When I visited Turkey with my mother 12 years ago, we parted at the train station in Istanbul — she was on her way to Athens and a flight back to Australia, I was headed for the Middle East, not knowing when I would see her again.
When the Kurdish boy working in our hotel found out that my Mum was going back without me, he had tears in his eyes. Being from a poor village in the East, he was already heartbroken that he was forced to work in a city on the opposite side of the country from his own mother.
“I don’t understand you western people,” he said. “How can you leave your mother?” His voice rose with his emotions, “Go back to your mama!”
As I walked back from the railway station, fighting back my own tears, I wondered if he was right.
These days, I live closer to my Mum than I did for a decade — we are at least in the same country, if not the same state. On spending a few weeks again in Turkey, I found myself telling people the story of the holiday we spent there together 12 years ago. And the part they were most interested in was my Mum.
At the time, she was 57 years old and had never been further than New Zealand, where my grandparents lived and she returned to visit whenever she got the chance. My Mum had always intended to travel, but when she met my Dad at the age of 22, he’d just returned from a three-year backpacking adventure and was ready to settle.
Life happened, as is its wont, but in my mother’s case that meant eight children over the next two decades. My father was self-employed and overseas travel was out of the question. Then he died suddenly a couple of months after my youngest brother was born.
My mother was a full-time caregiver with a Masters in Philosophy from 20 years earlier that she’d never used professionally. Somehow she put herself back through tertiary study while working AND raising eight children under the age of 18. When people ask me how she managed it, I still don’t have any answer.
By 2007, most of us kids were adults — and we pooled together some finances to treat Mum to a well-earned holiday. I had the enviable task of accompanying her.
My mother took to Turkey like a duck to water. And Turkey took to her too— more specifically, the bevy of carpet sellers who became our new best friends wherever we went. They invited us to drink raki, smoke nargile and indulge in long conversations about Ataturk and Rumi, and didn’t even seem to mind much when we never bought a carpet (they weren’t factored in to our strict budget). They loved that we were a mother and daughter travelling together.
But even though I was 23, it was my Mum who stayed up chatting and drinking wine until the wee hours of the morning while I hobbled back to the hotel.
I had a rather painful foot injury throughout our travels, so it was also my Mum who hit the dance floor in the Turkish bars. Not content with my plans to “get an early night”, she dragged me out (okay I wasn’t THAT unwilling, just too broke to buy beer) and quickly established herself among the line of young men folk-dancing around the bar, waving a serviette because she didn’t have a white handkerchief handy.
And it was my Mum who met a poet named “Crazy Ali”, a distinguished older gentleman with a lustrous grey mustache, and accepted his offer to be taken on a sunset tour of Cappadoccia. On the back of a motorbike.
I waved her adieu as they parted in a flurry of dust and headed (still hobbling) back to my book and my bed.
That was the story the Turks liked best when I re-told it on my latest visit. Every time a new person was added to the circle of conversation, someone would say: “Tell him/her about your mother and the motorbike!” and I did to another round of appreciative laughter.
“I admire your mother so much,” I was told over and over. Me too, Turks, me too.
I left my mother’s home and country at the age of 19 — and Turkey was the longest period of time I’d spent with my Mum as an adult. It was perhaps the first time that I realised that my mother could also be my friend.
So Happy Mother’s Day to my dear Ma. I’m on an aeroplane coming back from Istanbul and I apologise for the belatedness of the wish. On the plus side, my Mama is waiting for me when I get back and you can bet your sweet bippee that there will be wine and dancing.