My mom was an adventurer.
Growing up, I never thought of her that way. She was just my steady, reliable mother, always taking caring of me and the rest of the family. Standing over the stove, hanging laundry on the clothesline, washing floors and walls (does anyone actually do that anymore???), ironing my father’s hankies (really), pinching pennies, making sure the household ran smoothly. I’m sure she saw that as her role in life and she took it very seriously. She almost never played with us kids, even when Dad sat down with us to play a board game once in a while, she invariably steered clear. I now suspect she was happy to have an hour or two of time when we were all otherwise engaged and she could do something else. On the other hand, we never went hungry, ran out of underwear, or missed a dentist appointment. She saw to that.
In her essay “The Household Zen,” (published in High Tide in Tucson—highly recommended, by the way), Barbara Kingsolver wrote:
“A generation of…women served their nation by being the Army of Moms, and they spent their creative force like the ancient Furies, whipping up cakes and handmade Christmas gifts and afterschool snacks, for a brief time in human history raising the art of homemaking high above the realm of dirt….(T)hey left a lot of us lucky baby boomers with strong teeth and bones and a warm taste of childhood in our mouths.”
As a stay-at-home mom, she was around the house pretty well all day, every day, and between chores, she listened religiously to CKNW’s radio quiz “Are You Listening?” Her favourite topic was geography. She wrote down the answers and kept lists of them taped to the inside of her cupboards for quick access. I’m reminded of Kingsolver’s insightful observation: “If you work in the kitchen and have the mind of a rocket scientist, you’re going to organize your cupboards like Mission Control.”
But aside from being a four-star general in the Army of Moms, my mother also had a daring and intrepid side that I’ve only come to recognize as I grow older.
As a teenager and new wife in the early 1950s, she earned her motorcycle license so that she could share the driving with Dad as they roared around Germany on a shared bike. When the two of them decided there was no future in post-war Europe, she held her two tiny children (my eldest brother and sister) by the hand and watched Dad sail off to the wilds of western Canada. For six months, she held the family together while he found work and then wrote for them to join him. She packed up what she could take, gave away what she couldn’t, and hugged her mother and everyone else she knew goodbye.
On the voyage across the Atlantic, high waves made almost everyone aboard the ship seasick. Mom looked after my brother and sister and a couple of other children whose mother was incapacitated.
She spent her birthday on the ship, and the official ship’s photographer snapped pictures of her and my siblings at the party. Later, he suggested he would give her free prints as a keepsake—if she would welcome him to her cabin when no one else was around. She told him to hand over the prints or she would tell the captain what he was up to. Long before #MeToo, Mom was fighting back against sexual predators.
The ship was blown off course by a storm and instead of docking in Halifax as planned, it put in at a U.S. port. Without U.S. transit papers, the passengers were treated like illegal aliens, kept under guard without food, and finally loaded aboard a train to Canada.
My parents were ultimately reunited in Vancouver, whereupon the family was whisked away to a series of remote camps in the wilderness of British Columbia. Dad worked a variety of jobs, including as a surveyor for the Pacific Great Eastern Railway, and the money was better in places far from city life. In Porteau, the only access was by small boat and Mom would order her groceries and other necessities with a list sent with the boatman. They lived in rough shacks with no conveniences and few other families. There were bears in the backyard and “Indians” around the corner, neither of which my mother had ever seen before coming to Canada. She spoke very little English when she arrived, but made it her lifelong goal to learn the new language and use it correctly. She never spoke German to us kids; we were Canadians and would speak English.
After a few years, and now with four children, my parents moved to a nice neighbourhood in Port Moody where my mother could finally fulfill her destiny as SuperMom. She was the perfect suburban housewife—yet her taste for adventurous experiences didn’t leave her.
Our summer holidays were always spent camping. Mom could have dug in her heels and just refused all the extra work that involved, but she loved the outdoors. She braved rain, bugs, pit toilets, snakes (she was terrified of snakes), and more bears as we wandered campsites across BC. We travelled to Barkerville, Terrace, and the Pacific Rim when this entailed long journeys on pot-holed gravel tracks. Perhaps this is just my childish misremembering, but it seemed that we were always driving along some narrow logging road that hung on the edge of a precipitous cliff dropping far below to a distant river valley.
One summer, we moved to Quebec for a couple of months for Dad’s job. Once again, Mom accepted the challenge of moving us all to a completely unfamiliar place with a foreign language.
When Mom was 41, my father was offered a job overseas in—of all places—Yemen. Yemen? No one had even heard of it and we had little idea what to expect there. His contract would be for a minimum of a year. Mom could stay home, or she could once again travel across the world. She chose to give up comfort and familiarity and expose two of her children (myself and my youngest brother) to The Unknown. She also left her two older children behind in Canada, which I believe was much harder for her, although they were both independent young adults by then.
Our trip to Yemen took us through Denmark, Germany, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, the French Territory of the Afars and the Issas (aka French Somaliland or Djibouti), and Eritrea (then part of Ethiopia). As a child of 12, I was wide-eyed at the world that unfolded before me. Yemen itself provided a huge cultural shock. Donkeys and camels pulled watercarts through the desert, hideously deformed beggar children swarmed the streets, and women were swathed in black burkhas with only their eyes and fingers showing.
We moved into a whitewashed concrete block house in a small village four hours’ drive by Landrover through sand dunes from the closest town. My mother and I were the only “white” women in the village and the only women who went unveiled. (Although only 12, I was considered of marriageable age and should have been wearing a burkha.) There were cockroaches the size of Smart Cars on the floors, geckos of corresponding size on the walls (they eat the roaches), and no potable water. One room of our house was filled floor to ceiling with cases of Sohat bottled water.
Suffice to say that my mother could easily have run screaming back home to Port Moody. But she didn’t give up, even after she suffered through a bout of kidney stones and contracted malaria at the same time. This was one tough, determined woman.
Through her life, she was fascinated with the sea and ships, and while others talked about luxury cruises, she always dreamed of hopping a cargo ship. At the age of 50, when her friends were spending vacations in all-inclusive resorts, she and my dad bought backpacks and headed off to Europe.
I’ve been lucky enough to do a lot of travelling in my life, but I’m not sure I have the courage and spirit of adventure my mother had when she immigrated or when she packed us off to live in the Middle East. She always said all she ever wanted to be was a mother and she continually downplayed her intelligence, pointing out that she never went to high school and referring to herself as “pea brain,” yet, somehow, she managed to be the perfect captain of our family spaceship while still boldly going where few dared to go.
I think that takes a form of genius.
Happy birthday, Mom.