Wednesday, July 18, 2012

My mother’s tears of happiness shone in the morning sun.  Her first look at Ireland was as full of emotion as her ancestors were full of blarney.
  Robbie helped choreograph several European trips with mum 
  “I’m home,” she cried, lifting her hands heavenward. “I feel their spirits.”
Then she wept.  My sister and I looked at one another, blinking back our own tears.  Then we hugged mum and all of us cried.
I remembered watching “The Wizard of Oz” as a five-year-old, with my mother at my side. Near the end, when Dorothy wakes up safely back in Kansas, her auntie and uncle at her side and the scarecrow and his pals turned back to farm hands, my mother wept.
“Why are you crying, mummy?” I asked.
 “Because I’m so happy.  You’ll understand some day.”
 She was right. Happiness and sorrow, like the comic and tragic masks, are merely different takes on the same thing. 
Cookie and mummy at the Folies
I’d been to Ireland a half-dozen times before, but seeing it through my mother’s eyes was like seeing it anew.  She made me feel connected to the country in a way I had never felt before.  The Blarney Stone took on new meaning.  The potato famine felt real.  When she told me the story of  her great grandmother’s departure, I felt the face of the Emerald Isle staring at me.
“They had a wake for her,” she said, “because they knew she wouldn’t be coming back. Can you imagine their sadness and bravery?”
We had put down anchor in Kolb, where my great, great-grandmother, Molly Wilson, had left her family for America before the Century’s turn.  She’d taken the train from Cork, on a tiny track which we found.  Again, my mother wept.
 But it wasn’t all weeping, not by any means.  My 20 days in Europe with my mother and youngest sister rank high on my list of world adventures.  Not because of the exotic nature of  the ports, all of which I’d visited for extended periods, but because of the unique nature of the trip.
Life is shaped by defining moments and we don’t always know when they.  Looking back, we realize the importance.  Somehow, I had felt the significance of this trip since we first started planning. It began as a challenge.  Mum had taken me on trips as a little girl.  Indeed, I owe much of my love of travel, music and theater to her and her mother for the curiosity they instilled in me as a toddler.  She’d hinted broadly for 20 years, mentioning on each of my forays how she’s always wanted to go to Blank or return to Blank one last time. 
So I’d challenged my mother with part bribe, part enticement.  She knew she needed to lose weight, with two leaky heart valves, one seriously compromised.
“You lose the weight and we’ll go to Europe,” I said in the summer of 1998.  By the summer of 1999, she’d lost 45 pounds, through diet and exercise and the European Enticement Plan. The game was afoot. By summer of 1999, she’d lost another 40.  I sent her a stack of brochures and pamphlets and she picked the trip.

A Royal occasion
The Princess 2000 cruise brochure was her favorite.  She’d chosen the Western Europe tour on page 61, which sailed on the Royal Princess from Dover Aug. 22 – just a few days after my birthday, and 5 days before hers.
“We’ll celebrate together,” she said, overjoyed that we’d be sailing the Irish sea on her actual Aug. 27 anniversary. My sister, Robbie, and I had been planning the complex logistics of such a journey for months.  Three busy people, three departure cities, dozens of planes, boats and trains and tour buses.  The cruise concept, we’d decided, was ideal because it would plant us in one place for a couple weeks and we could add sidetrips before and after.  Paris and London were must-sees for mummy, and she wanted to experience the Eurostar Channel Tunnel.  So I suggested we fly into London, catch our breaths at my favorite hotel, the Dorchester, then “Chunnel” to Paris for 3 days.  After that, we’d “Chunnel” back to England, departing at Ashford, then taking a taxi to our embarkation point of Dover.
Mum had chosen the Princess for Western Europe because it visited places she’d long wanted to see:  Normandy, where the Allies clawed their way ashore on D-Day.  She, after all, remembered the invasion and had friends among the casualties.
The Irish stops – to Cork and Dublin with other sidetrips – had obvious appeal, with her Irish heritage. She wanted to walk the Georgian squares and have lunch in a pub.  Edinburgh with its castle and romance intrigued her She’d taken us to see Maggie Smith in “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie” years ago, and knew there were Scotsmen, too, in our lineage.  She wanted to ride the Royal Mile to Holyrood Castle. Hamburg fascinated her with its lovely bridges and churches.  But mostly, she knew of its proximity to Berlin and wanted to see the fallen wall and stand beneath Brandenburg Gate.
My sister, Robbie, better with “enforcement” than I am, had cautioned mum about the importance of “less is more” in packing, warning her that we’d have to schlep our own bags at certain points.
“She promised she’d pack light.  We went through her cruise wardrobe, and she knows she has to leave room for gifts,” Robbie said.  Sounded good to me.
And so 20 pounds of paperwork later --  faxes, xeroxes, maps, tickets, reservations in hand – we left our trio of cities – Portland, Sacramento and Billings – to link in Salt Lake, there to continue onward non-stop to Cincinatti, and “across the pond” to Gatwick.
Mum was elated when I met her at her gate.  Despite my cautioning, she’d packed everything she owned, was one bag over her allotment and had a bulging carry-on, and an checked extra bag which she sheepishly defended. Ah, well, onward. And, lest you wonder, “How did it go?” I’ll give you a hint up front. Fabulously.  It had a rough moment or two – adult “children” and their parents are bound to have a moment or two.  But it was glorious and the memories are indelible.  I wouldn’t trade them for anything.

