Journey of the Heart
Our multi-generational family cruise started as a way for me to make amends with my parents, to have no regrets. With Dad exhibiting signs of Alzheimer's and Mom a recent breast cancer survivor, I knew it was time to celebrate Christmas cheer with a present of our presence.
I’m in Washington, D.C. and my parents and sister are in San Diego. Living on opposite coasts for the last 30 years had taken a predictable toll on our relationship. This was particularly poignant for mother and me, two women with great contrasts. Plus, my children knew Grammy and Grandpa mostly through awkward phone conversations characterized by cryptic “yes” and “no” answers to most every question posed to them. Our families were in desperate need of quality bonding – time to laugh, time to rest, and time to share meals together as we reconnected family ties and closed the sterile space of strained years apart.
I chose an eight-day Mexican Riviera itinerary with Carnival Cruise Lines because the debarkation port of San Diego was close for my parents, and because Carnival Cruises has a strong reputation for providing a positive experience for family travel. I also wanted a cruise ship known for fun, plenty of activities, fine dining and value.
Our three generations ranged in age from my 11 year-old daughter, Kosette, to my frail father pushing a well-earned 78. Sandwiched in between were my mother and older sister, as well as my husband, Tom and 13 year-old son, Karson.
As the Carnival Spirit slid away from the dock, I silently wondered if booking such a long trip with my parents was a sane thing to do. After all, Mom and I haven’t exactly had an ideal mother-daughter relationship through the years. Our personalities, likes and dislikes, were very different. With tension gripping my body, I wondered what the ensuing days would hold. Would this week be a cherished memory or just another bad dream?
During the last 15 years, our relationship has been rocky at best – like a rough dirt road with dips, lumps, and bumps, never smooth, always laborious. Ours was not the idyllic bonding I so envied in the movies. While watching a recent movie, Christmas with the Kringles, I noted that the mother and daughter truly enjoyed each other’s company. They were best friends, who shared their thoughts, feelings, and innermost secrets. That was a far cry from what my life with Mom had been.
Like most women of her generation, Mom stayed at home while we were growing up. I never understood her lack of ambition, her desire for stability and the comforts of home. Eager to become financially independent, I entered the professional world soon after graduating with a Master’s degree at the tender age of 21.
While Mom lived vicariously through her family, I had great dreams and wanted to change the world. She spoke with her heart, while I analyzed with my brain. I needed freedom, Mom wanted connection with costs. She desperately wanted grandchildren, though my focus was on a career. Although I would eventually have children, they arrived at a time in my life when most women my age are grandmothers.
One of the biggest rifts between us came about as a result of Mom’s fundamental religious beliefs. Religion became the dominant topic of conversation, as she constantly pushed her spiritual convictions on me; in spite of the fact she knew they weren’t welcome. As a result, communication became strained and the chasm widened. My intolerance over Mom’s lack of tolerance was the ultimate irony.
Now things were different. Mom had endured six grueling months of chemotherapy treatments, leaving her emotionally vulnerable and physically depleted. The distance between us – both geographic and emotional – had made it impossible for me to help shuttle her to appointments, and most of all, to give her a caring shoulder to cry on. With a demanding federal job and two school-age children, I couldn’t be there for her when she needed me most. I felt really remorseful about my past behavior.
I cringed even more when I remembered the night my distraught mother called me. Sobbing hysterically, she told me that my younger sister threatened to have her and Dad evicted from their home. As a firefighter, my sister callously told my parents that their home was a fire hazard. Unless they cleaned up the stacks of boxes, papers, and junk, she would report them for living in an unsafe environment. The thought of my sister’s harsh words pounded in my brain. This was elder abuse – both unconscionable and despicable given Mom’s state of health. And again, I felt terrible for what my parents had been through.
By now we had settled into the cruising lifestyle. My rules for the children were simple. “We eat evening meals together in the formal dining room and you will dress accordingly.” With collared Hawaiian shirts and shoes, they reluctantly complied. Soon the kids were enjoying our evening ritual and celebration of fine dining. Since no one in the family had to prepare, cook or clean, we savored our time together with pleasant conversation, laughter, and lots of memories.
The next day, I wanted to create new experiences that we could remember forever. Inviting the rest of the family to our cabin to enjoy the view from our balcony, Tom poured glasses of wine, while I narrated the grandeur of the Mexican sunset. With serendipity on our side, Nature rewarded us with a kaleidoscope of hues and ever-changing reflective cloud formations. Hoping to capture the moment, I quickly took photos with my camera. I then asked everyone to carefully watch for the “green flash” – a rare atmospheric condition that briefly occurs on the horizon after the sun has set. Not this evening.
