I Blame It All On My Mother

Although I’m not a clinical psychologist and I recognized early in my career that I didn’t have the patience to deal with patients, I’ve been studying psychology for almost 40 years and teaching for over 30. From the original writings of Dr. Freud to the hideous array of pop psychology self-help books that abound in bookstores, a theme emerges all too frequently: whatever the psychological issue you are dealing with, it is probably somehow your mother’s fault. While I personally think mothers have been unfairly targeted in this argument over the root cause of our adult neuroses, I can definitively say that my mother is absolutely the reason for the fact that I am a self-diagnosed Travel Addict today.

At this point in my life, I have traveled to 33 foreign countries and to all 50 states. My 6-year-old car has 155,000 miles on it, at least two-thirds of them as a result of ten round trips to Boston. I’ve made the round-trip, cross country drive from California to the east coast over 40 times in my life and I’m rarely happier than when I’m behind the wheel of a reliable car, heading out on a road trip to anywhere, either with friends or alone with my favorite music on the CD player.

Other people might look at a 4-day long weekend as a chance to rest at home or go on a short local trip; I head from California to Boston or Virginia on a red-eye flight to make use of every bit of free time available. I see friends and family, enjoy my favorite restaurants, walk my favorite beaches or play in the snow, and then hop back on the plane to California, sometimes rushing directly from the airport to my university campus to teach a class or two that same day! A week long Spring Break or Thanksgiving recess is a good excuse to run off to Maui or even to Italy. Some people scowl at me and ask, “You’re going to Italy for a week?” My answer is always the same: “Why not?”

As a professor, I eagerly anticipate my 12 week summer break and I typically spend less than two of those weeks in my own apartment. Even after a lengthy 6-week trip abroad, I enjoy coming home and doing my laundry, cooking a couple of meals for myself, and binge-watching all the TV shows I’ve missed, but after 3 or 4 days of that I start to experience that restless feeling again and find myself checking airfares and reading reviews on tripadvisor.com to plan my next trip.

What is wrong with me? How did this happen? When did this affliction first manifest itself? Heck, the very first word I uttered after “Mamma” was “CAR”, pronounced with a Massachusetts accent, of course. While other kids liked to ride the bumper cars at the amusement park, I hated getting stuck in “traffic” and being slowed down by idiots trying to bang into me. I preferred the amusement ride where I got to just drive along a winding track in a little motorized car and pretend I was really going somewhere! Why is my favorite song of all time Fleetwood Mac’s Gypsy? The answer is unequivocal and as clear as a bell and conforms with many psychological explanations: I blame it all on my mother!

Carol Brown grew up in a working class family in New Bedford, Massachusetts, about an hour south of Boston. She married and became Carol Davis in 1951, and along came baby Matt seven years later. Unfortunately for both of us, my father left when I was less than a year old and we then went to live with my grandparents. My mother worked as a payroll clerk and occasionally as a waitress, and we never had a lot of money, but I always joke that whenever she had an extra nickel or two, we were off on some adventure. I remember trips to the zoo in Providence, RI or the aquarium in Boston, a city which most people in southern New England regard as a scary, far-off place where no one who values their own life should ever go for fear of being permanently lost in the formidable traffic, never to return. Somehow Boston never seemed to scare my mother.

With our dear friends Norma McKinney and her two daughters we’d pile into the car, my mother always behind the wheel and we’d head off on day trips or overnights to places like Cape Cod, Connecticut’s Mystic Seaport, or the wilds of New Hampshire or Vermont. One of my mother’s favorite destinations was the coast of Maine, and on these outings she would generously allow me to order a lobster dinner just like she did, she’d read on the beach while I swam and turned blue in the icy ocean waters that I loved, and she’d confide to me her dreams about one day being able to live on the Maine coast near Kennebunkport. Not until adulthood did I realize how unrealistic it was for a divorcee who was supporting a young son to think about living in the same neighborhood as the Bush family’s seaside compound. But my mother didn’t seem to allow reality to get in the way of her passion or her dreams, and I fully believed that one of these days we would indeed be living on the rocky coast of Maine.

By the age of 6 or 7, I was already showing signs of an obsession with and an aptitude for travel. My mom’s friend Pat has told me stories of how my mother would spontaneously call her up on a Saturday morning and suggest that we all go on a “mystery ride” which might last a few hours, a whole day or even a weekend. Pat marveled at how my mother never seemed afraid of anything and did things that Pat herself would never have done on her own. But she also remembers a little redheaded boy in the back seat on these trips, avidly studying the maps and occasionally interrupting their adult conversation with a declaration:

“Mama, you should be going north on Route 7. We’re going the wrong way.”

According to Pat, my mother would dismiss my advice and insist we were on the right track, only to quietly have to turn the car around a mile or two down the road while I sat in the back and gloated. I can remember my mother playfully telling me to “keep quiet back there” when I would giggle with satisfaction at having been right.

