My mother was smart, classy, and just about one of the wittiest people I ever knew. When we’d sit around her extended family’s Christmas table it became of firing range of humor as the hilarious slams and insults flew across the feast faster than Grandma’s gravy bowl. But perhaps my most vivid memories of Mom’s zest for life came from our family vacations. Mom and Dad took the family somewhere every summer and by the time I’d graduated from high school we’d visited all fifty states and Cuba.
Traveling with Mom was a hoot. The Seattle Space Needle recently celebrated its fiftieth anniversary and I was reminded of the summer our family traveled out there to visit the World’s Fair. We took the elevator to the top then paid outrageous prices to eat at the restaurant on the spire’s summit. My brother and I knew when a restaurant was too expensive. Dad would look at the prices on the menu then slam it shut and announce, “The hamburger steak looks good.” That was our cue to downsize our order. The Space Needle restaurant was built to slowly rotate so within an hour’s time you had a 360 view of the city. We ate our meal then got up pay our bill and descend when Mom announced, “Somebody stole my purse!” What my mother had failed to notice was that although the restaurant floor rotated in a circle, the ledge on which she’d put her purse did not. This left Dad to inch his way around the restaurant, looking between diners’ legs for Mom’s missing purse. He found it.
Mom was a math teacher, but sometimes her sense of direction was a bit off-kilter. We were standing on the dock of the San Francisco Bay, watching tide roll away, and Dad pointed out the looming dark spot in the harbor. Doing his best Chevy Chase imitation (actually, Chevy channeled Dad to make his “Vacation” movies), Dad said, “Look boys! There’s Alcatraz!” In those days most tourist attractions would be ringed with large metallic telescopes into which you’d insert your dime and for about a minute you’d try to focus on the site in question, then just as you found it the thing would click off. Mom was desperately trying to take a peek into this most notorious of American prisons when she started shouting, “I can see it! I can see it! Oh, good Lord! You can see right into their cells, boys! And they have men and women prisoners in the same cell!” Again, her sense of direction had played a trick on her. We looked over to notice that she had trained her telescope onto the row of apartment buildings two blocks below where we were standing.
Mom had a sister who resembled her very closely and folks were often getting the two mixed up. However, while my mother could laugh off practically any calamity, Alberta was a school principal with whom we nephews did not mess around. Make too much noise in Mom’s house and she’d give you a smiling reprimand. Raise a little hell in Alberta’s home and you’d be in line for a genuine Charlton Heston-wrath-of-God explosion. Our two families were vacationing in Colorado one summer day and had decided to take advantage of the resort’s swimming pool. In those days women wore swimming caps. I saw Mom with her back turned in the shallow end so I thought it would be clever to do a surface dive, grab her ankles from behind and upend her. Did I mention that Freida and her sister Alberta looked a great deal alike and when both wore swimming caps even a sophomore son could be excused for making a small mistake? When Alberta came sputtering up out of the chlorinated water I saw that this was no small mistake. The good news: Mom thought it was hilarious.
Mom was a voracious reader and when we traveled her books would often take up more space than my underwear. Of course in those days her books were bigger than my underwear. But she was terrible about leaving books in every hotel room, restaurant, and gas station from one end of the continent to the other. We’d kid her about topping Andrew Carnegie’s record in starting libraries all across the country.
The best thing about traveling with Mom is that she made even long stretches of Kansas fun. The woman loved to go on vacation, but Dad said that on the way home she’d be in a terrible mood. He once took advantage of her poor sense of direction. He said, “We’d been coming back from California for three days before she realized what direction we were headed.”