Our first port-of-call was Acapulco. No trip to this legendary resort is complete without watching the famous cliff divers of La Quebrada. Carrying on a 50-year tradition, these highly trained divers jump from craggy cliffs over 100 feet to a narrow, rocky gorge with less than 12 feet of water. No less famous are the luminous Mexican fire opals, carried at many local silver and jewelry outlets from nearby Taxco – the silver capital of Mexico. Tom and I thoroughly enjoyed striking up bargains on these coveted stones while sipping more than our fair share of frozen margaritas. We returned again for the evening show. Divers held torches in each hand to light their otherwise dark descent to the ebony waters below. Our seats at the La Perla nightclub were perfect for viewing the daring young divers. This was followed by a beautifully choreographed Mexican folkloric show, chronicling the history of Mexico. The six-dancer ensemble awed Mom and me; lithe and limber, their moves, resplendent costumes, and the story were spellbinding.
The next afternoon, Mom had her way of telling me how special our sunset gathering had been. “Are we meeting on your balcony to celebrate the end of the day?” she asked, hinting that we should do it again. Sadly, I explained that wasn’t possible, because the ship had turned around after reaching Acapulco. We were cruising north and our stateroom and balcony were on the wrong side of the ship for sunsets. “We can meet on the Lido deck, opposite side, if you like,” I responded.
Next port was Zihuatanejo/Ixtapa. On one side of the port, Zihuatanejo is a quaint fishing village, while Ixatapa on the other side consists of modern resorts and manicured golf courses. Talking with locals while shopping, photographing children, and learning the art of making traditional tortillas were among the many memories we made that day.
Manzanillo, our third port-of-call, was a favorite with everyone, including kids, Karson and Kosette. Maybe it was because Volcan del Fuego put on a show for us, spewing billowy plumes of white ash into the atmosphere, not once, but several times. Or it could have been the recently discovered pyramids and archeological ruins of La Campana, as we climbed up and down tiered mounds of stone dating back to the first century. The colonial city of Colima was captivating, exposing its pre-Columbian treasures, 19th century cathedral, and government palace. By the time we lunched on endless plates of tapas in the village of Comala, it was all about authenticity – the real heart and soul of Mexico.
Strolling through the zocala or town square after our repast, Mom lamented about someone stealing Baby Jesus from the outdoor nativity scene. She added, “And the same was true for the nativity scene inside the church.” I secretly smiled as I explained, “You see Mom, in Mexico the Baby Jesus is not laid in the manger until Christmas Day. It’s a religious tradition.” A surprised grin overtook her worried countenance, as she giggled with her long lost little-girl laugh that could easily be mine.
For the Christmas Eve meal, I surprised Dad by producing his Purple Heart – a gift he had passed on to me several years earlier. (He had asked to take another look at the coveted medal during his last visit at our Maryland home, but since our basement had flooded, I was unable to locate it at the time.) As I reached for my purse, somehow Dad knew. Tears welled up in his smoky blue-grey eyes. His gaze fixated on the Purple Heart; then, with a faraway stare and a faint smile, his mind whisked him back to a time before I knew him.
By the end of the cruise, I sensed a closeness and healing; a tenderness that somehow criss-crossed and traversed the times we never had together. The end of the trip had come. With hugs, kisses and whispered “I love yous,” we parted ways for the final leg home. Mom’s dark eyes were moist with tears, as she desperately embraced me with one final “bear hug.” Then, hand-in-hand with Dad, and my sister close behind, they caught their Cloud Nine transportation to their home in Bonita. I had a deep feeling of satisfaction, as Tom, the children and I boarded the airport shuttle for a red-eye special to Baltimore.
While the cruise started as a way to heal old wounds and regrets, it became so much more. For this was the Christmas we all gave of ourselves, and in the process, came together as a multi-generational family in the true spirit of the season. With our gifts of time, sharing and getting to know each other all over again, we created a family legacy of memories. And as for Mom and me, it was a wonderful week of mending our mother-daughter relationship — to focus on what we have in common, rather than dwelling on our differences. We parted paths with no regrets, with a joyfulness that comes from coming closer to family. It was truly a journey of the heart.
|Photographs by Karin Leperi|