At 95, Babe still had a valid U.S. passport.
But by then the most my mother, who was known as Babe, could manage was a domestic flight from Houston to Los Angeles to visit me, and even that was a stretch. So I dreaded dropping the news that Ed, my husband, and I were leaving for China. It didn’t seem fair that I could still up and go, and she couldn’t.
I must have expected her to object — to complain that a month was too long, China was too far. Instead she said “Go! while you can.”
She told me about Dr. Wendell, who had delivered her three babies and had wanted to travel. By the time he was ready to retire, his wife was in a wheelchair.
“Go!” she said, bestowing a mother’s blessing. “My travel days are getting shorter. I know that. I can’t go as far, as often.”
Babe had been my accomplice on many adventures. All I needed to do was just say the word. An expedition to look at quilts in Amish country, or lunch with my friends at Windows on the World, the restaurant on top of the World Trade Center, and Babe was game. She asserted none of the scrutiny that most companions would have insisted on — when, where, how long will we be gone? Babe’s go-with-the-flow attitude was the opposite of a nervous, uptight, easily flustered traveler. The only time I remember her objecting to any arrangement I made was in Pennsylvania at a 19th century inn. She did not appreciate it when the clerk indicated that the shared toilet was way down at the far end of a public hall.
Once, after I returned from India, I couldn’t stop raving about the Pushkar Camel Fair in Rajasthan and the Taj Lake Palace in Udaipur. Fingering the saffron kurta with gold threads that I’d brought her, Babe said, wistfully, “It’s too bad we didn’t know earlier how much you’d love India” — meaning, we could have gone together.
Babe, who loved her home but wasn’t a homebody, had always practiced “Go! while you can.”
At first, travel had meant modest road trips up and down the West Coast where Dad went inside for a business meeting while she embroidered outside in the car. Later, with my brother and me tagging along, family travel meant piling in Dad’s Black Hawk Studebaker and setting off from Seattle for some simple destination like Seaside or Roseburg in Oregon. While Dad drove, Babe, the navigator, flipped through a spiral-bound triptik from AAA. The quirky red and white Burma-Shave road signs posted along the edges of the highway — Covers a multitude of chins — passed for entertainment.
Eventually, my father’s business became successful enough that he and Babe were able to take business trips to Norway, Taiwan, and Singapore. In Hong Kong they bought an ornately carved green ”jade” urn. My sister got the idea that it would be our parents’ funeral urn. She inserted a divider — a piece of stiff cardboard from the dry cleaners — and on one side she had Dad write ‘Dad,’ in his scratchy sixth-grade drop-out hand-writing, and on the other side Mom wrote ‘Mom’ in her graceful Palmer cursive.
When I told Babe that Ed and I would be leaving for China, I mentioned that on the way home we’d stop in Singapore.
“Your Dad and I loved Singapore,” Babe said. “Your Dad wanted to retire there.”
He did? That was the first I’d heard. While Babe reminisced about Singapore, I schemed how to include her on our trip.
For many a bonus of travel is the chance to unplug, disconnect, a digital detox from office and family. But when you have a mother who was once a traveler, and who is still curious about the world, you discover that if you want to, it’s easy to stay connected.
The first misty morning at the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall, Ed and I arrived so early we were almost the only people clambering up the steep, uneven stone steps. On the drive back to Beijing, the pumpkins and cornhusks piled at roadside stands looked pretty much like the autumn farm stands back home. However, the evening street food in Beijing — raw embryos (whose I didn’t know), crickets, and grasshoppers — didn’t look like anything back home. I downloaded the photos and sent them to Amanda, Babe’s caregiver. First thing the next morning, I called Babe, who in Houston was a day behind, enjoying her first Scotch-and-soda of the evening. Amanda pulled up a chair for Babe in front of the computer screen.
“I feel like I’m on the trip with you!” Mom said. Babe the postmodern digital armchair traveler.
I felt the same way. When I spotted the pair of petrified walnuts that Mark Ma, our guide, had inherited from his grandfather, and used to massage his hands for finger-hand agility to hold off arthritis — I wondered, What will Babe think of this?
When LaMu, our guide in the Tibetan area of China, told us her mother was married to two brothers who were yak herdsmen, and she didn’t know which was her father, I couldn’t wait to tell Babe about that. Even though I was on the other side of the world, it was easy to bridge the span so Babe didn’t feel lonely or left out.
My experience didn’t keep me from sinking in and savoring the present moment. Instead, communicating almost daily with Babe from halfway around the world added an extra dimension to the idea of personal photo journalism.
In Yangshou, a sleepy rural village outside of Guilin in southern China, we met a seventy-seven year-old woman who lived in an ancient stone house that had been in her family for three hundred and fifty years. Out on her unpaved patio, where roosters and chickens scratched in the dirt, the homeowner smiled coquettishly as she modeled a “raincoat” made out of stiff bamboo fronds. This petite old woman also demonstrated that she was still strong enough, using both hands, to crank the heavy stone wheel to grind soybeans into soymilk for tofu. Inside, in a room off the living room, a coffin — shiny black lacquer with red and gold designs — was lined up against a stone wall next to a cooking area with a hot plate, a skillet, and a rice cooker.
Our guide explained that in this village it was the tradition that when people reached seventy they acquired their own coffin.
Standing next to her coffin, the owner put her hands together in prayer and smiled for my iPhone. It seemed to make that spunky seventy-seven year-old, who appeared to be in excellent health, content to have her coffin so close.
The next morning, some 8,500 miles and a world away, Babe, in her apartment on the fourteenth floor of the senior high-rise community, tried to make sense of the photo of the tiny, gray-haired woman standing next to a coffin.
I explained that, Yes, the coffin was inside her house, out in full view, right next to the kitchen.
“Do you want me to keep a coffin in my apartment?” she asked.
“Only if you want to.”
“I could start a new trend,” she said.
I didn’t remind her that she’d already chosen to be cremated, and there was that urn waiting on the top shelf of my sister’s bookshelf. Since 1998, Dad’s ashes had filled his side.
I absorbed Babe’s “Go!” so fully that when the first woman won the Iditarod Dog Sled race in Alaska, I dropped everything and took off for Nome to do a story on Libby Riddles. When the lava started flowing on the Big Island, I spent New Years Eve nearby at the Volcano House.
Luckily, when Ed and I met, Babe’s “Go! while you can,” was a good fit for both of us. We pledged to go as far as we could — always with hiking sticks — for as long as we could: Hike in Torres de Paine in Chilean Patagonia, slog across the marshy Nature Walk in Gangtey, Bhutan, and in Dharmasala, trek in the snow-packed lower Himalayas where we happened upon a chai tea shack in the middle of nowhere. (My brother liked to joke that we hiked away from the Four Seasons and we hiked back to the Four Seasons. He had a point: We were in rough environments but we were not roughing it.)
As newlyweds, we were pretty much inseparable, and we had a deal: since we’d met in our 60s, we agreed that we’d go almost anywhere together as long as neither of us had been there before with previous loves.
Travel was our way of amassing a personal history fast. It allowed us to say, Remember when we were in Tanzania, Lijiang, Marrakesh. It rescued us from constantly referring to the interesting lives we’d led, and the places we’d traveled before we met.
I continued to travel — usually to places Babe had not been, and I always sent photos.
Excerpt "Lessons from Babe," a quirky mother-daughter memoir.