 Baggage overboard and improv
As the trip evolved, sis and I slyly unloaded unnecessary items from mum’s bags when she wasn’t looking. We had too.  And mum knew we were doing it, so in the interest of diplomacy, looked the other way.  She knew she had way too many panty hose, dozens of plastic bags and tissues enough for the entire ship. Once we were able to comfortably lift her bags and ours, we were happy, and we had that all sorted out by the time we arrived at the Dorchester in London.  I’d sprung for first-class air tickets on Delta, so we arrived rested and mum was delighted with the personal video on the way over.  She charmed the flight attendants, heard her birthday announced by the captain -- with a champagne toast from her fellow passengers --  and actually got a bit of rest, so she was ready to explore London.
Our first adventure was a boat trip on the Thames, and she loved going under the Tower Bridge, and hearing the commentary of wars, beheadings and ransom.  The woman who took me to my first Shakespeare play was thrilled to see the restored Old Globe Theater, and proud that a fellow American, Sam Wanamaker, had a huge hand in it.  A genial cabbie took us on an extended driving tour of the city so she could tip her hat to No. 10 Downing Street, Westminster Abbey, Buckingham Palace and other London landmarks.
We dined on fish and chips the first night, her choice, and saw a fabulous production of  “Fosse” so our first full day was a hit. Then on to Waterloo Station and the Chunnel, a first-class experience we all agreed, and an easy three hours to Paris, another city on her bucket list.
That night, we cruised the Seine, admired the Eifel Tower aglow in thousands of lights, and listened to a jazz trio play.  She sang along with “La Vie En Rose,” and I remembered the Edith Piaf records she’d played us as kids.  The next day, we lazed about in our rooms at the Westminster, strolled up the Rue de la Paix to the Opera House, and admired the architecture and the perfect weather.
The second night found us at the most authentic nightclub Paris has to offer.  “Paradise Latin” is an old-style revue, complete with can-can and acrobats, comedy and magic, scantily dressed girls and plenty of risque humor.  “Very Parisian,” pronounced my mother. “I’m having so much fun.”
My college French was useful and mother was a perfect subject, loving everything, thanking people profusely.  The French loved my mother, and having her along opened doors.  People were touched that we had actually gotten it together to take mum to Europe – something lots of families talk about, but few seem to accomplish.
She had many great moments abroad.  In Ireland, we visited a pub, the day before her birthday, and she chatted with an Irish family on holiday, celebrating their daughter’s 25th birthday. She did a little can-can flourish the night we went to the Paris revue, bought herself some shamrock socks in Dublin, left a red rose at Normandy, walked under the Brandenburg Gate and waved at the hookers in the famous Amsterdam red-light windows. Her enthusiasm made me realize I was becoming a bit jaded as a traveler, taking too much for granted.  She reveled at the flowers in Hyde Park, at the gardens of Cornwall, at the vastness of the museums and the splendor of their holdings. She loved the brightly painted doors of Dublin, a protest of “her” people who wouldn’t be told to paint their doors black.
Every moment of that trip, large and small, lingers in my memory, bright as the sunlight that first morning on the Irish sea as Cobn came into sight.  It was an odyssey and I’m the richer for it.
Now, a dozen years later on the anniversary of our sail-out, both my mother's and baby sister's remains rest in small Waterford vessels -- intended for sugar cubes and purchased on that memorable, sweet trip.

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