When I was in high school, my grandmother—my mother’s mother—passed away. She had lived with my family for the last few years of her life, ever since my grandfather had died. On the last day, when so much of the family had already gathered at the house, I was extremely sick myself and could hardly get out of bed. Although I did get the chance to say goodbye, it felt very helpless to be stuck up in my room while my family was going through so much sorrow jut one floor below.
Later, when the time came for the inevitable sorting and packing and dividing of my grandmother’s possessions, my siblings and I were each allowed to choose an item or two that held meaning for us.
I asked for the atlas.
My grandmother dearly loved maps, and I still remember sitting with her as a young child and looking through that atlas almost as though it were another children’s book. It was kept in the small dining room bookcase, which also contained other reference books (including a field guide to North American birds, belonging to my grandfather). It was my grandfather who had given her the atlas in 1993, not long after they had celebrated their fiftieth anniversary together. He had written a simple inscription inside the front cover: “Christmas 1993, from Paul.” Evidently, the rest went unspoken. But I’m sure she knew.
I eventually left high school and took the atlas with me to college, without ever having looked all the way through it. It was enough to know that it was there, and that I still had some physical link to the patient woman who had raised nine children without ever getting the chance to travel to any of the countries so clearly outlined on those pages. To the best of my knowledge, she never left the United States. Her fondest travel memories came from a trip she had taken to New York with her closest cousin—more like a sister, really—as a young woman. They visited New York City and Niagara Falls, and her eyes still lit up whenever she talked about it. “Imagine!” she would say. “Two young girls going off to a city like New York! I still can’t believe my father let me do it. But you wouldn’t believe how little we paid…”
The atlas now stands on a shelf in my bedroom in Massachusetts, having traveled as far from home as my grandmother ever did. I still use it for reference before turning to Wikipedia. It’s nearly twenty years old now, and a few of the borders are no longer where they once were. But the world hasn’t changed so much in twenty years that the atlas isn’t still of some use.
And every time I see it, I’m reminded of how blessed I really am—almost unfairly so. I visited New York for the first time just months before my grandmother died; I brought her back a silk scarf that she hardly had the chance to wear. Yes, while I was still in high school, I had already traveled as far as my grandmother had traveled in her whole life.
Since then, I’ve traveled much more—certainly not as much as some, but enough to check off many pages in my grandmother’s atlas. I’ve spent time in England and Australia, and even lived in Italy for a summer. I’ve lived in Los Angeles, too, and have also visited more than half of the United States. In March, I’ll be traveling to Ireland and Scotland, as well. Of course, in this global age, I’m sure many of you have travel lists that could top mine.
But when I think of what my grandmother would have given to visit even one of these places…
These days, I’m in New York at least every few months, and I spend most of my time complaining about the commute. I take for granted what was probably the pinnacle of my grandmother’s travel career. And I’m already the same age she was when she went.
There were no doubt a number of factors that prevented her from traveling more extensively—first, all those children, and then money was always tight. In later years, I’m sure my grandfather’s health was also a factor, and (still later) her own. One way or another, though, she was left to travel in the only way available to her: that Rand McNally World Atlas of Nations. Now, I wonder if she ever felt like I did on the day she died: trapped upstairs, with everyone and everything else waiting below.
I know that times have changed, and that travel is far easier than it once was. Among my friends and family, even a three-day weekend is now an excuse for jet-setting; I still laugh when I remember one friend who flew to South Korea for Columbus Day Weekend because… why not? At the same time, travel also imposes many burdens that were unknown fifty years ago: invasive screening checkpoints, lists of prohibited items, and (the reason for these requirements) an ever-present terrorist threat.
But whenever the relative ease of travel begins to cause me to take it for granted, I look to that atlas and remember that it was not always so easy for everyone—including many who dearly wanted to go.
And whenever the modern burdens of travel cause me to regard it as a hassle or something to be endured, I think of my grandmother, whose obstacles to travel were so much closer to home.
Home, where she patiently sat, pondering other places, with the whole world in her hands.