It seems like the moment she returns from one trip, she’s already planning the next. With the travel restrictions put in place during the COVID-19 crisis, I assumed she would be considering cancelling her plans to ride her bright red Harley-Davidson Switchback (nicknamed Scarlet O’Hara) through the midwestern States this August. On the phone the other day, she assured me she would be doing no such thing. “I would be robbing myself of the anticipation,” she explained, “And that’s one of the best parts!”
Life hasn’t been a sun-drenched stroll through the park for my Mom, Christina (or “Xtina” to my friends, who have become her friends). As the child of Dutch immigrant parents, she grew up in a family starting fresh with few connections and limited resources. She became an expert at making her own fun. The Van Der Hulst clan of five was not jet-setting around the globe, but she was always scheming ways to adventure with no budget. Long bus rides from Downsview to downtown, blasting Motown music in the passenger seat of her big brother’s Mustang Fastback, tobogganing until her jeans froze into stiff, heavy bells around her ankles.
When she was 16, she met my Dad, John – who was her manager at the local Pizzaville where she chopped veggies. Within a year of meeting, they were a couple. One week after her eighteenth birthday, they were married. Determined to continue growing as individuals before becoming parents, they spent the next decade building their careers and travelling all over North America. They portaged through Algonquin Park, rode horses in Tucson, and honeymooned (twice!) in Vermont.
When I arrived on the scene in 1990, I didn’t slow them down one bit. Dad’s work sending him to The Bahamas for two weeks? Mom and I tag along. Visiting friends in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania? Throw the baby and the dog in the minivan and off we go. We were an unstoppable trio.
In the five years following my birth, however, my parents experienced one stillbirth and two miscarriages. Try as they might to grow our little family, it was not meant to be. You might imagine that my memories from this time are tearful, sombre, muted. Yes, there is pain in the flashes of sensory impressions I carry from those early years, but far more vibrantly I can recall those maps spread across the table. I can hear my Dad’s laugh and see my Mom’s pen dance across the surface of roads we have yet to travel. I can picture us packing our bags to go camping, loading up the van for a road trip, scurrying through an airport (Dad always 10 minutes early, Mom and me always 10 minutes late).
In 2005, life threw my Mom one more major curveball. We lost my Dad to cancer, and found ourselves – mourning and unmoored – a duo. His death hit us both emotionally and financially. She knew we would need to stretch our imaginations to carve our path forward. It would have been understandable if she fell apart. It would have made sense for her to despair. Instead, she pulled out a map of Europe and put it on our kitchen table. She was determined to find a way into the future the same way she always had – by planning an adventure.
It took four years for us to save up travel funds and make our way to Italy. In that time, she not only meticulously sought out the best off-the-beaten-path BNBs and hotels; she also learned to speak Italian. After a long day managing a TV studio, she drove to Woodbridge from Mississauga for language lessons. Books of Italian verb conjugations and dictionaries piled up next to her maps on the table. We looked at photos of the artwork, architecture, and landscapes we would someday see. We perfected combinations for the charcuterie boards we would make on our balcony overlooking the Amalfi coast. We gently held each other’s grief by the hand and walked together – toward Italy and toward the promise of life that doesn't just go on, but goes to new and exciting places.
The trip itself was everything we had hoped for, and more. We swam in caves, explored the Tuscan countryside, sampled wine and olives, visited breathtaking ruins, danced, and soaked our weary bodies in an ancient Roman mineral hot spring. But my Mom’s gift to me lasted far longer than the three weeks we spent abroad. Our excursion lasted four years. Italy on the horizon gave us something to aim for as we stumbled forward without our best friend.
So, in honour of this socially-distanced Mother’s Day, if I can pass on one piece of my Mom’s wisdom, it’s this: keep planning your next adventure. Don’t rob yourself of the anticipation. If plans change, they change. As the ancient philosopher Heraclitus said, “The only constant in life is change.” You can bet things won’t go to plan, even when we aren’t in the midst of a pandemic. Plan anyway. It’s one of the best parts.
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