(The Hamilton Spectator – Saturday, September 17, 2016)
ABOARD KLM FLIGHT 535 TO UGANDA ✦ I’ve always envied people who could watch their mothers grow old.
My mother, I’ve shared previously, passed on when I was in kindergarten. I hadn’t seen her for two years prior to that.
Funny to think of it here, half asleep at 40,000 feet.
My mother was a nurse. But her first love was journalism. It’s there, in her writings and old photos, her with a camera slung round her neck.
So if you’ve ever enjoyed my musings in this space, you can thank my mother as much as anyone. My plan as a youth was to study theology. Instead, I fell into journalism, was baptized in its inky waters and sent into its muddy world.
My mother has also been in my travel life. My first flight was with her, in-utero, when she flew from her marriage and Canada back to her home to Berlin.
Even this landed in the papers. The old Toronto Telegram published my father’s efforts to salvage the family. With a Cold War backdrop, Ottawa was also involved.
“One man’s fight for his two children,” was the Telly’s front-page headline one summer day. My father won custody in a West Berlin court before he was given, for his safety, a military police escort to Berlin’s airport and eventual return to Canada with his children. My second international flight followed, this time in the opposite direction. It was 1968. I was barely three.
I’ve since flown at least 150 international flights covering, to my best estimates, 721,971 km. That’s like flying around the planet 18 times.
Many of these trips have involved working alongside Save the Mothers, the vision of my wife, who, as it happens, has a striking resemblance to my mother. A few are from a previous writing life, when I was a reporter for a paper owned by Sun Media, a news organization that, interestingly enough, was birthed from the ashes of the Telegram.
The circles seem to never end.
I can tell you that I’ve occasionally dreamt of my mother, that we’ve had lunch in some obscure but pleasant restaurant, talking and laughing and enjoying each other as mother and son are apt to do.
(The Jungians and Freudians would have their explanations. Mine is that I’ve never, to conscience memory, anyway, heard my mother say that she’s proud of me, like in these dreams.)
Yes, we live with our parents even when we don’t, with memories and mysteries buried deep in our DNA. Even decisions for roads (or skies) travelled are not exclusively ours.
My three children have seen their own share of airports and airplanes, having flown back-and-forth over the Atlantic their entire young lives. “They’ve had more experiences than most adults,” is how Irena, my friend from the Les Chater Y’s whirlpool, put it before we all flew off.
What’s different is that after living much of the past 15 years abroad – four in Yemen, 11 in Uganda – this family flight is our last as incoming foreign residents. Grandparents are aging. High school nears. The children need deeper Canadian roots. In 2017, my family transitions back to Canada full time.
We’ll miss it all fiercely: the offering of ourselves, the warmth and beauty of place and people, the running barefoot in the grass. It will be bittersweet, this long good-bye to Africa. Even so, this remarkable window of time, like a mother, has left its mark – a fine, celebratory mark – on each of us.
You’ve never seen my mother. Her name is Hannelore. But if she were a photograph (I doubt she’d mind the imperfect comparison), she’d be the one you see pictured here.
When we finished in Yemen, this photo was a gift from Gabriel, a Canadian anthropologist friend we knew in Sana’a, where the photo was shot. He’d be pleased to know, after these years, it’s still in my workspace.
There it is, the wind. Do you see it? No, of course not. Nobody can. All anyone can see is the effects of the wind. It’s a striking photo showing much more. But that wind. That spirit. It’s a gift. From Gabriel. Yes, Gabriel, the same name as that powerful archangel.
Maybe this isn’t by chance either.