Before I was about to leave the U.S., I walked along the tow path on the Blackstone Canal in Uxbridge with my mother.
As we were walking up the hill, my mother remarked:
“Sometimes I wish Grandma didn’t tell you so many stories and get you interested in Slovenia.”
I was heading the next day to Ljubljana, Slovenia for ten months, and I was going to miss everyone back home terribly. But I felt compelled to go, partly because of my family heritage, courtesy of Grandma’s stories. I wasn’t quite sure yet what I was searching for, but I knew that I would find it, whatever it was.
And it’s not my mother’s—or my parents’ fault, for that matter, that I am interested in things beyond America.
After moving to New England with my grandmother as a small child, my mother became as American as you could be, and married my father, whom I refer to as the Great Eagle Scout.
If the two of them taught me one thing as a child, it is this: America is beautiful. There are many corners of it to explore.
And, of course: we will try to find them all.
The Great Eagle Scout has a penchant for visiting national parks—and tallying frequent flyer miles.
One of my most vivid childhood memories of travel was the need to write out, in careful hand, each of the five family member’s frequent flyer mile numbers for each of the airlines we would be using on that particular trip, on index cards.
I grew up believing that we were regular Americans. Regular Americans who had more stamina than most other regular Americans, and therefore more frequent flyer miles. For a long time, I am not sure that I was even aware that my parents may have had bank accounts; I assumed that you paid for anything outside the state of Massachusetts in frequent flyer miles or hotel points, which were tallied by various expenses on special credit cards with airplanes or palm trees on them, used for everyday purchases while in the state of Massachusetts.
In my parents’ defense, this was an excellent system.
Not only did it get the five Reardons to Hawaii three times, but it also got us within 15 to 25 hours’ driving distance of various national parks many, many times over.
Say, you don’t fly into San Francisco when you want to go to the Grand Canyon? Or Chicago when you’re headed to Mount Rushmore in South Dakota? Really?
The best part about this system was that the parental units rarely traveled without us kids. The one time I seem to remember them escaping as for their wedding anniversary each year, always coming back with various tales of interest.
For example, I distinctly recall a cruise to some islands in the Atlantic—which I believe was won by my father via his job, somehow (I refuse to believe, even now, that they would ever pay for a cruise). On that trip, my father paid a Jamaican man to use his cell phone to make a call into work, and during that time, I believe my mother disappeared under a bridge with a man with dreadlocks as my father momentarily panicked, only to watch my mother triumphantly emerge a minute later with a wooden giraffe, now prominently displayed on a decorative cabinet next to a small bamboo plant in our kitchen. Apparently she got a good deal.
I assumed, when I was younger, that we kids were brought along to prevent such things from occurring.
“The kids!” I could imagine my father saying. “Just think of the kids!”
My mother was always full of some elaborate plot to freak out good old Dad. Take, for example, time that I was 14, and refused to go into a submarine museum in San Francisco with my younger brother and sister.
While the Great Eagle Scout and the two kids were away, Mom and I wandered the piers. We got some tasty little fried donuts, and then spotted a cluster of teenagers dressed in leather jackets with spiky, colored hair and various piercings, holding a sign noting they would accept $5 donations for pictures.
Of course, Mom pulled out a $5 bill, and handed it over, shoving me in their direction, as they clustered around me, one guy pretending to kiss me on the cheek.
“We met some nice kids today,” my mother said demurely after the rest of the family emerged from the submarine museum.
“Well, isn’t that nice,” dear old Dad said.
We kept mentioning those nice San Francisco kids all vacation, making up grand stories: “They were so polite—Kristina made instant friends with them” and “I think they might want to visit Uxbridge sometime.”
Back in Uxbridge, we waited for Dad to return from work, and handed him a pile of newly developed photos, watching him flip through the stack at the kitchen counter.
“Ah, Pier 39!” he said as he found our California pictures. “These are great.”
Then: the pile dropped to the floor.
“What is THIS?”
“What, dear?” my mother said, glancing at the photo and keeping a straight face. “Oh, those nice kids from San Francisco! Have you heard from them, Kristina?”
I, sadly, was not as good of an actress and my guffaw broke the charade. I maintain, however, that it also probably saved my father’s life from a heart attack.
We rarely traveled outside the U.S.; and with hijinks like that, I’d never really thought to, until college, when I did a one, two, three punch of Costa Rica in 2008, Slovenia in 2009, and England in 2010.
Of course, I’d learned from the best: Costa Rica was an all-expenses paid volunteer trip and I had scholarships to the universities of Ljubljana and Cambridge.
Now, as I settle into life in Ljubljana for the next 10 months, I’m reflecting back on my shiny collection of Junior Ranger badges from an impressive array of national parks (though, oddly, we’ve never visited Acadia in nearby Maine).
The parental units have instilled in me an appreciation for the great American experience so much so that I was jealous when my father and little brother went to Wyoming this summer to see Old Faithful while I was in England.
But in doing so, they’ve also fueled a desire to reach out and explore the world—and only partially because they’ve left me with a healthy sense of doubt which causes me to wonder if I’ve ever really reached my destination, or if I need to push further because I’m still just 15 to 25 hours away.
Published in the Southbridge Evening News, and other Stonebridge Press and Villager Newspapers, the week of October 11th.