Mother In Tow
I wake up early – almost too early – the day after a wedding in Ireland. There is the headache and there is hazy light peaking in through the crack in the curtain. I hear rustling in my room. I see fog where there isn’t any. I see my mother standing at the end of my bed.
I’d been invited to the wedding of my best friend’s daughter and since the bride travels for a living, the wedding would be held in Doolin, Ireland – her favorite place. The invitation woke up half of her relatives, especially those who prefer Niagara Falls to intercontinental travel. People mortgaged their houses to buy their tickets and sign up for a week in a castle. And my announcement – that I would be traveling to Europe to witness the nuptials – woke up my mother, who asked if she could come along.
I am a solo traveler at heart having spent too many days as a bored child, always doing what my father wished: symphonies, museums, cannon ball plaques on the side of the road, dull picnics in odd parks, the ballet. While I am certain that much of his cultural instruction rubbed off on me somehow, I must admit a certain resentment. Three hours of Handel’s Messiah as a six-year-old was torture and if not for the paper program and a ballpoint pen, I might have perished by the time the chorus struck “Hallelujah.” As I grew older, his weekend plans were more suggestive than directive, and I escaped the dusty halls of his ideas by getting lost in my first car. My headlights pointing south towards my grandmother’s house, I’d drive the 75 miles there through farmland and woodland, over hill and vale, without the benefit of a sense of direction. Inevitably, I’d pull up alongside of the road, roll down my window and ask a man in overalls where I might find Jamestown. He’d think for a minute, gaze down the road behind him, and then point somewhere, and I’d be off, with a dim understanding of where I was going and I liked it that way.
Having run out of children to show things to, Europe adopted my father and for a long time we missed him. I imagined him breaking a leg on a slope in France or standing before the statue of David with tears in his eyes. We had abandoned him, but art is forever. That much he knew.
Later in life, when I began to travel, my father and I struck up a common chord, and we exchanged postcards from the road. My mother resented our connection, as she and my father had divorced. She was well in the middle of her “difficult years,” which held certain similarities to the great potato famine. She was hungry for security and sustenance and I thought Ireland might encourage her to sprout.
Did I really know my mother after years of going at it alone? She hadn’t waited up for me since I was 17, when I’d pull into the driveway after curfew, afraid to see the harsh glow of her cigarette burning from the long end of the dining room table in the dark. She’d been there to burp my babies and make tuna noodle casseroles, but was this the same woman who once ironed my pants?
I am the first to arrive in Shannon since we depart from different cities. When I spot her at the baggage claim, she is a wreck. She is looking for something in every nook and cranny of her luggage, a theme that would play out with alarming regularity on the road. This first time, it is her passport. She feels she might have lost it on the plane, what with all the open windows and the thieves? We remove every article from her old Samsonite suitcase, right down to the hairpins and her white cotton underwear. We finally find her passport, tucked into the sleeve of her airline ticket packet, the only place we hadn’t quite yet looked.
I’d already picked up our rental car. She insisted on driving, having somehow lived through two previous trips to Europe, in which, she explained rather proudly, she’d driven on the wrong side of the road. Unable to get the car in reverse, she spent fifteen minutes swearing and then five berating the poor young lad who was dispatched to help her out. “I’ve driven a stick shift all my life!” she exclaimed.
Safely down the road but nearing a round about, she screamed my name quite loudly. “You aren’t looking for the road signs! If I am going to drive then you MUST be looking for the road signs!” I suddenly realized that my mother viewed our trip to Ireland as something to conquer and not something to enjoy. Travel is hard and difficult, she seemed to be saying, and if we’re going to live through it, you’re going to have to pay attention! Now WATCH for road signs. It wasn’t much later that we lost a rear view mirror when she drove too close to a tree.
I tried to point out scenic views on the way to Dingle, but terrified of taking her eyes off the road, and absent one mirror, she discouraged it. And although I’d given birth to three children and hiked the Inca Trail alone, I was not permitted to drive. Like a six-year-old, I would sit on the left hand side of the car the entire trip, sulking on my way to the symphony.
I was assigned two jobs, however, which I learned to take quite seriously. The first was to refrain from talking whenever we encountered an intersection and to know emphatically which way to turn before we even got there. Punishment for hesitating was severe: five go a-rounds in the round about or an hour of absolute silence. The second job was dangerous and therefore more exciting: I was charged to exit the car whenever she managed to put it in reverse and be sure there wasn’t another car – or even a sheep – for at least three miles.
And so it went, from Dingle to Killarney to Doolin. I was happy to finally arrive at the castle – with my mother’s socks drying on the backseat – and find the friends who had gathered for the wedding. I promptly dropped my mother off at the lodgings she had chosen down the road, insisting that the castle was too costly.
Freedom! The castle provided me with my own dorm room, free from the demands of my mother. For two whole nights, I could mingle with the ghosts from ancient times without pausing to find postcard stamps or searching for the glasses in her purse. I even borrowed my friend’s car, and proudly drove to my mother’s hotel the next morning, beeping up the long driveway so she would see me.
The morning after the wedding, I awoke to find my mother in my room, scrounging through my suitcase. She was sighing heavily, big bags under her eyes, and since it was the first time she had thought of searching my bags for her things, I knew it was serious.
“I’ve lost my passport,” she said. “And my wallet and all of my money.”
“That’s what you always say,” I said back, burrowing my face into a pillow. I was glad the trip was almost over.
“It’s serious this time,” she said, standing in the middle of the room, her outline somehow softening in the light from the crack in the curtain. I opened my other weary eye and met both her eyes, and they were awash in confusion and fear. It was the first time I had ever thought of my mother as a mortal, and I sat up in bed to offer my presence.
“We’ll find it, Ma,” I said, my voice wavering. “It’s okay.”
I realized she had come to Ireland to reclaim some lost part of herself and now she worried there was little left to claim. Time isn’t always kind. Lost passports point to troubled memory. Uncertainty gives way to nervousness.
We retraced every step we’d made for one whole day, as if rewinding the video from yesterday. At the windy Cliffs of Moher, I looked down into the swirling waters for the piece of my mother that we’d lost. We trudged back to the ruins we’d visited the day before, another old castle where the wedding had been held. We walked up and down the steps once more, as if history could be re-entered, but I wasn’t sure. I think it can only be remembered.
On the way back to the car, an Irishman chased us across the field.
“They found your passport!” he yelled, waving his hands in the air.
“How did you know it was us?” I asked.
“The woman from your hotel called. You told her you’d be down here, looking for something you might have lost. She called the office. I’m glad I caught you! Turns out, you dropped your things in the parking lot last night.”
I drove back to Doolin that afternoon. My mother relinquished the keys. On the way back, she looked quietly out the window at all the things she hadn’t seen.
As we wound our way back to the castle on the hill, I opened that window of memory to see what might look back at me. Time is precious, I thought. And we are its keepers. I’ll carry around this day in Ireland with me…and I’ll carry it for my mother.