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I’m sitting on an airplane enroute to Lisbon as I write about my mother. She’s been gone nearly seven years and I can still remember her face when she stepped from the jetway in Tokyo the year she came to visit me. She had never been out of the country and her excitement overwhelmed the jetlag from the 14-hour flight from Los Angeles.
My mother loved to travel. Did we go places much when I was growing up? Not really. We took one vacation during my childhood years, a road trip to Texas to visit the family of my new stepfather. Travel was something other people did, something she longed to do, but never had the funds or the freedom to enjoy. As the daughter of a railroad man, she’d hung out at train depots growing up and rode the rails from her home in Iowa to California when she was a young girl. She fell in love with California on that trip and decided she’d live there one day.
Coming of age in the post-WWII era, my mother was a victim of choices—her own and those thrust upon her from parental expectations. In her churchy Midwestern world, after high school the rich girls went to Europe, the smart girls went to college and the good girls got married. My mother was neither rich nor scholastically inclined, so she graduated high school and got married. She scandalized the town two years later when she filed for divorce, packed up her few belongings and headed to California.
Ten years later she was in a disastrous marriage to my father with three young girls and a piano. Three things got her through those years, that piano, her singing and her love of travel. Music took her places where planes, trains and automobiles couldn’t go. I remember her playing and singing pop songs that are now standards like, “Fly Me to the Moon,” “How Are Things in Glocca Morra,” “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” and “Somewhere My Love.” Music was the vehicle that transported her beyond the overdue rent, broken down car, and holey underwear.
I’ve drawn much from my mother and father in The Sword Swallower's Daughter, the novel I’m currently revising. Here’s an excerpt that captures the transformation that occurred within my mother when she sat down at the piano:
”We returned from school that day to the sound of her pounding out “Clar de Lune” on the piano. Mama’s piano playing was a barometer to her moods. When she played and sang sad love songs, she was irritable. When she played upbeat show tunes, we pretended we were the Lennon Sisters and joined in fun rounds of musical togetherness. Sometimes she played hymns, especially for wicked Uncle Teddy, who insisted she sing “How Great Thou Art” every time he saw her. But when she played from her big, brown classical music book, she channeled the tension of her life into the music, because when she closed the piano lid and stepped away, her face was smooth and her voice as soft as a soap opera star.”
Had my mother been raised in a family that dared to dream, she might have considered a career in music. Had she believed in herself, she might have listened to those in California who suggested she sing jingles for commercials, background vocals in Hollywood studios, even piano bar at one of the posh nightclubs of the day. As talented as she was, as much as she loved to sing, she simply had no confidence in herself. She didn’t dream of being famous, of stepping in and out of limos in exotic locations, her dreams were simple exhaustion borne of just getting by.
You’d think that this musical legacy may have led me into music. Sadly, we had no money for music lessons, or even renting a cheap student instrument during elementary school years. My mother, so broken from her past, didn’t have the confidence to teach any of her three daughters to play piano. I taught myself to read a melody line with my right hand and chord with my left hand. Sing? That gift skipped a generation, landing squarely in the voices of my two children. Elisabeth, who has perfect pitch and reveled in her piano lessons until 12th grade, has no time for the gift right now while she works through grad school as an English major. Jonathan, who was born with a song in his heart, delights me with spontaneous songs emanating from the shower, across the house, from the stage of his college choir. But travel? They’ve got that bug, and good. But what do you expect from children born in a foreign country, whose passports were issued before birth certificates?
In 1989 my mother took her only trip out of the country to be with me for the birth of my son in Tokyo. As a teenager during WWII, she’d struggled with prejudices against the fearsome Japanese she heard about in newsreels and newspapers. Upon his return from the war in Japan her brother gave her a tiny gold ring he’d removed from the finger of a dead Japanese solder. I’d always felt that ring had bad juju and when we began planning her trip, I suggested she bring the ring back with her and we’d present it to the Japanese military commander on the base nearby. She agreed and we were both thrilled with this restorative action. Bad juju passed into other hands though, as her jewelry box with that ring and other family treasures were stolen during a home robbery only weeks before she was to leave on her trip.
I’ve often said that a visit to Hiroshima’s Peace Park and the A-Bomb Museum there should be a pilgrimage of every human being sometime in their life time (along with Auschwitz). We took my mother to Peace Park, where she was both horrified and healed. The destruction and human drama that was Hiroshima seared her mind like the images the nuclear blast put on the walls of the city. Yet her interaction with the friendly, helpful, humble Japanese people healed the prejudice she’d long harbored.
When she got sick from the cancer that claimed her life, she and I had been dreaming up a trip to England. She wasn’t able to take it, but I did it for her. I wrote about that trip in Ghosts of the Windswept Moors.
And so it is that she loved to travel. I always take a part of her when I go.
Causes Carolyn Bass Supports
Catalina Island Conservancy, Habitat for Humanity, American Cancer Society, American Heart Association, HorseNet Rescue