We’ve been celebrating the arrival of peak travel season with a series of personal essays from contributing writers. Each post tells the tale of its writer’s most unforgettable trip. Here is Jen Doll, who took a tour of Hawaii with a group of 70-year-olds…
It was my mom’s idea to go somewhere “just us” — not my dad, not my brother, not any of our friends or family. She’d suffered a scary blood clot a few years before and had a few other close calls since then. When I was home for the holidays, she kept mentioning an idea she’d had: a vacation for just the two of us. “You never know how much time you have,” she’d say. I’d groan and tell her to stop being maudlin. As for the trip part, sure, I’d go on a trip! But first we had to figure out where.
We decided on Hawaii. She’d been there as a twentysomething. I’d heard stories about her and her younger sister flirting with their tour guides, gallivanting about in a convertible. I not only wanted to see this place myself, I wanted to see her see it again, after nearly 50 years.
If we were flying all the way to Hawaii, we agreed, we wanted to see as much as we could. So, my mom suggested we book a tour. We’d hit four different islands; but the flights and buses to various hotels and sightseeing excursions would be handled seamlessly by a tour guide, so we could get the most out of our time together. It wasn’t the sort of trip I’d take with a friend. But we weren’t friends. We were mother and daughter.
I had concerns, though. My mom is a very social being. The life of the party, even. I’ve inherited some of her way with people, but I also spend a lot of time alone, a writer who talks to no one but myself in my own head. She’s frugal; I’m “comfortable” with New York City prices. She would rather ride a bike than read a book under a palm tree. I wondered if 11 days together might lead to fights, or me sullenly simmering like the teen I used to be. Maybe moms and daughters traveling together only sounded great in theory?
We arrived at the first dinner for our tour group after a 12-hour flight from the New York. The median age of our forty traveling companions was 60. Nearly everyone was a married couple, and, with the exception of one child, I was the youngest person there by about 20 years. I helped myself to buffet fish as my mother launched into immediate, easy conversation with our dinner companions. Within minutes, everyone knew who we were — not only that, it seemed they liked us — and I hadn’t had to do a thing. I took a sip of my white wine and relaxed.
Traveling with one’s 70-year-old mom is one thing; traveling with a large group of senior citizens including your 70-year-old mom is another. My favorites were the adorable Australian couple who’d funded their trip by selling cattle to Vladimir Putin and told me I looked like Amal Clooney, which I can only assume was because their eyesight was failing. I also loved the adorable 60-plus couple from New Jersey who’d met in their twenties because he was in a motorcycle accident and she’d been his nurse; he still walked with a limp and they cuddled while sitting on the bus together.
Buses were our main form of transit. And on the buses, my mom would inevitably chat, with whomever was near us, and also with me, about other people on the bus. “Shhhhh!” I would say. The teenager in me would rise up in embarrassment. Eventually I realized that another beauty of traveling with a group of older folks, besides the fact that they’ve mistaken you for a great beauty, is that no one can hear anything that’s being said about them, and if they do, they probably don’t care.
There were so many rainbows. We toasted each other looking out at the sky, and one night I invited a couple of our travel companions, friends who’d married brothers, back to our room for some wine. Their names were Dar (Darlene) and Bar (Barbara); they were from Canada and called us “the girls” and kept telling me, “You’re so lucky to have a mom like yours,” and I would say, “I know, I really do know.” In Kauai, my mom insisted we go on a helicopter ride, and I tried not to be scared because I knew she thought I would be. Our pilot was named Bradford, and my mom talked effusively to him, forgetting to press the button on her microphone that would let him hear her. “What?” he said, and I pressed it for her. “We know a Brad, too!” she told him. “He’s our son!” “My brother,” I explained.
At the end of the trip, we hadn’t fought once. We knew each other’s quirks, now more fluently than ever, but they didn’t carry that twinge of annoyance that so often happens when you’re together with another person — much less, a family member — for a prolonged period of time. Of course we were related and always would be, but we had let go of that unfortunate human habit of constantly seeing those we love through our most judgmental eyes.
We flew back to New York City and had dinner with my sister in law, my brother out of town. She wanted to know all the details, so we told her about the volcanoes and the valleys and the blue-green waves, the shopping and the sushi and the snorkeling. “But did you bond as much as you thought you would?” she wanted to know. “How was traveling for 11 days together?” My mom took a sip of vodka, pronounced it not as good as her new favorite brand from Hawaii, and said, “We didn’t have heart to hearts… we just enjoyed each other.” I couldn’t have said it better myself.
Our trip included Valentine’s Day; on that evening we came back to our hotel on the Big Island to find a bottle of white wine and a card from my dad. (We sent him this picture.)
In Kauai, my mom convinced me to go up in a helicopter, where we flew into the center of a volcanic crater. I am proud to say I did not pee my pants.
Jen Doll has written for The Atlantic, Elle, New York magazine, The New York Times Book Review and other publications. She is also the author of Save the Date, a memoir about what she learned about relationships, friendship, marriage, love and herself after attending 17 weddings.
(Illustration by Elizabeth Graeber for Cup of Jo.)