Travels with Dad: Lessons Learned
A few years ago, as I was telling my dad stories of my latest trip, he looked at me in puzzlement. “How did you kids become such travellers?” he asked.
It was a fair question. I have two sisters, and between us and our families, we’ve covered every continent but Antarctica. But the answer to Dad’s question didn’t seem like a mystery.
Our parents were eager travellers, and they almost always took us with them on their adventures: to the British Isles and Florida, the Canadian Maritimes and the Caribbean.
In 1982, Dad and I set off on a five-week summer trip to visit my sister Jane and her family in Edmonton. Ten hours of driving each day, for four days straight, took us from suburban Toronto to such hot spots as Wawa and Regina. It took us about a week to make the return journey though the American West.
Each night, we’d call Mom–who was flying out later to join us–and tell her tales about our adventures, such as pulling into an isolated town at midnight with the gas tank needle on empty and no motel reservation. “I’m so glad I’m not there,” replied Mom, who specialized in planning every element of our family holidays six months in advance.
Somewhere in the middle of rural Saskatchewan, probably as the radio was blaring out John Cougar’s “Jack and Diane” for the umpteenth time, my dad said, “We keep seeing these grain elevators. I don’t know how they work. Let’s stop and ask someone.”
“Um, do you think that’s a good idea?” I asked, but I really wanted to scream, “Nooooo!” With all the drama that only a 17-year-old girl can muster, I fully expected to die of mortification when we pulled into a dusty parking lot in our boat-like 1976 Ford LTD with Ontario plates. Remember, this was the era of the National Energy Program, when folks one province over in Alberta were driving around with bumper stickers reading, “Let the Eastern bastards freeze in the dark.”
Dad hopped out of the car and approached a weathered-looking man in a baseball cap walking across the lot. “Hi,” Dad said brightly. “We’re visiting from Ontario and we’d like to know how grain elevators work.”
“That man looks busy. This is SOOO embarrassing,” I thought miserably. “He’s going to tell us to get lost. Why did we stop?”
One of the best parts of travel: Asking questions
To my surprise, the man in the baseball cap didn’t tell us to get lost. In fact, he grinned. “Sure thing! Want a tour?”
The next thing I knew, we were up inside the grain elevator, getting a detailed talk about the politics of the Canadian Wheat Board. Years later, when I became a journalist, I remembered that day–every time I nervously called a stranger to ask for an interview.
Lesson: Everybody loves to talk about their life.
A shy man by nature, Dad nevertheless chatted up people everywhere we travelled: the parasailing guy in Barbados, the innkeepers in the Cotswolds, the customs officer at the border crossing in Windsor, Ontario (who couldn’t believe we had driven across North America with a trunk full of used storm windows, but that’s another story).
Dad read newspapers, listened to the radio, watched the TV news most nights.
One thing that constantly amazed him was that foreign correspondents covering world crises could almost always, even in the most remote locales, find an English-speaking local on the street to interview. Even though he retained a passing knowledge of both Latin and French decades after leaving high school, he still found the multilingual fluency of people in other countries humbling. “You wouldn’t find someone on the street here who could speak Russian or Hindi,” he would marvel. (Well, you could on the streets of Toronto these days, but in the 1970s it would have been much harder.)
Lesson: It’s important for people around the world to be able to talk to each other.
Everywhere we travelled, he was keenly interested in how other people lived. Even though–or perhaps because–he grew up without much money, it pained him to see people in poverty. He would often remark that it was impossible to realize how easy life was for many Canadians–including us–unless you could see what life was like elsewhere.
Lesson: Travel puts things in perspective.
Dad’s first trip was at a very young age: his family emigrated from Ireland to Canada when he was just a baby.
His parents were never able to go home for a visit, but Dad and his siblings travelled back many times. One of my earliest memories comes from our first trip to Ireland, in 1969. I was four, and I swear I remember eating oatmeal in my dad’s cousin’s kitchen.
Three decades later, Mom and Dad treated our family–my sisters, and our husbands and kids–to an unforgettable trip back to Ireland. We visited family, sang the old familiar songs in tiny pubs, explored the Giant’s Causeway, shared many laughter-filled meals at the cottages we rented.
It was the last trip we would all take together; a few years later, my parents’ health began to make it difficult for them to travel. Then, instead of travelling, they reminisced about all the trips they’d taken.
“We’ve had a good life,” Dad would often say. “We have a good family.”
Lesson: The people you travel with are more important than the places you go.
A year ago today, Dad set off on the last stage of life’s journey. We walked the road with him as far as we could, but then he crossed a point where we could no longer follow. We said goodbye with hearts that were heavy, but also light. Because we knew that if there were people to meet and places to see in whatever comes after this life, he would have a grand time.
Why do I travel, Dad? Because you (and Mom) showed me the way.