As a schoolteacher, my mother Marian has always had a natural curiosity about the world and a love of travel which she instilled in her two sons. When I was nine years old she took us on a once-in-a-lifetime trip to the Grand Canyon. For the first time I realized there was an exciting world out there.
We hadn’t seen my mom since we left on our year-long around-the-world trek last August. We asked her if she’d like to meet us someplace along the way. But lately she says “I’m too tired, I don’t get around easily, I’ll just slow you down.” I knew these were just excuses that could be overcome.
Larissa and I chose a destination my mother couldn’t resist: Italy, the birthplace of her parents. When she brought up her age we reminded her that Grandpa had made his last trip to the old country when he was a mere ninety-six years old. And then I suggested she come over for her birthday. It’s a particularly poignant day for her; she shares the same birth date as my father who died four years ago. Since then birthdays have become a painful memory of her loss. She couldn’t resist the comforting distraction of traveling with us on that day.
Our Italian apartment with the Gulf of Salerno in the distance.
Mom agreed to visit so Larissa found a rental apartment in the hilltop village of Corpo di Cava, near the Amalfi Coast, where we would spend a week. Perched on the edge of a cliff, the house provided sweeping views of the nearby hillsides and overlooked an 11th-century Benedictine Abbey. The warmth from the woodstove was a cozy respite during what turned out to be a chilly rainy week. Since this trip was about spending time together, the wet weather relieved us of any burden to run out and see as many sites as possible. It gave us the perfect excuse to slow down and sit by the fire while we ate home-cooked Italian food and caught up on our lives over the last half-year.
One sunny day we took in the spectacular ruins of Pompeii. The sight is a bit of a physical challenge since it stands on a hill beneath the brooding hulk of Mt. Vesuvius. Mom travels with a lightweight folding chair that lets her sit down anywhere. Periodically she was content to rest and observe the passersby.
The folding travel chair always comes in handy.
After an hour of clambering over ruins and people-watching, she decided she had seen enough of the ancient Roman town. Larissa and I still wanted to discover more so I escorted mom back to a piazza in town knowing she’d occupy herself with a gelato while we continued to explore. This arrangement allowed us to each enjoy Pompeii at our own pace.
Our pizza guide in Naples, 10-year-old Giuliano.
Afterwards, we meandered through the chaotic streets of Naples in search of pizza. Here is where mom’s background as the daughter of immigrants came in handy. Speaking Italian she asked a father and son if they could recommend a good pizzeria. Ten year-old Giuliano piped up, “Come on I show you.”
So away we went, following the young boy through the streets of Naples. It worked out perfectly, his short-legged stride at just the right pace for mom. Before this trip I thought our roles would now be reversed and as adult children we would be doing the leading. But here was mom in Italy, using her language skills and newfound energy to once again lead us.
Larissa trying to keep with an energized mom.
Oh, and her birthday? We celebrated it at a restaurant in Salerno. The staff made a big deal out of the event and baked a special cake for her. Mom was overwhelmed. She said it was the first birthday she had enjoyed since my dad died.
Every year we wonder what to get mom for Mother’s Day. It turns out the greatest gift we can give our parents is ourselves, the special moments that we share together. They’ve certainly earned it.
This article originally appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer on Mother’s Day, 2012.