To write about my mom is to write unfulfilled. There simply aren’t adequate words to describe her beauty and complexities. And there certainly are no words to communicate how grateful I am she is for me, always strengthening the ramparts of my heart.
I think about her life as a passport. Binding worn in and soft, pages filled with stamps both haphazard and aligned. Her place of birth reads Savannah, Georgia and she embodies all the good in a Southern woman: strength, charisma, hospitality. Those first pages full of instructions about traveling and safety abroad mark where she learned to love to explore and experience new places. Her Air Force dad and ever-resourceful mother took camping trips across the US and Canada every year, teaching my mom it was more important to save for travel than a new television or name-brand clothes. The emergency contact information would contain the name and address of her beloved grandmother in Hernando, Mississippi, a town holding both her second home and future husband.
Before the pages begin to fill there are years spent in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Arkansas. During that time I imagine the first stamps are from the Bahamas, trips taken with her ginger-headed groom or other family. Then our little family of three makes its way to Tyler, Texas. In Texas the stamps come from entering the international and letting the international enter us.
My mother takes her first mission trip to Ukraine when I am seven. She writes every entry in her travel journal to me. She describes the people and sights and the tears shed when she couldn’t call me on my birthday. The back pages have Russian vocabulary words meticulously written as she tried to learn them. She loves every minute and comes back with her heart for the nations as a souvenir for me.
There are stamps from Mexico as my parents become volunteer youth ministers at an inner city church, its congregation half Hispanic and half African-American. A stamp from Belize takes several months to ink as a Central American woman recovering from surgery lives with us. My mom gets a stamp from Nicaragua and loves it so much she takes my dad back to serve with her in medical missions. They leave mid-way this second trip when her sister is in a devastating car accident. Years later she finishes it with both me and my dad. I am twelve and it is the first time I have ever been outside the US. I am in love.
Another stamp comes from Ukraine when Natasha, a foreign exchange student, lives with us for a year. Another from Russia when Natasha’s exchange student friend moves in, too. My mom opens her heart and her home to these two teenage girls with grace and generosity.
Stamps accumulate from Italy when I come home from college suggesting I spend two weeks there through the school. She says for that amount of money our whole family could go on our own. And so we do. We eat and drink our way from the Amalfi Coast to Venice, marveling with wide eyes the whole time. She’ll go back years later to a cooking school.
A Moroccan stamp enters in when we travel just the two us to visit a dear friend. We feel like British spinsters on the continent, soaking up the European-North African bridge of Casablanca and the chaos of Marrakech. My mother takes suitcases full of gifts for expats we have never met, pounds of chocolate chips and peanut butter and Valentine’s Day decorations. We drink pots upon pots of mint tea and I learn my mother is the worst market negotiator in the history of Americans abroad. This trip calls on all our courage and we are very good partners.
She and my dad take in Greece, Turkey, and Egypt for an anniversary, transporting more suitcase gifts for strangers in a missions organization. She serves Haitian refugees in the Dominican Republic. My grandmother beats round one of ovarian cancer and we celebrate on the Blue Danube. Stamps.
Eight stamps from Burundi arrive in 2007, the ninth in 2011. Suddenly our family of three is much, much larger.
Some stamps she does not obtain by being present in a land but they are hard-won nonetheless. The years my dad designs and starts up oil refineries in Angola, Azerbaijan, Yemen, and Oman. She sends me to India with a suitcase to impress MacGyver and awaits the stories upon my return. Perhaps the hardest earned stamps are to Afghanistan, three times I went and she chose to trust Christ and not give in to fear. She had to let me go; after all, this is who she raised me to be.
My mother is a passport and she harbors all its emotional complexity: the intentionality of planning itineraries, the fatigue of jet lag, the exuberance of tasting new dishes, the warmth of strangers who become family, the stillness of reading on a plane, the chaos of train stations, the satisfaction of following a map correctly, the joy and frustration of communicating in a foreign language, and the hope of sights unseen.
My mother is a passport, her pages vibrant with color and flavor and experience.
My mother is a passport, welcoming all people and cultures into her heart.
My mother is a passport with beautiful, clean, unstamped pages waiting to be filled.
My mother is a passport and I carry her with me wherever I go.