My mother was a junior high geography teacher who made sure her students knew the difference between an island and a peninsula, and that the Nile is the longest river on Earth. She loved old National Geographics, the sound of foreign languages, and maps. But most of all, she loved to travel--which is why she could barely wait for summer recess. Come June, she graded final exams, stocked the freezer with family dinners, and lit out to see the world on her own. One year it was every Christopher Wren church in London, another the Sahara Desert or the French Alps.
When I was growing up in suburban St. Louis, having a mother who traveled set me apart from my friends, and signified something I came to understand only recently, while talking to the writer Mary Morris, author of the novel "House Arrest" (Vintage, 1993). Her mother rarely went anywhere, but dreamed of doing so constantly. "The urge to travel," Morris says, "is emblematic of women who are free."
This would explain why my mother's wanderlust had such an impact on me and why I so cherish the memory of our travels together. When I turned 15, I got to go with her to Japan, a trip she lovingly planned--beginning with my first plane ride and a bus tour up the California coast from Los Angeles to San Francisco, where we were to board a ship bound for Tokyo.
But a few days before our departure, she fell and broke her kneecap. We went anyway, shopped the Ginza, tasted sushi timorously and took the bullet train to Kyoto, where we stayed in a ryokan on the Street of the Teapot Menders. But what I remember most is my mom, soldiering on in a bright white cast.
"We think back through our mothers if we are women," Virginia Woolf wrote. Thinking back, I realize that along with a thyroid deficiency and the shape of my face, I got my love of travel--which is worth any amount of trouble, as the trip to Japan showed--from my mother.
Traveling with my mom taught me other things as well. Getting away can change you, if you let it, and seeing new places makes you richer if you try to find out what they mean. Because of her, my vacations are never vacant. Take last winter, when she turned 73 and we booked a week at a luxurious resort on the north coast of Jamaica, intending chiefly to drink planter's punch and lie in the sun. But paradise bored us. So we rented a car and drove east to Firefly, Noel Coward's hilltop estate overlooking Blue Harbor. There, we took in the smashing view and imagined the island as it had been 50 years ago, before the advent of theme parks and mini-malls.
My father taught me lessons, too, and would have made a fine companion in Jamaica or Japan. But there is something special about mother-daughter trips, as countless mothers and daughters have found.
First lady Hillary Rodham Clinton took her daughter Chelsea to East Africa a year ago, resulting in public statements about the importance of education for girls--and private memories only they can know. Melissa Balmain tells of dog-sledding in Minnesota and sea kayaking in British Columbia with her mom in a new book called "Just Us: Adventures and Travels of a Mother and Daughter" (Faber and Faber). And Mary Morris got her infant daughter ready for a lifetime on the road by putting her to sleep in different beds around the house, and in the occasional drawer.
To find out what makes mother-daughter travel special, I talked to women colleagues and friends, and to my mom, of course. We were in the kitchen of my new apartment, unpacking boxes at the time. "It's just more comfortable than traveling with a man," she said. "When I went places with your dad, I had to cater to him and let him make all the major decisions. You and I could always compromise." She paused to unwrap a big ceramic bowl I bought at a pottery outlet in rural Ohio 15 years ago. "Remember where we got this? Remember the way we drove all those little back roads on our way home from Cape Cod that year? Your father would never put up with it."
A professional colleague tells a similar story about lollygagging up the California coast with her mother, stopping at every little town and fruit stand that appealed--for her, a deliciously guilty pleasure completely unlike the way her family traveled when her destination-driven father was behind the wheel.
Francesca Taylor, a Santa Monica obstetrician who took her mom to the family homeland in southern Italy two times, says that she and her mother simply make excellent travel companions. "We're temperamentally suited. We want to eat at the same time and have the same tolerance for long train rides." And a friend of mine in New York says she'd rather travel with her mother than with her boyfriend, who scrimps too much, isn't all that adventurous and doesn't like to talk to people. I understood that, because I tend to keep to myself too. But my gabby mom makes friends wherever she goes, forcing me out of my shell.