When I was young, I learned a lot about travel from my mother. She taught me how and what to pack. She taught me to keep a travel diary to record my memories. And most importantly, she taught me how to power-sightsee.
"You never know when you'll be back," my mother used to say as she and my dad pushed my sister, brother, and me to yet another art museum, Gothic church, or 18th-century cemetery.
Decades later, my mother and I still travel together, but now that she's in her mid-80s, our roles have changed. She's hearing-impaired, and often uses a cane for balance, while I bring a notepad and pen to write down tour highlights for her. I also handle hotel accommodations, hail the cabs and make sure a wheelchair is waiting at the airport to take her to the gate.
Some might think of traveling with an elderly parent as a burden, but my mom is invaluable to me. She's still vibrant and fiercely holds onto her love of travel. She's a globe-trotter and a wealth of knowledge — my personal version of a Frommer's app. I'm a journalist, perpetually time-strapped as I race to meet the next deadline, so I also depend on her to help me with the research for our trips. She often highlights hot spots weeks in advance.
Back when I was in college, I would have never dreamed my mother would become my travel companion decades later. I might have even shuddered at the possibility. You see, growing up in our family, vacations were rarely about splashing in hotel pools or relaxing on beaches. Vacationing was a form of boot camp. Try touring Washington DC in July where scorching temperatures wilt hair bows and drench summer shorts. Even a trip to Walt Disney World in Orlando, Fla., as a child was not as much fun as one might think. My mother made sure it was squeezed between educational sightseeing trips to Cape Canaveral, home of the Kennedy Space Center, and St. Augustine, where my sister, brother, and I learned about 16th century history and explorer Ponce de Leon.
But as the decades have gone by, my mom's and my life's circumstances have made the mother-daughter travel combo a natural, practical, and enjoyable experience.
To be sure, I have taken plenty of trips with friends to a variety of places — Puerto Rico, Miami's South Beach, San Francisco. And over the years, my mom has traveled with her own circle of friends, and most often with my father, crisscrossing the globe to faraway places like Australia and Indonesia. My father was a catalyst for travel — he worked for a major oil conglomerate that took him on overseas assignments. But mom lost her most dependable travel buddy when my dad died in 2002, and her aging friends are too frail to travel now.
As for me, most of my friends are married and often travel with their families. I don't particularly like to travel alone, and it's hard to synchronize my plans with my single friends' crazy work schedules. Even if my friends were more readily available, I worry that taking trips with them might put stress on our relationships.
What makes this mother-daughter travel team work is that we understand each other. That includes our differences.
Unlike me, my mom is fearless — and has remained that way even into her 80s. Turbulence on planes doesn't bother her, while I get a pit in my stomach anytime a plane lurches. At 80, she climbed the steep stone steps to the top of Ireland's Blarney Castle. I, on the other hand, get nervous when I see spiral staircases. So I stayed at the bottom, and waited for her to come down.
My mother is also more organized than I am. Think of TV's favorite "Odd Couple" — Felix and Oscar. Weeks in advance of a trip, my mom folds her clothes neatly in her suitcase and wraps her shoes with layers of tissue paper as if she's wrapping a gift, while I often find myself packing the night before, throwing things in a bag helter-skelter.
And even though I have adopted my mom's sightseeing approach of trying to cover a lot of ground, we have our own styles. We love to go to art museums, but I like to concentrate on the highlights of the exhibit. Mom studies every single painting for a few minutes before moving on to the next. So we compromise and meet at the end of the exhibit.
Traveling together we have also discovered similarities. We are both forgetful. In fact, losing eyeglasses has become our specialty. After touring the massive Romanian parliament in Bucharest built by the country's late dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, my mother realized she had left her eyeglasses inside. The problem: She didn't remember which of the hundreds of rooms it was in. We did find them eventually with the help of our tour guide, but not without confronting armed guards trying to keep us from retracing our steps.
As I get older, I value more and more how my mother has used travel as a way to connect with our roots. As a family, we have been to Italy several times, where we visited relatives or tried to research our ancestors in small towns like Deliceto in the Southeast corner of Italy. I have also admired the way my mom used travel as a source of comfort. Two years after my brother passed away at age 23, my sister, mother, and father went to Europe. My mother was key in the planning.
Friends tell me how lucky I am to have my mom as my travel companion. I do feel lucky, but I'm already starting to feel nostalgic. A few weeks ago after being hospitalized with a severe case of the flu, my mother confided in me that perhaps her traveling days are over.
I refuse to believe it. And so I'm planning our next trip. An Alaskan cruise maybe, or what about a trip to the South of France to visit her friend? If I have my way, the possibilities for more adventures with my mom remain endless.