For as long as I can remember, my mother has loved to travel. When I was small, she often took me — her only child — along. Trips to Puerto Rico, Virgin Gorda, the Carolinas and Washington, D.C., are all part of my childhood memories.
Then, as a young adult, I traveled on my own or with friends to places like the Yucatan and Canada.
But in recent years I started traveling once again with my mother. And I've grown accustomed to the raised eyebrows when I tell friends or colleagues I'm planning yet another vacation with Kay S. Queally, my 64-year-old mom.
On more than one occasion, people have mistaken us for sisters exploring ancient ruins, hiking along nature trails, enjoying a spa day or swimming with dolphins in the Caribbean. And we've grown closer because of our travels, despite our fair share of parent-child bickering.
We laugh now at the memories of getting lost in a cramped rental car in Aruba as goats crossed a dusty road; ignoring jet lag and frigid temperatures to visit nightclubs in Reykjavik, Iceland; and trying to decipher a Dutch film in hard-to-read subtitles.
But at the time, the scenarios produced heated arguments and frayed nerves. Thankfully, they also led to some soul-searching. Now we regard the incidents as sources of both comic relief and wisdom.
"We have our ups and downs, but it makes us respect each others' ways and who we are," my mother reflected recently.
Photos have helped cement our travel memories, though we're not always seen together, since I'm usually behind the scenes while mom tolerates my umpteenth attempt at "getting the money shot."
What were we thinking when we donned those massive sombreros to pose next to a donkey in Mexico? And when it started raining in the Arizona desert, we ducked under a giant umbrella and a cousin took our picture.
Then there's the shot I insisted on taking as we crossed the Queen Emma pontoon bridge in Curacao last year. It was a blustery, overcast day, and we swayed in the wind along with the bridge's wooden planks. A blaring horn had signaled pedestrians to pick up the pace; the gate was closing and the bridge was about to swing open to let a cruise ship through.
There was a moment of panic as I raced to capture the moment, and get us across the bridge in time.
I admired her sense of adventure that day. The wind, she said, "makes me nervous, because the first thing I think about is the hurricane."
Twelve years earlier, Hurricane Marilyn had struck the U.S. Virgin Islands, destroying our home; she'd huddled alone there for hours, listening to the wind howl. I was away in grad school, but shortly after that, our travels together — which seemed to have been suspended when I was in my 20s — resumed. In one sense, it was a way of connecting with her again, or even protecting her after the storm.
One of the best things about going places with my mother is her ability to connect with strangers. I have dozens of newfound "brothers and sisters" from our travels who insisted on adopting her as their own. We've been invited to home-cooked meals while abroad and we've been given firsthand tours, simply because my mom struck up a conversation when I would have rather chilled out and kept to myself. Nice to know someone in all corners of the world, she says.
In Curacao, for example, we were treated like long-lost relatives by a retired teacher, Gene van der Hilst, who'd only met us once before, on our first visit to the island. She welcomed us into her home, spent much of her free time escorting us around and prepared an incredible flan when we invited her for brunch at our vacation rental.
On that same trip, we got a chance to tour much of the island's countryside and historic landmarks. At the Kura Hulanda Museum, which left an indelible impression, we looked at artifacts like rusted shackles and other exhibits related to the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Though my mother doesn't like confined spaces, she gingerly held on to the railing of a narrow, steep stairwell leading to a replica of a ship that brought enslaved Africans to the Caribbean.
As she led the way, I followed closely into the darkness. Then, we stood in silence.
"To go all the way down in the hull of that ship put me in tune with what our ancestors went through," she later said.
A few weeks ago I asked my mother what she likes about traveling with me now, compared to when I was a child.
"I feel more comfortable with you because I know you're going to look out for me," she said after thinking about it for a moment. "You know me better than anyone."
Funny thing, I was thinking the same about her.