My mother, Marian,a retired schoolteacher, has always had a natural curiosity about the world and a love of travel, which she instilled in her two sons. When I was 9, she took us on a once-in-a-lifetime trip out West to visit the greatest hits of America's national parks including the Grand Canyon and Yellowstone. This adventure left quite an impression on me. For the first time, I realized there was an exciting world out there.
My wife Larissa and I hadn't seen my mother since we left on our year-long, around-the-world trek last August. We tried to figure out a way we could meet up with her along the way, figuring our traditional roles would be reversed. I first came upon this notion when I realized that I'm now older than my parents were on all of our family trips.
What would it be like traveling with an older parent? Mom was always a perky, energetic traveler; journeys seemed to reinvigorate her. But like many of us, she's a bit slower these days, so we wondered what effect that would have.
Periodically, my mother makes an announcement that she's too old and won't be traveling anymore. She has said this before, and followed it up with group tours across America and overseas. We asked if she'd like to meet us someplace in Europe. Her response was the usual pronouncement of "I'm too tired, I don't get around easily, I'll just slow you down." I knew these were just excuses that could be overcome.
Larissa and I had chosen a destination my mother couldn't resist: Italy, the birthplace of her parents. When she brought up her age, we reminded her that Grandpa had made his last trip to the old country when he was 96 years old. And then I suggested she come over for her birthday. It's a particularly poignant day for her; she shares the same birth date as my father, who died four years ago. Since then, birthdays have become a painful reminder of her loss. I knew she wouldn't be able to resist the comforting distraction of traveling with us on that day.
The plan worked. Larissa found a rental apartment in the hilltop village of Corpo di Cava near the Amalfi Coast, where we would spend a week. However, this quaint little hill town had steep and narrow cobblestone streets where most cars, including our rental, could barely fit. We had questioned the owner about the stairs inside the apartment, but had not thought to ask about actually getting to the house itself. It was a little more climbing than we had bargained for, but, to her credit, Mom rallied to the charge.
Perched on the edge of a cliff, the house provided sweeping views of the nearby hillsides and overlooked an 11th-century Benedictine abbey. The warmth from the woodstove was a cozy respite on chilly rainy days. Since this trip was about spending time together, the wet weather relieved us of any compulsion to run out and see as many sights as possible. It gave us the perfect excuse to slow down, sit by the fire, and enjoy the view while we ate home-cooked Italian food and caught up on all that had been going on in our lives over the last half-year.
In a switch from the past, Mom got to unwind while we cooked for her. Her travels have typically been on group tours that go nonstop. But she eased into the rhythms of the languid pace at which we travel: wake up whenever, eat when we feel like it, and sightsee when the urge strikes. Frankly, we think we spoiled her.
One sunny day we took in the spectacular ruins of Pompeii. The site is a bit of a physical challenge since it stands on a hill beneath the brooding hulk of Mount Vesuvius. Mom travels with a lightweight folding chair that lets her sit down anywhere. Periodically she was content to rest and watch the passersby.
After an hour of clambering over ruins and people-watching, she decided she had seen enough of the ancient Roman town. Larissa and I still wanted to discover more, so I escorted Mom back to a piazza in town knowing she'd occupy herself with a gelato while we continued to explore.
Afterward we walked through the chaotic streets of Naples in search of pizza. Here is where Mom's background as the daughter of immigrants came in handy. Speaking Italian, she asked a father and son if they could recommend a good pizzeria. Ten-year-old Giuliano piped up, "Come on, I show you."
So away we went, following the young boy through the streets. It worked out perfectly, his short-legged stride at just the right pace for mom. Before this trip, I thought our roles would be reversed and as adult children we would be doing the leading. But here was Mom in Italy, using her language skills and newfound energy to once again lead us.
Oh, and her birthday? We celebrated it at a restaurant in Salerno. The staff made a big deal out of the event and baked a special cake for her. Mom was overwhelmed. She said it was the first birthday she had enjoyed since my dad died.
Every year we wonder what to get Mom for Mother's Day. It turns out the greatest gift we can give our parents is ourselves, the special moments that we share together. They've certainly earned it.
Larissa and Michael Milne are traveling around the world for a year and are reporting in regularly about their journey. You can follow them at www.ChangesInLongitude.com.