I specifically recall a celestial map in my childhood bedroom. The stars and constellations were raised creating tiny little speed bumps where the biggest clusters of light were found. Orion’s Belt, the Big Dipper, and the Zodiac formations were present. At night, when my mom shut off the lights, the map glowed in the dark just like its real counterparts in the sky. This map undoubtedly was ripped from the spine of a National Geographic Magazine.
We lived on the coast in Southern California, a place where you’d rarely see stars through the orange tainted hue of street lights and smog. I am not sure if I knew what the stars located like outside of that map for my first seven or so years. As the first of three daughters born to a college educated but overwhelmed mother and auto mechanic adoptive-father (my real father was in jail for a minor drug crime when I was born and opted out of parenthood thereafter), we weren’t the recipients of a great many travel experiences. Instead, my parents focused on survival and stability, for both of which I am very grateful for.
I think we went camping once when we were small. In our garage lived a tent, sleeping bags, and a lantern but those were used for faux campouts in the backyard. My grandparents, Ergo and Betty, supplied our childhood adventures further afield. While my parents slaved away at jobs they hated, we spent time with our Nanny and Papa.
At 6’4″ and covering a weight range of 400 to 180 pounds during my time with him, Papa was larger than life. It wasn’t just his size that was formidable. He was a renown public speaker at Alcoholics Anonymous meetings in La Jolla, where they lived, and abroad. He even traveled to Monaco as a keynote speaker. He also was a fanatic fisherman, hunter and nature lover who shot his last wild turkey while hanging his aging body over the open door of his suburban just before he had a stroke and never got the chance to hunt again. But what he was known for most was his ability to tell a story. Men from all walks of life came to his “office” in my grandparents’ house to listen to him talk. After he died while I was in law school, I slept in his “office:” a venerable hunting museum with dark red walls, brown trim, a massive mounted elk head and a collection of shotguns and rifles. Disappointingly, I always thought I’d see his ghost, but never have.
So there we were three young girls who spent nearly 50% of their time at Nanny and Papa. When we were old enough to be away from our mother for a few days, we went to the desert and the river in Papa’s Vintage Airstream trailer. My grandfather bought me a fishing vest that I decorated with patches, a tackle kit, and a Davy Crocket-style raccoon hat. I caught a rainbow trout, my first fish, and cried hysterically as Nanny fried it for dinner. I shot a black powder musket rifle. With a few more years under my belt, we went deep-sea fishing off the East Cape of Baja and I landed a marlin that weighed about as much as I do now.
Nanny always had a trip on her horizon – places like Tahiti, Italy, San Francisco, Maine, and finally Hawaii – even when she suffered a stroke and never was able to travel again. In her prime, Nanny took us to San Francisco, stopping first at our local GAP store because, in her old school way, she wanted us to dress-up for the flight on the new school airline, Southwest. I wore a tweed jacket and shorts that looked like a skirt because I was a tomboy. We went to FAO Swartz, saw the Christmas decorations in the windows at Gumps and had dinner at the Tonga Room in the Fairmont hotel where rain fell into the old indoor pool on the hour while the adults sipped umbrella garnished mai tais.
When I got older and moved away to New Orleans for college, Nanny came to visit me regularly. We drank Mint Juleps on the porch at the Columns Hotel, visited all the restaurants you read about in Bon Appetite and Conde Naste Traveler, and even got rained-in at a Hooters Bar one night. Nanny was in her seventies then but still the life of the party.
I just happened to be in Mexico when Nanny had a very serious stroke. I returned the next day to find her only a fraction of the lively woman she once was but still full of big plans. She had planned a trip to the Hawaiian Island of Oahu with a close friend in October of that year to revisit the Royal Hawaiian, a hotel her and Papa had loved so many years ago. It was August. Despite losing the functionality of one side of her face and requiring round the clock palliative care, she had her mind set on going to Hawaii. She asked me to change her ticket and let her friend know they were still going despite this hiccup. She did not know that the stroke would prove fatal down the track.
Sadly, Nanny never made it to Hawaii. She passed away last March, just over a year and a half after the initial stroke. I owe so much to her and Papa. They motivated me to go to law school, supported me financially, gave me a place to stay and were always there if I needed help with anything. But more than anything, I know they sparked my incurable wanderlust. It’s a blessing (or disease) that would push me to save all my money to see places like Nicaragua, Indonesia, Spain, Cambodia and beyond. A trait that would eventually lead me to Australia.
In Nanny’s honor (really in honor of both Nanny and Papa), my mother and I are going to the Royal Hawaiian. In spirit (and in a little box), Nanny will take the trip she couldn’t take in life. It’s the least I can do for a woman who taught me so many things but most importantly to always have a trip on your horizon.