Travel Companion

Across the miles — and years — with the person who made it all possible.

I learned to travel at my mom’s side. Not just in a geographic sense (though we’ve crossed our share of state lines and one large body of water), but in a metaphorical, temporal sense that’s come to shape me as a son, husband, and father.

I shed my first tears of empathy as a 7-year-old on a train ride during a year my family spent in Italy. Somewhere between Rome and Venice — or was it between Venice and Florence? — the train braked abruptly, sending a suitcase from an overhead compartment violently downward, directly into the back of my mom’s noggin. She cried a bit, which I’d never seen before. Which made me cry as though I’d taken the concussive blow. Somehow, this memory has remained more vivid than my first look at Michelangelo’s David. It’s the last time I remember either of us tearing up on a journey together.

Three years later, Mom took the wheel of a tiny, olive-green Datsun and drove my younger sister and me from Knoxville, Tennessee, to Yorba Linda, California. (My dad had driven ahead, in a moving truck.) For a trip that took the better part of a week — we stopped at the sights a family should see — I played a single cassette tape in the desktop player my grandfather gave me for the trip: Billy Joel’s 52nd Street. To this day, play a slice of “Big Shot” or “My Life” and my mom will do her best to harmonize. And she’ll be seeing the same north-Texas tumbleweed I do when I hear those songs.

We stopped at the Grand Canyon on our way west, where I purchased a gift for my driver and tour guide: a small jewelry box with “Mom” somewhat ostentatiously sealed on the lid, in shiny gold plastic. It said it all (at least to a 10-year-old). That trip, really, in a little wooden box.

For all of us, every day is Mother's Day.

Three years later — this globetrotting seemed to find a natural cycle — Mom managed to secure tickets for Game 3 of the 1982 National League Championship Series between my beloved St. Louis Cardinals and the Atlanta Braves. Trouble was, we had moved to Vermont by then, and the game would be played in Atlanta. Tiny hurdle. I was excused from school for a form of hooky Tom Sawyer himself would be afraid to plot. East-west, and now north-south. Traveling with Mom had its rewards.

Adulthood brought more travels, for me to Memphis, for my sister back to the West Coast (ultimately Seattle). Having lost my dad seven years ago, the core of my family as a youth — now three members — somehow occupies three of this country’s four time zones. Traveling across vast distances seems to grab you in ways even a parent can’t quite teach. And the rewards become less tangible, harder to share. They’re more about what you become — a Memphian, for instance — than what you happen to be seeing at a certain mile marker.

These days, when Mom and I get together, we tend to target U.S. presidential history as we plot a course. (Mom has a Ph.D. in history, so her lessons go beyond those of an ambitious chauffeur.) Hyde Park in New York. The Kennedy Library in Boston. We had a blast at the Clinton Library in Little Rock. (Remember that journey to Yorba Linda? My sister went to school across the street from Richard Nixon’s birthplace.) We consider these hot spots, as much for the conversations and debates they inspire as for any trinkets or documents that may be displayed.

My mom is now battling breast cancer, a development that rocks so many families in so many corners of the world. It’s certainly rocked mine, and across miles that have never seemed more distant. But I have confidence in Mom’s strength of body and will, and I’m convinced we’ll be discussing cancer a year from now in the past tense.

Which brings me back to that jewelry box. It’s been a repository of pocket change — my pocket change — for more than 30 years now. It’s a testament to my mom’s taste (and grace) that she managed to “regift” this little prize without really saying so. And I’m grateful she did. I see it every day (whether or not I’ve got a quarter to spare). Reminds me that, for all of us, every day is Mother’s Day. 

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