to Mummy. Thanks for introducing me to the world.