I thought the boat would be the breaking point. Twin-engined with a propeller like a bunch of knives, it bobbed in the turquoise shallows of Hodges Bay, a resort on the Caribbean island of Antigua. The boarding process required kicking off your shoes, wading into knee-deep water, hoisting yourself onto the stern, swinging over your legs, and finding your footing in the hull.
Fine by me. Dangle the potential of a good time, and I’ll clumsily hurl myself into whatever mode of transport it requires. One mile from the shore: Prickly Pear Island, a postage-stamp-size splotch of land with a bar, a barbecue, and a dance floor, all of which would spur to life around sunset.
But for Padma, my mother, a nonswimmer so averse to open bodies of water she won’t sit in a jacuzzi, the prospect of boarding this boat might as well have been a challenge from American Ninja Warrior, a test of coordination, core strength, and a 75-year-old woman’s ability to launch herself onto a moving object. Must-see TV! Total franchise potential!
We took our first trip together when I was 14 months old, flying from Bangalore, India, where I had drooled through my first birthday, to Newark. My dad, who had traveled with us to India, needed to get back to the office, which meant Padma had to navigate 24 hours of travel (in economy, with two layovers, with a baby) alone. According to her, it was a breeze; I slept the whole time.
That was the last trip we took without a nadir, that point when things go awry and threaten to make at least one party swear she’ll never put herself in such a position again.
The nadir of our 1992 trip from India to New Jersey: my decision to down a bell pepper that was actually the Indian version of a jalapeño, which to my Pizza Hut–trained palate might as well have been actual fire. After making enough of a scene to summon the flight attendants, I spent the rest of the flight glowering at my mother as if me inhaling a jalapeño were somehow her fault.
England, 1999: a solar eclipse that, for religious and superstitious reasons I fail to understand, my mother didn’t want to lay eyes on. We spent our final hours in London in a tiny hotel room with the curtains drawn.
Palm Springs, 2016: the flat tire we got 20 minutes outside of L.A. We had dinner at the Audi service center in Pasadena instead of the Ritz-Carlton in Rancho Mirage.
Alaskan cruise, 2017: her comment that “your phone might as well be your third hand, the amount that you use it,” and my subsequent explosion. (I was obsessively checking for Wi-Fi, as one surrounded by rapidly melting miracles of nature is wont to do.)
Eventually, I decided that if I could anticipate the breaking point, I could stop the next nadir from happening because we had to keep traveling. My father died in 2009; after I waded through (some of) the molten lava of anger I had about his sudden, unexpected passing, it occurred to me that if I didn’t take my mom on vacation, no one would. I’m an only child. She has no immediate family in the U.S. If I visit her in New Jersey, I regress to 16 and she attempts to feed me every 15 minutes. If she visits me in Los Angeles, I sneak into the office and she ends up cleaning out my pantry, summarily announcing all the things that have expired. So no matter the blips in our travel history, onto a plane toward an idyllic destination we must go.
My mom had already gotten out of her comfort zone days earlier, taking a COVID-19 test — her first, at a CVS drive-through — so she could travel to a new country for our annual mother-daughter trip. Why make her risk life and limb (that propeller could’ve sliced prosciutto) by getting on that boat? Alternate plan: skip the party, order room service, cue up the BBC documentary that Andrea, the ebullient rescue-dog enthusiast from Connecticut we’d met at dinner the previous night, insisted we watch while on the island: Nelson’s Caribbean Hell-Hole.
That was what was running through my mind as Padma hiked up her leggings and swung herself into the boat.
Constantly attempting to forestall disaster, it turns out, can produce blind spots. What I did not see coming: my mom befriending the team behind an Antigua-based animal-rescue organization, Flew the Coop, who invited us to a party on Prickly Pear Island and declared her the “MVP of the weekend.” Or that after two piña coladas, she’d gaze up at the sky, point out Orion’s Belt, press her cheek against my shoulder, and say, “I’m so glad you brought me here.” Or that during our trip, she would step on a tennis court for the first time in ten years, hitting a 21-shot rally with our tennis instructor.
“What else was there to do?” she shrugged once I joined her on the boat, flabbergasted and full of infantilizing “You did it!” babble. She nodded at the phone in my hand. “Shall we take a selfie?”
Still, the trip’s nadir loomed: At the airport, before our flight back, Padma got mad at a convenience-store cashier for charging $1 for a pack of gum that said 35 cents on the label like it had been printed in 1952. “And then she tried to give me a $2 bill as change!” my mom said, enraged. “Is there even such a thing?”
“There is, and it’s good luck,” I said, frustrated because I couldn’t connect to the Wi-Fi (old habits, etc.). She bought the gum with quarters. We boarded the plane, me in the aisle, her in the middle, the window seat maybe possibly empty until a mother with her own infant daughter squeezed in. My mom turned to me in fear as if she’d never flown with a baby.
A flight attendant approached. The upgrade I’d requested had cleared. “See, we didn’t need that $2 bill,” my mom said, clinking her plastic cup of champagne against mine. And, as always, she was right.