When my kids were younger and I was richer, we traveled – initially on their school vacations, and later whenever time, money and circumstances allowed. It was how we celebrated Christmas after the divorce, ignoring the Hallmark hoopla and getting away to the nearest warm water and weather I could afford. Once we all learned to dive, we discovered the beaches of the Yucatan and the reefs of the Caribbean. We took trips in twos as well as threes – the safari in Africa with him, the spontaneous excursion to Morocco and the long-planned meet-up with her in Japan. And after they were married, I took us all on family holidays with spouses and grandkids.
Even when I think I should have been smarter with money back when I had it, I don’t begrudge the cost of those trips; I just wish I could still afford to take them. So when my grown kids invited me to meet them somewhere in Southeast Asia, it was a bittersweet moment. My daughter and her just-retired partner, who had embarked on a midlife, open-ended adventure around the world, would be footing the bill. I was both touched and embarrassed. My money disappeared in the recession of 2008; like many other formerly middle class seniors today, I mostly manage the necessities, but luxuries like travel are a thing of the past. I was 40 when I acquired my first passport; since then I’ve always renewed it when it expired, but the pages in the most recent one are mostly blank.
When the casual invitation they’d extended before their departure turned into a specific one – to meet them in Vietnam a week before a landmark birthday – I was eager and excited, but also more than a little bit chagrined; wasn’t that my role, the Vacation Mommy, the Fairy God Bubbe? When it came to traveling together, hadn’t it always been at my invitation and my pleasure? Well, yes, but once I dusted off my passport, I got over it. Or thought I did, despite the fact that once I understood my mixed emotions, I began to obsess about the potential vagaries and hazards of traveling – something that had never worried me before. I’d climbed ruins like a monkey, unconcerned about stumbling or falling. I’d always eaten food from the street and never gotten sick. I’d even dived with sharks. I’d ridden in or on all kinds of conveyances, from camels to putt-putts to balloons and funiculars, blithe and unbothered. But suddenly, scenarios I never entertained when I was younger began to trouble my sleep. And although they manifested as fears of accidents or frailty, that’s not really – or only – what they were about.
I understood that the real meaning of my restless nights was the role reversal symbolized by my forthcoming trip. I’ve felt a few intimations of it before – once in a medical crisis, another time when my son offered to find a place to live with an apartment for me after developers bought my building and tripled my rent. “Nobody puts Bubby in the basement,” I said, only half-joking, but fortunately, that turned out not to be necessary. It did, however, make me understand in a visceral, immediate way that the essence of role reversal in later life is when your kids do for you what you can no longer do for yourself. “Not for you, Mom – with you,” they said which made it possible for me to accept their generosity not only gratefully but also gracefully.
They told me to choose the places I most wanted to see and booked hotels, plane and train tickets for Viet Nam, a country that has long fascinated me. We mostly stayed in smallish, comfortable hotels in the old towns or historic quarters of Saigon and Hanoi. They were spotlessly clean, air-conditioned and comfortably furnished, with roof-top pools, fabulous breakfasts, and helpful, friendly staffs. Best of all, just outside the front door, the lively, unpredictable street life of a big Asian city was happening. Musicians followed newlywed couples from temples, showering them with symbols of happiness and good luck. An impromptu dance troupe performed in a roundabout to the applause of a delighted crowd. A puppet show in an alley enthralled adults as well as children. Sidewalk vendors offered a variety of goods, and every evening shopkeepers set up small shrines of artfully composed fruit, flowers and paper offerings before closing for the night. Delicious smells as well as clouds of smoke drifted from dozens of food stalls, woks and grills, around which people of all ages crouched on child-sized plastic stools. And in, through, and among everything, there was traffic –mopeds, bicycles, scooters, pedicabs, cars, taxis and trucks, whizzing by in both directions, cutting in front of and around each other, barely missing pedestrians who, like the drivers, ignored the occasional signal or stop sign.
This is what I took away from that extraordinary trip. Many moments of wordless communication, plenty more of laughter, and a lot of hugging. Almost too much picture-taking, which I never used to do when I traveled because that’s just not the way I apprehend experience; as a diver, I couldn’t understand why you’d want a camera between you and the fish, and I felt the same way about the animals in Africa. But technology triumphs – a smart phone camera almost begs you to use it, although sometimes I left mine behind in order to focus on what I was seeing with my eyes instead of through a lens. to take it in rather than record it. We ate the best food I’ve eaten anywhere in the world. We kept each other up with stories and jokes and bits of whatever we were reading through most of the night on a sleeper train from Hanoi to Hue. We cried and cringed at the museums and memorials to what Vietnamese call the American War. We swam off the Cham Islands and had hot stone massages in Ho Chi Minh City. We celebrated the full moon in Hoi An, the city of lanterns, and lit paper sculptures aflame before sending them down the river with the dragon boats. On an overnight boat trip in the Gulf of Tonkin we met a 91 year old Burmese man who saved Rangoon from the Japanese invasion with a handful of his teenage friends, and had the picture and commendation from the British Navy to prove it. We had dinner with our taxi driver in Hoi An, who first took us to the bahn mi stand famously celebrated by Anthony Bourdain, and then to a little restaurant on the outskirts of town where the bahn mi were even better. His family joined us there, including his shy 9 year old daughter, who giggled when I tried to twist my mouth around the Vietnamese word for “grandmother.”
I always expected to be old someday, and I have grudgingly accepted the fact that eventually I might also be physically unable to care for myself. But I never expected to be financially dependent on my children, at least not for the pleasures I took for granted when I was flush. I’ve often been broke, but even as a writer who lived most of her life on a financial seesaw, I never felt poor until lately. Still, my kids frequently tell me not to consider what I expended on our travels as money misspent or mismanaged. When he drove me to the airport, my son reminded me again that he and his sister would remember those trips long after I was dead. “I want you to treat yourself as well as you treated us, “ he said, tucking a roll of bills in my pocket. “I wish I could join you, but since I can’t, treat them, too.” Whenever they let me, I did. After all these years, that’s the only luxury I really miss.