Back in the sixties, my mother — an inveterate traveler — wanted to see this new land where we’d emigrated. From 1960, when we arrived, until I was old enough to get a summer job in 1966, we spent four weeks every summer traversing all ten provinces and all forty-eight contiguous states. My father was in Toronto, working. My mother and I were in Windsor. Mother worked, but, as a social worker, she was required to take all four weeks of her holiday at one time. The idea was to make sure social workers re-created, that is, got right away from their difficult case loads and re-freshed.
On that last Friday before Mother’s four weeks off, I prepared everything we needed — tents, camping stove, lantern, fuel, tools, a cooler — I had a list that was kept and honed from year to year. Until I was old enough to drive, Mother had to do all the driving. I became the navigator, by default. I was good at it and got better over the summers. I had to. Mother had a poor sense of north, south, east, west, left, and right. I had maps — remember those? I was one of those people who didn’t turn them. I liked north to be on the top.
Mother came home from work on that last Friday, arriving home about 5:30 p.m., and went upstairs to change and get ready while I packed the car. By 6:00 p.m., we were on the road, heading for our first campsite. Each summer we took a different starting direction, but over the four weeks, we always drove until we ran out of land and saw the ocean, that thing we missed more than anything. The Great Lakes are amazing, wonderful, a gift, but they’re not the ocean. They don’t have tides and they don’t have that smell of salt and seaweed and ozone and atoms.
We got home around 5:00 p.m. on that last Sunday of Mother’s four weeks away. Just enough time to do laundry and for Mother to prepare for her first Monday back at work and for me to pack away the gear to wait for the next summer.
I loved those trips then, but I love them more now. Not just for the memories, but because I’ve seen more of North America than most people born here. I later saw Hawaii and Alaska, wanting to see the last two states Mother and I didn’t see together. Our travels changed how I understand this land. When people say Atlanta or Seattle or Portland or Ashland, I have a sense of those cities. I’ve seen the Badlands, the Painted Desert, Plymouth Rock, Acadia. I learned the different areas within Canada and within the United States, which may be countries, but aren’t the same from region to region.
When I listen to native-born North Americans who don’t always understand parts of their own country they’ve never seen, I treasure those journeys. Mother’s gift has truly been the gift that’s kept on giving.