Over the years when I traveled the one person I always checked in with was my mother. I’d let other family and friends slide for a while, but never my mother. I’ll bet that 99.99% of travelers do that. Moms rule. Our conversation always began like this:
Me: “Hi Mommy Dearest, how are you?”
Her: “WHERE are you?”
She never ever opened with a plain old hello or any other common salutation. She always pronounced the word “where” like she was expecting me to tell her I had run away with the circus. The “Mommy Dearest” title was my way of teasing her, as she was a demanding sort of mother. I started that not long after the movie of the same name about Joan Crawford came out. “I am not at all like her,” mom would say, not without some indignation. My response was always the same: “True. You only would use the free wire hangers from the dry cleaner.” We’d laugh. After a few years she let me call her Mommy Dearest without any comeback. After a while I shortened it to Mommy and saved Mommy Dearest for special occasions. We both knew the joke was always there.
As a backpacker, my check-ins were dependent on coming out of the woods and finding a pay phone. Those were the days long before phone cards, so I’d have to call her collect from whatever pay phone was at the trailhead. My late husband and I would set off in the wilderness for a few weeks which my mother equated to embarking on a trip to Mars. In a way she was right. We were all a lot younger back then so there was less likelihood of the unexpected, but we were unreachable and any urgent messages or home emergencies would have to wait until my next pay phone call. My husband called his mother too, but his interactions with her were quite different. My mother-in-law was a sweet, gentle soul and he never messed with her as I did with my mother. Then again, my Mommy Dearest wasn’t your typical mother.
“Who raised you to be such a smart ass?” she’d ask.
“You did,” I’d respond.
When my job required frequent travel to small Ohio towns no one has ever heard of, I’d call her to report in as usual. We’d start off with the usual ‘Hello and where are you’ opener. Then I would tell her the name of some little burg for example, Russia. Russia, Ohio is a real place that is not, I repeat NOT pronounced like the country because, hey we’re in ‘Merica. Ohio Russians pronounce Russia “Roossie.” I’d tell her I was in Roossie and she would say, “Oh?” Mom’s “Ohs” were epic. She didn’t just say “Oh,” the way you, I and everyone else in America says “Oh”. Her “Oh’ was a heavily modulated drawn out “Oh,” starting low, rising high and dropping back to a mid-tone with a question mark. It’s hard to describe, but anyone in our family knows exactly what I am talking about. My mother’s version of “Oh” sounded like this: “OooOOOOooOh?” Translation? Anything you can think of ranging from Aha to OMG to WTH. In this case (remember how I started out talking about Russia Ohio?) “OooOOOOoooh?”, translates roughly to ‘where the heck is Roossie or are you just being a smart ass?’
My first husband died after a long illness, and I continued to travel nationally for business, giving workshops, trainings and attending conferences. She’d been widowed early and I think she was worried about my newly alone status. I too had concerns about widowhood. I felt unmoored in a weird way. On my first trip away it felt odd as colleagues paused to call their significant others for a check in. It was OK though, because I had Mommy Dearest to call.
“Hi, Mommy Dearest, how are you?”
“WHERE are you?”
Our greeting ritual eased the pang of loss I felt. A year after I was widowed, a friend called me to ask me if I would be interested in traveling to Costa Rica with her. Before she finished talking I said yes. The only out-of-country experience I’d had to that point was going to Canada which is really like visiting Wisconsin, and I’d done that when all you needed to travel to Canada was a driver’s license and a nice smile. I applied for a passport and then I called Mommy Dearest. “I’m going to Costa Rica!” Three beats of silence and then “OooOOOOoooh?”, which was a you-can’t-be-serious-isn’t-that-country-full-of-drug-dealers kind of an “OooOOOOoooh?”. A few weeks before I left she came to visit me. My passport had just arrived and I showed it to her. “I never had a passport,” she said. “I always wanted to go to Germany and Switzerland.” At the time she was in her late 80s, and it had never occurred to me that she wanted to do such a thing. The farthest she’d gotten from Ohio was a trip to Hawaii when she was 70. I spent some time in Italy too, and planned more international travel until my plans changed. When I told her I was dating someone, she said “OooOOOOoooh?”, meaning “is he a biker or an ax murderer,” and when I told her we were getting married she said “OooOOOOoooh?” meaning “great, now I have to shop for a dress.”
As you know because you are reading this blog, for the last few years my husband Ben and I have been traveling in our RV. We are both retired and have lost no time in putting thousands of miles behind us. Mommy Dearest was well into her 90s by this point, and every time we’d leave you could see a flicker of anxiety in her eyes. “How long are you going THIS time,” she’d ask. I would tell her, and brace myself for her response; “OooOOOOoooh?” “THREE MONTHS?” It really didn’t matter if it was three days or three months. She never said it out loud, but she was afraid to die without getting to say goodbye. I had the same unspoken anxiety; I promised I’d call her daily, whether in route or in camp. We had the same conversation, with a little bit of a twist.
“Hello Mommy Dearest, how are you?”
“WHERE are you?”
“Interstate 80, mile marker 235”
“Let me get the map and see.”
I’d tell her what we saw, send her pictures via email and of course, she read my blog and Facebook posts. For a 90-something, she was savvy with a computer, but she lacked some finesse. The way she “liked” something on Facebook was to comment “You know I like it.” She was my second Most Loyal Reader. I’m not gonna lie, there were times I was busy and forgot to call her or we were without cell service, but those days were few and far between. I always called her twice after I’d missed one.
The last couple years her health had been declining. She turned 97 and had to quit working and driving (I am not making that up). We kept to our travels but no further than a day’s drive or flight home. The family threw a huge 100th birthday party for her. She held court like a queen and seemed so vibrant we felt a little better about leaving her to winter in Florida. She wasn’t alone by a long shot, my sister, her family and a slew of cousins and friends surrounded her, but unlike my backpacking days emergencies came up more frequently. Two days before we were to leave for Florida, her heart acted up. She landed in the hospital, and after that, rehab. Then she was told she could no longer live on her own, and I spent the rest of the winter getting her resettled. “I’m so sorry I ruined your trip,” she’d say. “You didn’t ruin it, we never got to go in the first place,” I said. She stuck her tongue out at me. “Who raised you to be such a smart ass?” she said. “You did,” I replied. A couple months later, she was gone. I was there to say goodbye to her.
Now I’m on my first trip of any kind since Mommy Dearest passed. The first couple days out I felt that familiar pull of needing to Call Your Mother. The urge surfaces frequently, I and I imagine I’ll feel the pull from time to time for the rest of my life.
My mother was a remarkable person who accomplished a lot. There was also plenty in her life that derailed many aspirations. She told me one time that she had wanted to see more of the world, but travel was one of many things she was never encouraged to do.
By the time I came along in her life, she must have come to come conclusion about how she was going to raise me. Becoming a smart ass was a side effect of her parenting; her real wish was for me to be my own person. It took me a while to realize that was what she wanted for me. She also taught me the importance of calling your mother even when you thought you didn’t have time, and she was always interested in WHERE I was. You should call your mother now if you can.
In Memory Jeanne M. Brodie 12/12/1919 – 05/15/2020