a photo of a girl and her mother at the Great Wall of China
Courtesy of Rachel Mckimmy.

“We keep this love in a photograph / We made these memories for ourselves / Where our eyes are never closing / Hearts are never broken / And time’s forever frozen, still” —Ed Sheeran, “Photograph.” 

It began with photographs, unearthed from boxes and hard drives. I asked family members for any pictures they had, compiling them in a virtual slideshow for the funeral. Then, more recently, I progressed to stories. Stories I was too young to remember — or stories from the 36 years of her life before I came into it.

In the wake of my mom’s passing in February, I have begun the process of recording memories in any way that I can, from photographs to writing. Evidence that she existed, that she lived a life full of love and adventure, even though it was cut too short. Most important to me, of course, were the adventures we shared together; she took me with her on most of her travels around the world. 

When my mom was little, my aunt Cathy told me, their grandparents took them traveling. It was a special treat to see new places: Yellowstone, where they went swimming in a hot spring; Alaska, where they saw grizzly bears and moose.

There’s one memory in particular that I like to imagine as the origin of my mother’s love of traveling. Cathy recalled vividly to me the moment that gave them the opportunity to travel alone together for the first time, which also happened to be the moment she discovered Santa Claus wasn’t real. When Cathy was seven and my mother five, their grandparents had taken them to see Santa. As they both sat on his lap, Cathy noticed that his beard was fake, made of white fabric pulled down over his face. She and my mother were disappointed when “Santa” presented them with their gift: just a thin envelope. The disappointment was quickly replaced with excitement when they opened it and found two plane tickets to Florida. They’d received the best gifts in the pile. They flew together for the first time to Florida and their grandparents met them there. They felt so grown up. I can see them now in my imagination — my mom, white-blond-haired and quiet, holding her big sister’s hand on the plane, looking out the window at the ground below.

Maybe it was then that my mom caught the travel bug. In any case, she didn’t have time or money to travel until well into her adulthood. She worked hard to become an accountant, then a lawyer. She put herself through school while raising my big sister Sydney. Then she met my dad and moved to live with him in Germany, where I was born.

Another memory that has often been recited to me: a road trip across Europe in my dad’s borrowed Volkswagen company car, baby-me screaming incessantly in the backseat. My family mispronounced the names of French cities and my dad embarrassed my mom and sister by speaking Spanish in Italy. They dipped my toes in the Mediterranean Sea. I was destined to be filled with wanderlust, too.

After my mom retired from being a lawyer for health reasons, she started traveling in earnest. I remember the first time she asked me to go abroad with her: I was 16, and she asked me to go with her to a yoga and raw food retreat in Mindo, Ecuador. Yoga was one of the only things that eased the pain in my mother’s body.

From California, we flew to Quito, the capital of Ecuador, and were picked up with the two other guests at the retreat by a taxi driver who spoke only a little English. I was too shy to try my limited Spanish with him. The two other guests were women as well, an epidemiologist from London and a backpacker from New Zealand. Quito was a huge and vibrant city, yet much different from the big cities of California. In the humid, tropical heat, people sold bananas and trinkets along the main thoroughfare, wading out into the slow-moving traffic to bring their goods right to people’s car windows. The hills surrounding the city were deforested, hardly a tree in sight.

That all changed as we drove into the mountains. The jagged Andes rose up in different shapes than the mountains I was used to, and they were no longer deforested but covered in lush, thick green forests. I was jet lagged and sleep deprived, but I couldn’t close my eyes and miss even a scrap of scenery. Mindo is a small mountain town a couple of hours from Quito, enveloped by the Andes cloud rainforests. We stayed at Casa Verde: a cute house with a yoga studio above the garage. My mom and I got a three-story guest house all to ourselves.

We woke up at 7 a.m. for yoga class, followed by light, cleansing meals of raw greens and fruits and sometimes a hike in the rainforest. I remember one day while walking in Mindo, we bought fresh coconuts to drink. The seller lopped the tops off for us. We drank the coconut water through straws, sitting beside the rainforest constantly whirring with insects and birds calling. It was a physically challenging yet rewarding week, even though I was desperately craving pizza by the end.

A photo my mom took of me hiking in the Andes.

The next trip we took together was to Thailand in 2018. The plan was to meet my mom at the airport in Bangkok, but I was unable to contact her and almost not let into the country when I couldn’t provide the address of our lodging for the night. Despite the hiccup, paradise followed. We visited the white sandy beaches of southern Thailand, kayaked in the mangroves, tried to hike to a mountain temple and — short on time, breath and water — gave up halfway through. We dined on the riverside in Bangkok, saw the golden gleaming of the Grand Palace, and almost died (or so it seemed at the time) riding a tuk-tuk through terrifying traffic, bright lights streaking through the night air.

My mom on a boat tour we took in southern Thailand.

In Spain in 2018, I got drunk for the first time during a food and wine tour of Barcelona. We kayaked and went whale-watching in the Mediterranean, then crossed over to Morocco on the ferry across the Strait of Gibraltar to stay in Tangier for several days. It was Ramadan, and, every evening, we listened to the call for prayer as we went to sleep. We rode camels. We haggled for beautiful rugs. Each adventure was more exhilarating than the last.

Riding camels in Morocco.

In 2019 I studied abroad in Japan, and afterward my mom met me in Tokyo. We went to museums, we visited shrines and a hedgehog cafe. We ate matcha ice cream and watched the sun set over Asakusa Shrine, then rested our tired feet at an onsen (bathhouse).

Then we flew to Shanghai, China, where we met my friend Yiwen and her parents for a delicious home-cooked meal. We strolled through the Yu Garden. From there, we took a train to Hangzhou and saw beautiful West Lake, though it was much too hot for us to truly enjoy it. We took a long train ride to Beijing, where we ate Peking roast duck, saw Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City and took a day trip to the Great Wall.

Lastly, we went to Seoul, South Korea, for several days, where we went on a great search to buy an extra suitcase for all of our souvenirs. By then we were so tired, I had to drag my mom to the Gyeongbokgung Palace. The most memorable moment was a hike to the summit of Inwangsan Mountain, where we looked out over a panoramic view of Seoul.

Me on Inwangsan Summit, photo taken by my mom.

The memories of these adventures that only she and I shared are something I cling to. I always thought we would travel more together, that there are still so many places we haven’t seen. Regardless, I am so grateful that my mom was able to see as much of the world as she did, and that I was privileged to traverse those miles and see those sights with her. She was the one who held my hand while I climbed, but now I find myself standing alone on the summit with only my memories.

I have a scrapbook, journal and picture frames to fill with memories, an attempt to recover and preserve something that has been lost to me. Photographs and stories will never replace what has been lost, but looking at photographs of our adventures together, writing about her, making a record of her impact upon my life, does something to ease the pain, little by little.

Statement Columnist Rachel Mckimmy can be reached at rachmck@umich.edu.