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Grandmother's Travel Memories

John Lawton Reflections

Photo: John Lawton

My grandmother had lots of secrets. Even her entry into Ellis Island made for a good mystery. Somehow, en route from London in 1909, she lost her steamer trunk, arriving in the New World as metaphorically naked as Shakespeare’s shipwrecked Viola. Ida Albertine Stein died before I was born. What I knew about her came primarily from the tantalizing mementos she’d left behind—coins from places as diverse as Siam and Mexico, a silver-and-crystal inkwell that now adorns my desk—and three frayed albums of travel photographs.

Growing up in Andover, Massachusetts, where an exotic destination meant Cape Cod, I treated the albums as if they were Tales from the Arabian Nights. Only there weren’t any tales—just pictures of my grandmother, a tall, dark-haired woman, with a penchant for big hats and the Victorian equivalent of Manolo Blahniks. Whether traveling by ocean liner or oxcart, she favored pointy-toed slippers, in bone or white, with bows.

Those shoes took her everywhere—India, Egypt, Japan, Hong Kong, China, the Caribbean. What was she doing in these far-off places?My mother speculated that she might have been a nanny or a traveling companion but wasn’t sure. Once Ida married my grandfather, William Flynn, she packed away her traveling shoes and went on to spend the next 40 years in Andover as a wife, mother, and devoted churchgoer. As a child she’d had rheumatic fever, and her weakened heart had worsened as she got older; my mother still remembers her difficult climbs up the steep steps to St. Augustine Church.

I couldn’t reconcile this image with the free-spirited young woman in the albums. Why didn’t my mother know the details of my grandmother’s considerably more colorful "spinster" days?"That was the past," my mother said recently, and if the past is indeed a foreign country, my grandmother, like so many of her contemporaries, had little desire to travel there again. My mother, by nature not curious, followed her own mother’s lead.

As for future generations, if my grandmother had purposely set out to frustrate them with the photo albums, she couldn’t have done a better job. She placed battleships in Vancouver next to Japanese geishas, opened one album with muscular British rowers and closed it with a Caribbean brass band. While she included the exact measurements of the Great Buddha in Kamakura, she neglected to identify fellow travelers, such as the pipe-smoking Cary Grant look-alike in the white linen suit in two of the three albums. Infuriatingly cryptic, she favored such phrases as, "A nice walk (sometimes)" or "After the earthquake—St. Pierre."

For years I filled in the story for her. Depending on what I was reading, she was an adventuress like Gertrude Bell; a maharajah’s mistress; a British spy. How else did a jeweler’s daughter from London wind up all over the globe?

This I do know: My grand-mother passed down her wanderlust to me. Before I left home for summer school in Paris, at 19, my grandfather gave me her India album and crystal inkwell to take with me. And so, with Ida as my shadow guide, I began traveling, too. I spent a year of college in London—Ida’s departure point—and from there, visited nearly every European capital. With more money and confidence, I later ventured to Russia, Northern Africa, and Asia. Whenever I’d buy a souvenir—a suzani in Istanbul or an antique necklace in Fez—I’d think of Ida’s missing trunk, rationalizing extravagance as my rightful legacy.

By the time I reached India, her pictures were so familiar that it practically felt like home. Gazing out my window at the shimmering Taj Lake Palace in Udaipur, I mentally compared the picture to the one she’d taken. Except for the neo-Viking ships on the water—left behind after the filming of Octopussy—the view and perspective were exactly the same. My grandmother had apparently stayed at the Shiv Niwas Palace, too.

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