After being diagnosed with cancer, my mother began traveling. She convinced my busy father to see the south of France and took numerous solo trips from Seattle to New York. I had previously thought of my mom as a bit of a bookish introvert, with minimal wanderlust. My siblings and I were shocked by the rolls of film she’d have developed after each return home. There she was, smiling on a helicopter ride over Manhattan or happily sipping an Egg Cream in a comedy club.
When I was fourteen, she brought my sister Erin and me along to New York. While I felt pretty cool telling my friends about the visit, I couldn’t really understand yet how lucky I was to explore a new city with the two most influential women in my life. I was an angst-filled teenager suffering withdrawals from my (make believe) smoking habit. My mood swings were epic. Erin, four years my senior, had recently began experiencing life as a real adult on her own back home. We were pleased enough to walk the city and tour the sites but I don’t think I was alone in also counting the days till our return flight.
When my mother died years later, she left us an unexpected parting gift: thousands of airline miles from her solo adventures. The miles would expire in a year and could only be transferred to immediate family. At this point, we did not get along. I’d always pushed Erin’s limits in true younger sibling fashion: I read her diary and tattled her secrets to our parents. I stole her clothes and we fought viciously over bathroom time. We couldn’t imagine spending even a long car ride together but we certainly wouldn’t let the miles go to waste. We booked a two week journey from Düsseldorf to Santorini via plane, rail and ship.
There is so much we probably should have talked about on that trip. What would become of our family? How were we coping? But we weren’t there yet. Despite sharing a wall for nearly 14 years, we hardly knew one another. Turns out, being thrown into an unfamiliar culture was the ultimate crash course in each other. In Greece, we found a shared enemy in feta cheese and bonded over the melted pads of butter we’d hidden in our bags. (Butter is hard to come by there and we’ve since forgiven Feta.) On overnight trains, it became clear we both snored like our dad and we each required quiet time like our mom. What used to annoy became essential. I was grateful for my sister’s inner planner as she set alarms for early flights and checked us in and out of hotels. We both enjoyed strolling through museums as I pondered attending art school. We shared swigs from a bottle of concealed booze while crossing the Ionian Sea and realized, to our surprise, that we actually really liked each other.
The challenges of travel reveal honest personalities and I am so hugely grateful for that trip spent getting to know my sister. I was too young to really know my mom as a woman beyond being my parent, but her travel photos provide clues for me to interpret today. Her (perhaps unintentional) gift of airline miles completely redefined my relationship with my sister, who is now my closest friend.
While I don’t wish the circumstances on anyone, I would urge all women to plan some sister travel, whether your “sister” is a mysterious sibling or an unrelated girlfriend. Erin and I spent two weeks learning the little stuff and when we returned to real life, it seemed more possible to bring up the big stuff. These days we plan mini vacations together, taking any excuse to fly somewhere warm. We no longer need the roadblocks of unfamiliar foods and foreign languages, though I’m sure we’d have a blast together in any part of the world. It is simply enough to leave our normal life for a a couple days, split dinners far too fattening to order alone, and talk about whatever we feel like, big or small.
Featured image via Google Life.