“I couldn’t believe it! You were only 6 or 7, for God’s sake, and you were ALWAYS right!” Pat reports.

When I was about 7, my mother shocked the family by announcing that she was using her two weeks of summer vacation to take me to Illinois to see my paternal grandparents, aunts and uncles. And she was driving there. This was still five years before TV role models like Mary Richards of the Mary Tyler Moore Show nervously left her small hometown and drove off to  Minneapolis to start a new life as a single woman, sure that she would be able to “make it after all”!  A single woman with a 7-year-old boy traveling alone by car on a 2,000 mile road trip was unheard of back then – and is probably still pretty rare even today. I still recall the heated arguments my mother had with her parents about undertaking this trip. Nevertheless, some weeks later we were packed and ready to head west on an adventure that introduced me to the feeling of freedom that only cruising down an interstate highway can provide. Along the way I experienced exotic places like Niagara Falls, Chicago, and Pennsylvania Dutch Country, not to mention the strange ways of life that existed in rural Illinois. I recall the horror and pity I felt when my cousins there informed me that they had never even heard of coffee ice cream, which was always a staple in New England!

When I was 11 or 12 we made our first trip to Washington, DC, by car of course. I remember the wonder I experienced as we drove around the city by night, taking in the beautifully illuminated buildings and monuments that adorn our nation’s capital. I know I have a photo of myself tucked away in an album somewhere in which I am posing in a chair in our hotel room in the same way that Lincoln sits inside his memorial. He must have made quite the impression on me. I also remember going to a Lebanese restaurant for dinner one night, and mocking the way our waiter had pronounced the word “carrots” like “Cah-ROTS.”  This spoiled what had been a jovial mood for a few minutes as my mother sternly explained to me in no uncertain terms that it was rude to make fun of someone’s accent. I would never make that mistake again!

It was also at around this time that I decided to engage in a little travel- related project. I decided to write letters to the chambers of commerce in at least 25 American cities to request information on what there was to see and do in each one. My mother generously provided the stamps and for the life of me I have no idea how I got all those mailing addresses in an era when a Google search was not even a glimmer in anyone’s eye. But off my requests went, and for the next few weeks I would race home from school every day to see if anything had arrived for me. I can’t describe the excitement I felt when a big envelope would arrive, and out spilled colorful pamphlets adorned with photos of far-off skylines: Dallas, Seattle, Denver, Nashville, Miami, Salt Lake City, Phoenix, New Orleans. I longed for the day when I would be able to visit each and every one of them.

Not long after that, my travel experience widened again with a trip to Miami Beach and the newly opened Walt Disney World in Orlando. My mom and I had planned the trip for months and I learned that sometimes the planning alone is half the fun. I also learned about the disappointments that can happen when we travel. The beachfront Aztec Motor Lodge in Miami Beach, pictured in the AAA guide book and advertising pamphlets as a shimmering Mexican palace by the sea turned out to be a tired old motel with chipped paint, and though we’d reserved an oceanfront room, we had been placed in a dark and dingy room facing the back parking lot. I behaved badly, pouting and almost on the verge of tears from such a let-down, and I remember Mama saying, “Please don’t cry or I will too!” I can only imagine now as an adult the disappointment she must have felt after saving so hard and planning so long for this trip, and to this day I feel guilty for how I acted. Happily, the following day the mix-up was resolved and we were relocated to a recently renovated oceanfront room with the sparkling Atlantic right outside the window.

In 1973 things in my world changed forever when my mother was diagnosed with cancer, which despite several operations and radiation treatments and chemotherapy spread from her kidney to her brain. There were multiple surgeries and week-long stays at hospitals in Boston. By the age of 15 I was often living for days at a time by myself in a Boston hotel room close to the hospital, visiting my mom during the days, and then going back to the hotel to use the pool and do my homework at night. I sometimes wonder how I was able to get through all this at such a young age, and yet I know this is another thing I can blame on my mother. She had prepared me and taught me how to be independent and how to handle all the logistics: how to order at a restaurant, how much to leave for a tip, how to check in at a hotel and how to buy a bus ticket. It was all second nature to me by this point.

During this time, I also kept myself busy with more travel planning. My mother had been able to put aside a bit of money and we’d talked about how nice it would be to take what we considered THE dream trip: a visit to California. I had soon found great hotels where we could stay in San Francisco and L.A. and had a list of must-see sites planned for us, from the San Diego Zoo, to the Big Sur Coast, to the Redwood forests. I think that talking about these plans gave both of us a bit of hope and optimism about the future, despite the fact that things were really getting bleaker.

