An Inspiring Woman

Whenever I turned up my nose at what was served for dinner, my mother would say to me, “Katherine, I see you are not ready to travel the world.  When you can eat anything that is put before you, then you will be ready to squat around communal platters with Bedouins in the Arabian Desert, sip hot chai on the colourful streets of Mumbai, and slurp live sea urchins out of the Mediterranean Sea.”  Without another word of complaint, I would dutifully chew my eggplant, for I wanted to travel the world more than anything.

With this growing desire to travel in my heart, I would spend hours gazing at the atlas.  I memorized the exotic names that sounded like music to my ears – Karachi, Mazar El-Sharif, Ouagadougou, Fez.  My copy of Arabian Nights was so well-loved that both covers were worn off, the pages dog-eared and smudged from my fingers.  I devoured tales about women travelers – Mary Kingsley, Florence Baker, Gladys Aylward – amazing, strong women whose adventures filled me with wonder.

Mildred Nigh was one of these women.  At the age of forty-five, she left her normal Canadian life as a humble homemaker, bought a rattling Volkswagen camper van, and set off on a year-long camping trip with her husband and four teenage children.  It was the ’70s and the family, an unusual breed of hippies, trekked throughout Europe and the Middle East.  Mildred bartered for fresh dates in the Turkish market, bough seafood from the Athenian fishing boats, and hot flatbreads from Lebanese ovens.  She fed her hungry teenagers and often a few extra hitchhikers while cooking all the meals over a tiny camp stove.

Hospitality came in strange forms.  Once an abbot in a rural Croatian monastery gave them cots in a cell, complete with bats fluttering about and hard brown bread.  Monks conducted them to the room of skulls, proudly introducing their decaying ancestors to the horrified children.

Black bread was replaced by huge platters of mensif when Mildred and her family found themselves the guests of Bedouin desert nomads.  She scaled Mount Sinai, lumbered across the desert on a camel, and sunbathed on the King of Jordan’s private beach until she was escorted off at gunpoint by soldiers.  She wandered through the ancient rose-red ruins of Petra and floated in the salt-saturated waters of the Dead Sea.  They say Mildred was the first Western woman to cross from Jordan into Israel and back into Jordan after the ’67 war.  People cheered and honked their horns as she drove by.

Eventually Mildred fell in love with the brilliant turquoise Mediterranean Sea and she moved her family to the Greek island of Crete.  The ancient city of Knossos became her backyard.  She studied the Greek language and myths, fished in the sea and harvested olives, pressing them to make fresh heavenly oil.

A woman infected by the love and exhilaration of travel, Mildred’s explorations continued, even after her children left and her husband died.  This adventurer soon found herself walking the Great Wall of China.  She then went to Ecuador on a medical trip to work with the Quetchua natives, then continued on to the poverty-stricken villages of rural Dominican Republic.  From the sparkling beaches and swaying palms of the Caribbean, she soon found found herself in a filthy ghetto in Beirut, working in Palestinian refugee camps and falling asleep to the sound of bombs exploding in the street.  Her sense of adventure must have needed a rest, however, for her next destination was significantly calmer; she became an English teacher in Lithuania for several years.

A number of years ago, I was fortunate enough to accompany this fascinating woman on an extraordinary trip through India and Pakistan, for she is my grandmother.  Together we prayed under the golden arches of a Sikh temple, walked the streets wearing saris, and rode bicycle rickshaws through Agra to the Taj Mahal.  “Katherine,” she said, hugging me, “it really doesn’t matter whether you’ve seen every country in the world or never left the town you were born in.  Living your life joyfully and to the fullest, no matter where you are, is what really counts.”

A few years ago, Grandma phoned me up and invited my family out of supper.  “What’s the occasion?” I asked curiously.  She explained with a giggle that she was getting married.  With less than two weeks’ notice, my grandmother headed west to start a new life as a homemaker in an Edmonton suburb at age 75.  I am amazed to think of her embarking on that adventure, so radically different from her previously wild and sometimes dangerous escapades.  In some ways, I think it must have stretched her adventurous spirit more than anything else.  Since then, her husband has died, but she continues to travel.  Last year, she spent several weeks cruising the Dnieper River through Ukraine and Russia with my mother and also enjoyed a cross-continental train journey.  Only two weeks ago, she left for a week-long escapade through some Californian desert.  She’s now 84.

I know that the world has been changed for the better by my grandma’s presence – through her friendships, her love, and her pure acceptance of everyone.  Her writing desk, heaped with letters from all ends of the earth, accounts for that!  Every moment that I spend with my grandmother, I learn something, whether it is about quilting or canning peaches, or through the tales of her distant adventures, recounted with a smile on her face and a faraway look in her eye.  Whenever I leave her, I am inspired, especially to travel.

When I cannot travel, I try to visit those fascinating destinations within the confines of my kitchen.  There I can spend hours studying exotic cookbooks, chopping strange ingredients, twisting my tongue around the foreign names while creating mysterious concoctions.

I now have two little boys of my own.  One eats pretty much everything, while the other is stuck on milk for a while yet.  If in the future they turn up their noses in indignation at what’s being served, I will smile and patiently tell them, “I see you are not ready to travel the world.  When you can eat anything that is put before you, then you will be ready to squat around communal platters with Bedouins in the Arabian Desert, sip hot chai on the colourful streets of Mumbai, and slurp live sea urchins out of the Mediterranean Sea.”

[adapted from a creative essay I wrote in grade 12]

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5 thoughts on “An Inspiring Woman

  1. Wonderful tribute to your grandmother and my mother. When she reads this she will purse her lips and say modestly, “What nonesense, what an exaggeration.”, but she will be smiling with delight and pride at her granddaughter.

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