A Tribute to the Original Mother of Traveling Monsters

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about my mother. I spend a lot of time around fellow traveling moms on Instagram and blogs these days, and mostly I find myself thinking (usually after a heated debate about the educational merits of Ipads): my mother must consider us such wimps.

When my mother packed her four kids up and flew across the Pacific, she didn’t have Pinterest to consult for printable checklists or iPads to keep us occupied. As far as I can remember, she packed gum to pop our ears, extra underwear because the airline always lost our luggage, travel-size games, and books, books and more books. We spent most of the flight playing under the seats, of course, poking the ankles of the businessmen seated in front of us.

The Widdison family in 1987, four months after leaving Salt Lake City for Manila.

All women eventually become their mothers, or so says conventional wisdom. In my twenties, I laughed at the thought; in my thirties, I dreaded it. This year, I turn forty, and the age spots on my hands tell me that I’m nearing that inevitability. I probe deep within every crevice of my soul to find fear, but all I feel is relief.

I’d love to be more like my mother. My mom is badass. My mom raised four kids in seven different countries before the internet, before cell phones, before Amazon, iPhones or email. She never (permanently) lost one of us and we all still like each other. Become my mother? Sure. Bring it on!

Colleen Jensen grew up on a ranch outside a tiny town in Idaho, then ventured all the way to Utah for college. Following graduation, she got a job, found a husband, became Colleen Jensen Widdison, and gave birth to four kids. I was the eldest and eight years old when my father joined the Foreign Service.

My youngest sibling was only four months old when the six of us moved overseas to our first post in the Philippines. There was an attempted coup in Manila in August of 1987 that happened to coincide exactly with our flight dates, so we were delayed in Tokyo. I can still remember hours in the airport, and then a night in a Japanese hotel, and the adults on the phone talking in hushed tones.

Eventually it was safe enough for us to fly into Manila. We were driven through the dense, smoggy city, past an armed guard at the entrance to Magallanes Village, to a house behind a high metal gate. There were international schools and backyard pools and household help. My mother was suddenly thrown in to a different world — not just living overseas, but moving within expat and diplomat circles. When I asked her about how difficult this was, she told me with a shrug, “I just said to myself: all these people put their pants on in the morning one leg at a time, the same as you and me.”

Traveling moms
My parents, Colleen and Gary Widdison, in Scotland in the early 1990s. Notice all my mom’s bags: I’m pretty sure there are snacks in there.

Mom had lived her whole life up to that point within a three hour drive of her family. Now we were practically light years away. Phone calls were expensive, made in the middle of the night due to the time difference. We sent letters back home, lots of letters, and videotapes we recorded of ourselves, our house, and our new environment. Our grandparents and aunts and uncles would send back video tapes recorded off the TV of cartoons, TV shows and made-for-TV movies. We watched these ad nauseam, hungry for the familiar language of home.

After two years in the Philippines, we moved to Ireland; subsequently our family lived in Oman, Japan, Israel and Ghana. In between, my parents tried to take us places, to show us more of the world. With four kids and limited funds, though, they had to be creative.

We sometimes left behind a blatantly disinterested kid (I do this now, too…) or my parents would take one or two of us on a trip. Sometimes my parents actually went places without us, like when we were in Ireland and they went on safari in Kenya. By themselves!

Here’s a lesson from my parents I try to remember: it’s fun to travel as a family, but it’s a good idea to let your kids discover some new places on their own someday, too.

These days, when I travel with my little family, I try to channel my mother. I always had a sense as a kid that as long as we were all together, everything would be okay. And it was.

We have a joke in our family: every time we tried to take a family vacation, something went seriously awry, suggesting that perhaps we ought to have stayed home and watched reruns of Roseanne, instead. We got seriously lost in the Wahiba Sands desert in Oman. We got turned around in the backroads of France in the middle of the night after our passports were stolen, trying to find an unguarded border crossing to Switzerland. Our van broke down in Jordan on the way to Petra, and we had to rely on the kindness of three strangers (with whom we had zero ability to communicate verbally) to get us to town.

Traveling with kids
Colleen Widdison is still brave enough to travel with monsters, most recently mine, on this trip to Costa Rica.

But during each of these events, I don’t remember ever feeling scared; we knew we’d be fine somehow. Even without cell phones or Google translate or GPS. I imagine my mother must have been worked up in some of these scenarios, but my parents managed to exude a sense of calm. If there’s any lesson I want to transmit to my children through our travels, it’s that I won’t panic on them.

In my memories, my mom is sitting in the front seat of whatever large vehicle we own at the time (minivans, station wagons, an Isuzu trooper capable of traversing sand dunes in the Middle East) and passing back snacks: cheese, apples, crackers, and Twizzlers. Family travel memories are comfort shaped by the consistency of familiar people in novel locations.

When I go backwards in time, this same scenario repeats itself through the snowy canyons of northern Utah, in smog-choked traffic in Manila, on the Shuto Expressway of Japan, waiting at checkpoints in Northern Ireland, as our tires spin in the sand dunes of the Omani desert, crossing the West Bank at breakneck speed and weaving through the streets of Accra. Wherever we were, my mom was the same. Steady. In control. Feeding people.

These days, I sit in that queenly seat, cutting apples and tossing back licorice. I have all sorts of of new technology at my disposal, but my kids still love some of the same word games we played as kids. And sometimes, I wish we got lost a little more, but it’s actually really tough to do that these days.

Thank you, mom, for the lessons, and the memories.

Traveling mom
Colleen Widdison, one badass traveling mother, doesn’t even complain when “just a little walk” turns in to a mile long hike through the jungle. That’s my mom!