Monday, December 12, 2005

What I Read at my Mother's Memorial Gathering

Mary Ann Melchert was a great explorer. As most of us know, she was born into travel and rarely passed up a chance to go somewhere new. Like any seasoned traveler, she exuded confidence, spirit of adventure, flexibility and organizational skills. She could pick up and go anywhere at the drop of a hat.

She started her travels in a time and place that don’t exist anymore. There is no going back to the world of the British Raj, nor to a third world Japan newly released from occupation. I did not know the significance of my mother’s rootlessness until she gave me a copy of a novelist’s memoirs, Penelope Lively’s Oleander, Jacaranda, about the writer’s own attempt to revisit a childhood home in Egypt. Reading this book, I understood immediately my mom’s lack of a homeland, and that she was always more or less on the road. The book was her way of telling me who she was, where she was from, and what my own children were faced with, growing up in British Hong Kong. After I read the book, my mom told me that when she meets someone who is similarly displaced from their ethnic motherland, she feels instant kinship, in her own words, “It doesn’t matter where they are from, where they were raised, but every time, it’s as if I’ve found my long lost best friend.” This may answer why my mom was so close to the Salvadoran lady who manned the phone at the Honda repair shop, or with birds fallen from their nests, and with any number of displaced people.

Her language abilities were amazing. I saw her winning a heated, rapid-fire argument, in French, with a Geneva hotelier; singing about rice paddies in Tagalog, and charming a Carabiniero directing traffic in Rome.

Travel literature, including maps, was of particular interest to my mother. She had every AAA map to northern California’s regions and cities, just in the way that she had well-worn, self-annotated maps of Istanbul and Rome (view here, a Caravaggio here). She could lead a friend through Rome and take in all the Borromini churches and the best gelateria in one fascinating morning stroll. On the road, she’d have her own exhaustive diary going, plastered colorfully with wine labels, calling cards, and cut up postcards; but she’d also have, packed next to maps and a guide book, something appropriately atmospheric like Washington Irving’s Tales of the Alhambra (for Spain) or Marguerite Duras’ The Lover (for Southeast Asia).

Actually, she was a master at packing, and she loved to reminisce about both packing disasters (her family’s overturned luggage cart in a busy Calcutta road) and packing successes (me as a newborn sleeping in a crate on the floorboards of the Oldsmobile, my brothers’ tricycles on the roof, our great move to California). She was always discovering lightweight suitcases or ingenious pocketbooks, and gave these freely to traveling family and friends.

With the same passion that some women have for getting their hands on the big fall issue of Vogue magazine, Mary Ann treasured the large New York Times annual listing of cargo ships which take on a small number of paying passengers, listed with ports of call for the coming year.

She had extraordinary respect and affection for train conductors, taxi drivers, and travel agents. She once told me of the taxi driver in Chicago in about 1950, who was nice enough to take her suitcase up a flight of stairs. He gave her a tip on the proper handling of a knife or dagger, in case of self defense. (Not like this, but like this; you’ll have more control and maneuverability).

And she knew everything about her driving instructor, a young guy moonlighting in a ragtime band that just got a Europe gig. After her last driving lesson, I watched jealously as she treated him, at our kitchen table, to a succession of fresh pancakes, with the bottle of real maple syrup.

She didn’t learn to drive until she was about forty, but she took to it like a London cabbie, and she’d often say she’d been a truck driver in a past life. She knew which lanes to avoid on the Bay Bridge, and how to hit the green lights on Telegraph.

One morning when I had just stepped off a plane and was driving my rental car to her house, I spotted her in her own little blue Honda, turning right onto the street off which I was turning LEFT. She didn’t see my wave or pay attention to my toot-toot, so, without a house key, I figured I’d just follow her to her destination. What ensued was a circuitous chase through the streets of Berkeley. Was I out of my mind, trying to keep up with her? The Little Old Lady from Pasadena had nothing on her. She avoided streets with 4-way stops and those maddening Berkeley concrete road blocks like a Grand Prix champion. I was sure that she’d taken me for a masher, and that she was trying to shake me. But when we came to a stop near the Berkeley Bowl, and I stumbled out of my car ready with apologies, she greeted me with a cheery, “Hey! Greetings! I was not expecting you until supper time!”

Make no mistake, though, she knew the rules of the road and was a smart and careful driver. She respected alternate merging and rights-of-way. She never, ever, used her horn, even when stuck behind an inconsiderate driver who wouldn’t move into the intersection to make a left turn on a green light. “Oh, get your bucket up there” my mom would say.

She told me, once, about ten years ago, that if fate would require it, she would be most content to be “one of those women who has to live in her car.” I think, actually, that the idea delighted her. In a way, she did live in her car. She could be comfortable wherever she went, something more out of familiarity with travel than from mere domesticity. She groaned amicably if she ever had to tell someone her zodiac sign: “Taurus, the domestic beast.” I am quite certain that her hostessing abilities were not borne of a penchant for the domestic, but rather, she knew so well all of the things that a traveler needs, and, in pure and simple kinship, she happily provided them: a hot meal, a comfortable bed, an appreciation of unexpected beauty, and amiable companionship. All her life, she looked after her fellow travelers. She’s on her way, again, now, a smiling face skipping down a long road.

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