Now, Voyager

My mother took a cruise around the world and her trip transformed both of us

"I'm going around the world," Mom said breathlessly. "On Friday."

She was leaving for 100 days aboard a luxury cruise liner. The only boat she'd previously boarded was the Staten Island Ferry.

I fired back questions like an overprotective parent: "Do you have your passport?" "Did you get all your shots?" "And what about warm clothing? It's winter."

"Not in Australia," she said. For 49 years, she lived in my father's shadow; after he died, she learned to navigate I-95. She couldn't tell east from north, but she zipped around superhighways like a teenager with a newly acquired license.

"I need to get away," she announced, recovering from back-to-back deaths of her husband and my brother Jay from lung cancer. The woman who'd never been west of Pennsylvania arranged to sail from California to Honolulu. And on to Australia, Hong Kong, Israel, Egypt, Rome, Portugal—and then a leisurely glide back across the Atlantic.

"It's a very convenient trip," she said, "since it docks back in Fort Lauderdale."

How would she know how to change currencies when she had to ask me how much to tip in a restaurant? What if she got seasick? She couldn't even survive a bus trip to Fort Lauderdale when I was in high school.

"Pack Dramamine," I ordered, adding, "I'll miss you."

"They're flying me out to San Francisco—first class!"

Wear your seat belt, I wanted to say.

When the phone rang in the middle of the night, I was awakened with a jump, before listening groggily to my mother's voice.

"I practically walked from Miami to California—I paced the entire flight. First class was nice, but the food was cold."

"I'm glad you're safe," I mumbled.

"You sound as if you're sleeping."

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I glanced at the clock: 2:33 AM. She laughed at her naïveté, making me worry once again about an inexperienced traveler in Istanbul. If she couldn't figure out the time differences between California and New York, how would she ever get beyond the international date line?

The night she left, I rented an old Preston Sturges movie, "The Lady Eve," which took place aboard a cruise liner. Hoping she wasn't seasick or lonely, I waited for some kind of message in a bottle. By the time I received her postcard from Honolulu, she was on her way to Brisbane.

"Since we left Frisco, we saw nothing but black clouds. This morning I saw a magnificent sunrise and beautiful pink clouds," she wrote. "When I undress, I never pull the curtains because the only thing I see is water, water, water. When the ship finally docked, I went to the window and exclaimed, 'Land!' Anyone seeing me would think I'd flipped my lid."

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My mother, who'd never been to college because her family had been too poor, was sending me Robert Louis Stevenson's epitaph, written on his tombstone in Western Samoa: "Under the wide and starry sky/Dig the grave and let me lie/Glad did I live and gladly die."

I cheered when she won $80 at bingo. "I walked four laps around the ship (I've learned not to call it a boat)," she wrote. "Four laps equals one mile, which I hope compensates for the five desserts I ate."

Photographs arrived, showing her in the ornate dining room, smiling. The bearded man with his arm around her had eyes of serious intent; little did I know he was one of six stewards, hired to dance with single women.

"We're in the South Pacific, because it's the first day we saw sun and 75 degrees," she wrote next. "The boat rocks like crazy. We walk like drunks. I've arranged to take an overland trip in China. I don't know how you're gonna keep me down on the farm."

I was thrilled yet sad to read about her sense of discovery. It must have been similar to the way she'd felt after sending me away to college, 600 miles away, knowing I'd never return the same.

I wrote her at every port, news of her seven grandchildren.

Every Friday, Mother went to services on the ship and asked the rabbi to say a prayer for my father. "It's my touch with reality," she wrote.

In India, she was nearly arrested. Everyone had picked up viruses in China and Mother was taking cough syrup. Before leaving the ship for a trip to the Taj Mahal, she asked a waiter for lemons and a knife so she could sip hot potions to soothe her chest.

At the airport, an official noticed the knife. They searched her and made her check through her baggage again. "I thought I'd end up in jail," she wrote. "Finally I said, 'Take the G-d D- knife. I don't want it.'"

She complained about plane delays, her airline seat that was wet and the cockroaches in the aisles. And then, finally: "UNBELIEVABLE! Saw the Taj at noon and at sundown. Went on elephant ride today. Cried when I saw the Taj. Wonder how I'll react when I set foot on Israel soil. Monday we leave for Jerusalem, the 'wailing wall,' and walk where Jesus walked. I've dreamed of going to Israel, and here it is."

She would not tell me until months after the trip was over, but she had walking pneumonia. She missed the pyramids to rest in bed. Avoiding writing about how ill she felt, she continued with her travelogue:

"Picture a sheet of ice without a ripple—that's what the Indian Ocean looks like today. Not a wave. I've been on a camel ride, an elephant ride, petted the sacred cows, walked The Wall. Wish you could have been here with me."

Her first stop in Tel Aviv was Hadassah Hospital, where she received a clean Israeli bill of health.

"I almost cried when I stepped off the bus to Jerusalem soil," she wrote on the back of a postcard showing an Israeli soldier, machine gun slung over his shoulder. "I put a piece of paper in The Wall for all of you."

By the time she sailed through Italy, she started speaking Italian. "Magnifico!" was the way she described Michaelangelo's David and each gelati she ate. "A rivo derche [sic]," she signed off.

She was a landlubber for two months by the time I hugged her in person in Tampa for her grandchild's college graduation. Mother was thin—"the only person to take a cruise and lose weight," she bragged. She looked chic: all in black leather, a jacket and skirt she'd bought and bargained for in Turkey, dangling silver earrings with bright blue stones, a scarab ring, sexy black stockings. Miles from the Brooklyn housewife, setting the dinette table.

"I wish Daddy could be here," she said.

"I miss him too," I said in a choked voice.

"When I left, I didn't want to think about anything," she continued. "I needed to escape."

"Escaping is all right," I said.

"I'm glad to be back," she said. "I missed you."

Yet she had an unfamiliar, faraway look in her eyes. Staring off into the distance, Mom was plotting her next trip. Before long, she'd be off again, and I would have to let her go, knowing she could take care of herself, knowing that each time, she would come back newly transformed.

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