Unfortunately, my mother took the ultimate trip on January 15, 1975, passing away at the brutally young age of 44. I somehow carried on without her, aided by the support of loving friends and family, and the inner strength she had cultivated in me during our 16 years together. We’d never managed to make it to California, but not unlike someone who feels the need to make some important spiritual pilgrimage, I knew that I had to make the trip for us. Just as my mother had met with huge resistance from the family about taking me on that road trip to Illinois, I too encountered pressure from aunts and uncles about “running off to California” on my own, but none of their arguments had any effect on me. Aided by some insurance money that my mother had left me, I marched into a local travel agency and at the ripe old age of 16, I booked a 10-day trip to California during Spring Break of my junior year in high school. In retrospect, I seriously wonder why the travel agents even took me seriously, but I guess once my check cleared they were totally in my corner.

Off I went to the Golden State. I spent 5 nights at the Holiday Inn Chinatown in San Francisco, with a room that looked out toward the Bay and Alcatraz. A wonderful young nurse who’d taken care of my mother in Boston and had remained in touch with me after her death gave me the number of a friend of hers who lived in the Bay Area and was willing to show me around one day. He was a young fireman who lived across the Golden Gate Bridge in Marin County and he made my day when he took me for an exciting tour to the redwoods and the beaches of Marin on the back of his motorcycle. Because he worked part time for the exclusive San Francisco Yacht Club in Tiburon, he also got me a table for lunch there one afternoon. This was my first encounter with San Francisco, the city that would one day become my home for over 25 years. And these days I work at Dominican University of California, just 7 miles from Tiburon in Marin County.

I remember taking a night flight from San Francisco to L.A. and the pilot pointing out the glow in the sky ahead of us, even though we’d just barely taken off. He told us that we were already seeing the lights of L.A., still 350 miles away. Again I try to wrap my head around the idea of my 16-year-old self, landing at LAX at 11PM and taking a public bus to my hotel on the Sunset Strip in Hollywood. I’d asked in advance for a room with a view out over Los Angeles (I cannot believe I even thought of such details!), but upon my arrival the desk clerk apologized and said that one had not been available. Yet I did notice out of the corner of my eye that he exchanged a smile and a wink with the bellman who carried my luggage and showed me to my room. When he opened the door, he did not turn on the lights right away, and he didn’t have to. My room was on one of the highest floors of the hotel and the lights of the L.A. basin stretched out beneath me for miles, lighting the room with an orange glow. They call Los Angeles the “City of the Angels”, and looking back, I think there was one very special angel looking out at that view with me on that night. Ironically, I even remember being awakened by a minor earthquake one night while I was staying there. Who could have guessed that within 7 years I would be moving to southern California for graduate school to study earthquake preparedness? It gives me chills when I think about it. The road of life is filled with amazing detours and twists and wonders.

I liked California so much that I returned that very June for a longer trip that also included stops at Las Vegas, the Grand Canyon, and a visit with my relatives in Illinois. After my high school graduation the following year, I made my first cross-country drive, camping out in a pup tent as I saw the country from the Blue Ridge and Smoky Mountains, to the Rockies, to California and back. It would be another 10 years before I made my first trip to Europe, but that opened up the world to me and there was no going back.

I’ve often taken trips with my lifelong friends the McKinneys, and also with my dear friends Joyce and Carol. I’ve given them tours of the western states, and we’ve gone on countless day trips and overnights around New England. They’ve all mentioned to me more than once that they feel a presence in the back seat of my car when we go on these trips. They are convinced that my mother is coming along for the ride, and I have to say, I believe that too, with all my heart.

One other thing I learned the hard way from my mother’s experience is that we have to live life to its fullest every day, to soak it all in, and to appreciate every laugh, every good meal, every special moment, and that’s true whether we’re traveling the world or simply sitting at home enjoying a quiet night in our recliner. I am a very grateful person and I never lose sight of how fortunate I am. These days I have friends in far-flung states and countries. I feel “at home in the world” almost everywhere I go. The desire to see it all, to enjoy and experience everything this amazing planet has to offer burns inside me constantly. And there’s only one explanation for all of this: It’s my mother’s fault. I “blame” all of it on her.

7 thoughts on “I Blame It All On My Mother

  1. I absolutely love this story. There are times where I can hear her laughter as I read this story. I was so young I didn’t realize these moments would impact my life as they have. You are truly an inspiration. Thank you for being you. xo

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    • I am so glad this touched you, Carol. And just think, you were named after my mom! Thank you for your really kind words!

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  2. Matt, you are an excellent writer, and I absolutely loved spending time with you and your mom this morning. I would have loved having travel experiences like you growing up. I was on the opposite side of the spectrum – my mom was a homebody and my dad an alcoholic. We never had a vacation. However, I married a military man and never looked back. Thank you for sharing your story…I love you even more.

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  3. Thank you for including such nice pictures as I now can see how similar you are to your mother in looks as well as personality. I really enjoyed this story and am going to share your website with my mother.

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