It was twenty-four years ago when my mother took her last trip to Great Britain. She has yearned to return, and finally this year, in her 84th year, she convinced us to accompany her. She longed to see everything she had missed the first time. She wanted to visit the museums, see the Roman baths, see a play, maybe even take the train through the chunnel and visit France and Spain.
“There’s something about England that I love,” she says.
She likes to tell the story about the mustard. While in London, she bought a hot dog from a vendor on the street corner. She asked him to slather on some mustard, because she’s always been a huge fan of that tasty spread. He gave her a tiny dab.
“More please,” she said.
So he gave her another tiny dab.
“More, more,” she said.
So he gave her a bigger dab, and by this time, people standing around were starting to stare in wonder.
“Much more,” she said.
The man gave her a strange look, but he complied. The hot dog he gave to her was literally smothered in mustard. The English were whispering beneath their breath at the strange American, anticipating what would happen when she bit in. When my mother finally did, she says it was like inhaling a nuclear blast up through her nostrils, past her sinuses, and into her brain. Turned out the mustard was Dijon, not French’s. But of course.
The other patrons politely stifled their laughter, a sign, she says, of the English character. In fact, she has told that story for years.
“The mustard is different over there,” she now likes to say, “but they were too polite to tell me.”
By 2014, my mother had developed hip problems. She could walk normally for about 25 feet, but after that, her arthritis would start to stab at her hips. Bone is rubbing on bone, her doctor tells her.
Watching my mother walk is sad and inspiring at the same time. She used to walk with the grace of a beautiful woman, but now, walking causes great pain, and takes the same courage with which she has addressed all the crucial issues in her life.
In fact, there has been a lot in my mother’s life that has required courage. When food was scarce in her household in East L.A. in the 1930s, she would walk with her brother into the Chinese cemetery and steal the food that was left out for the dead. Her mother burnt her feet on the stove when she was 12 for coming home 10 minutes late, but the real reason was her developing curves, something that took her years to figure out.
My mother (R) in 1942 with her brother and mother (center).
Once, when her father came home drunk on a Saturday night from playing in his mariachi band, there was lipstick on his collar. Fighting ensued, he grabbed a kitchen knife, and it was a miracle that nobody ended up dead. But when he threatened to kill his wife and children, the kids were farmed out to Catholic charities for two years while her mother searched for a new husband.
When my mother went back to school at age 21 to get her high school diploma, and then back to college at age 35, and then to get her Master’s at age 48, that took courage.
“I’m a fighter,” she likes to say.
So in Bath, England, when I see my 84-year-old mother walking the 100 yards from the train platform to the taxi stand, the repressed pain etched into her face, it also etches the portrait of a lifetime. I walk beside her, holding out my elbow for her to grab, steadying her. She’s had a couple strokes in the past 15 years, as well, that have compromised her balance.
“How much longer do we have to walk?” she says.
“Not far,” I say.
And so she fights on. She’s a fighter.
When we arrive at the taxi stand, we talk to the first cabbie in line.
“We want to go to the Roman baths,” I say.
“It’s just up there,” he says. “An easy walk.”
“My mother has arthritic hips,” I say.
“We can’t do it,” the cabbie says. “We can’t turn right here. Go across the street and catch a cab. They’ll be headed in the right direction.”
So we hobble across the street and, after ten minutes, wave down a taxi.
“We want to go to the Roman baths,” I say.
“I can’t do it,” he says, and he doesn’t even give me a reason.
So we hobble back across the street and ask another cabbie who is now first in the queue. He looks at me like I’m crazy.
“It’s just up there,” he says, pointing. “Up the road, two blocks up.”
“My mother has bad hips,” I explain. “Can you drive us?”
The cabbie seems upset.
“I’m not even first in line,” he says.
He walks over and gestures at the other taxi driver, who is busy chatting with a colleague.
“Hey, it’s your turn!” he says.
But try as he might, he can’t get the guy to take his turn, so he turns back to us.
“It’s just over there,” he says, pointing. “See that?” he says, pointing to a spot perhaps 50 yards across the street and to the left. “The baths are just 50 yards up from that.”
I know what the problem is: Nobody wants a short fare. Then he has to get back in line again. Uncertain, I think that maybe the best solution to this problem is to walk my mother 100 yards up. So we start out, get 50 yards up, and then I turn.
“Wait here,” I say. “I’ll scout it out.”
I walk briskly up the walk-street, looking for the baths. But when I get to the curve in the road, I ask a police officer how far it is. He points to a spot about a half-mile up another walk-street.
I turn back, now really angry. Just fifty yards up? Just fifty yards up?! What kind of person are you, to turn down service to an 84-year-old woman with arthritis, forcing her to walk a half-mile in pain?! I’m really pissed now, so I walk back to my mother.
“We’re going back to those damned taxi drivers,” I say, purpose in my voice now. “And we’re going to take down some names and kick some ass. It’s illegal what they’re doing, and we’re going to be driven to where we want to go, dammit, or we’re going to report them.”
So my mother turns around, and we trudge the 50 yards back to the taxi stand. When we arrive, the previous cabbies are gone, but there are a couple new ones there. I walk up to one.
“We’d like a cab,” I say quietly, loaded for bear.
“Where would you like to go?”
“The Roman baths,” I say.
It’s a sixtysomething man whose cool sunglasses make him look like he was once a player in the singles clubs and nobody has told him it’s all over. I am ready for his evasions. When he starts his double-step, I will say something like, Excuse me?! Excuse me?! Do you know that my mother has arthritic hips and can’t walk 100 yards?! Then I will take out a pen and start writing down his license plate number while saying, I’m going to find the nearest policeman, or report you to whoever you report these things to, and your ass, as we say in America, is going to be grass…. And then we’ll see if turns me down, or if he suddenly changes his tune, saying, Okay, all right, calm down, I’ll drive you….
We wait for the cabbie’s response. It takes a moment, but when it comes, it’s direct and friendly.
“Okay, hop in,” he says.
At first, it stuns me. I’ve got indignation in my shovel and nowhere to dump it. But then we’re inside the car and we’re driving. I immediately start explaining what had happened with the other cabbies and he shakes his head.
“That’s wrong,” he said.
“You should go home to your wife tonight and explain that you’re a hero,” I say.
Because my mother, who has gone through so much and whose courage knows no bounds, deserves to be driven around England in style.
[Here are some photos of my mother in Bath, England, where for 25 years she has dreamed to return.]