When I Saw My Mother

Heather Greenwood Davis


Sometimes the people you need to meet are the ones you bring with you.

When I saw her
Hidden, in plain view
My mother, the human being
The she that I never saw
Coming home to her
Watching my mother uncoil
When she didn’t have to be my mother
My mother, just beyond the window

I was sitting next to my mother in the back of a car in the mountains of Jamaica when I realised she was a person.

I suppose that statement might be a little unfair. To be clear: I always knew she was a human being but I don’t think I’d given much thought, until this particular car ride, to the fact that she might have a life beyond the one I’d watched her have; that there was a her that existed outside of our relationship and our family of five.

I grew up in and around Toronto, Ontario. My parents immigrated to Canada from St. Catherine’s, Jamaica in the early 1970s, when immigration rules were easier but assimilating was just as tough. When I was born a year after their arrival, I entered the world a Canadian kid and never thought much about their life before me. What child does?

Even if I had the odd question about what life had been like when they were new to the country, my parents wouldn’t have entertained me. Their focus wasn’t on the past; it was on the future. They were intent on raising a family that had access to opportunities they never had.

We kids and our futures were their motivation.

That’s why it never dawned on me that she might have thoughts, wishes, dreams or regrets beyond the ones that were laid out each month on the kitchen calendar. Surely there was no room beyond the series of doctor’s appointments, school field trips, parent-teacher meetings and days off (neatly marked with consecutive x’s) for thoughts about other things. Surely there was nothing more to her than the wife, mother, nurse, caregiver and protector who raised me. I was a child. My mother was my mother. There was no reason to assume she was anything more.

And this is why it wasn’t until last spring, while sitting with her in the back of that small car, winding our way through Jamaica’s John Crow Mountains, that I saw her.  She was looking out the window, gazing at the foliage, calling out the names of the flowers and trees (“Look at that Bougainvillea!” “Heather, those are cashews. Have you seen them growing before?”), chatting easily, as much with herself as with the driver and tourism representative seated up front. There was something in the way her eyes sparkled as she talked that caught my eye.

I watched her quietly as she talked, noting that she seemed instantly younger in that moment. The sun hit her face in such a way that it left no shadows. She was relaxed in a way I hadn’t seen before. I watched those she was conversing with, too. They were smitten.

Both the driver and tourism rep who shuttled us around Portland parish delighted in her. As she recounted never-before-told stories of her own days on the island, they watched in the rear-view mirror or shushed each other so she could continue. She held the keys to a time before they were born, and they drank it in. She was older than them, but she wasn’t old; she was missing the latest lingo, but she wasn’t a tourist. She may have been away, but that mattered little to them. She was home, and they welcomed her with affirmative nods as she spoke.

This wasn’t my first time in Jamaica with my mother. As kids, my brothers and I had visited my parents’ homeland many times. But this was the first instance it was just the two of us, and it was the first time for us both in this particular parish.

The second thing that set it apart was the fact that I was older now. So was she, of course. I was well past the age she was when she had me, with a family of my own and children old enough to not occupy every moment of my attention. My mother, in her late 60s, must’ve felt the same way. She didn’t have to be my mother on this trip, and so she, instead, opted to be herself.

While there was a certain amount of delight in watching my mother uncoil in Jamaica— to see her sink into the soft rhythms of a life she had loved as a girl, to hear the lyrical patois that flowed easily off her lips as she directed a local with a cutlass to the exact water coconut she wanted to have, and the wink she sent me as she brought it to her lips—there was also a bit of a shocking realisation. My mother was a whole person, even when away from us kids.

Travel did this.

There is no doubt in my mind that I might have never met her if we hadn’t been away from home. It is the very possibility of a new situation that makes us vulnerable to ourselves in this way.

She didn’t set out for Jamaica intent on showing me herself. It just happened. The world offered her a moment when she wasn’t worrying about her family or rushing to an appointment—and I happened to be there to see it.

That I was there to see it is the real magic. It’s what makes family travel so appealing.

Yes, it’s about travelling with my children and seeing the sights and exploring the complexities of the world through their simplistic eyes, but it is about so much more. It’s about juggling the labels and roles we build ourselves into and making room for individuals within them. It’s being a “big brother” or a “little sister” or “the smart one” or “the funny one” at home—but discovering that there is more to each of us than these roles once we step out, unencumbered, into the world.

Travel, with its distractions and opportunities to make us all feel uncomfortable and out of our element, sets a stage for these other parts of ourselves to come forward. People you’ve known all your life, or all of theirs, suddenly avail themselves to you in a new light. It happened with my mother in Jamaica, but it has also happened with my father, my brother, my husband and my children. Always when we’re away from home, guards down, open to being seen.

It feels like you’re rubbing the steam off a window and can suddenly clearly see that a person you’ve never met is lying just on the other side of the glass. And once you’ve seen the incredible, complex people just beyond your hand’s steamy smear, you want to rub all the windows.

Heather Greenwood Davis

is a

Contributor for Panorama.