They said it couldn't be done. That going on vacation with my mother in Hawaii would be a big mistake. Cooped up together there would be a good chance that the hard fought calm between us would explode into corrosive flows of emotional lava.
I wasn't concerned. I didn't think we'd actually get to Hawaii. For the last few years, as mom closes in on 80, she has repeatedly voiced her interest in a series of improbable adventures that never came off.
"I'm thinking of studying Icelandic," she'll say to me on the phone from the east coast. "Their epic story-telling fascinates me."
Or, she'll say, "You know what I'd like to do? I'd like to rent an R.V. and drive across the country."
I used to challenge her cruelly whenever she mentioned what I considered another preposterous notion. "What are you talking about?" I would have said. "You fall asleep behind the wheel on the way to the corner market. Now you're going to drive cross country in a Mini-Winnie?"
"Well, I'd like to," she'd say, her enthusiasm dampened. "If I could find someone to go with me."
Invariably, mom begins our weekly telephone conversation with, "Oh! You know who died?" It's her way of reminding me she's not going to be around forever, and that maybe I should pay more attention to her.
So when she said, for the sixth time, "You know what I'd really like to do? I'd like to see Hawaii," I realized that this was not another passing fancy.
Traveling anywhere with mom is no carefree outing to the park. After decades in the frozen northeast she's doesn't venture outside unless she has several layers of clothing, emergency food, and a snow shovel.
"What do you think the weather will be like in Hawaii?" she asked. In the early 1980s I spent a summer in Hawaii. That made me an expert on island life.
"Snowy and cold," I told her, reverting to form.
"No, I'm serious," she said. "I want to know what clothes to bring."
"It'll be tropical and balmy," I told her.
"'Tropical and balmy?' What does that mean? Will I need a sweater?" she asked. "What about a raincoat?" As we discussed wardrobes, I saw storm clouds building off Waikiki. I made a final attempt to discourage her.
"Mom," I said, "You don't like the sun. You don't like the beach. I can't see you taking up windsurfing. You don't even like swimming. I mean, you haven't gotten your hair wet since FDR was in office. Why do you want to go to Hawaii?"
"I don't know why I want to go," she said, a tinge of anger rising in her voice. "I just know I want to see Hawaii -- while I'm alive!"
Cheap airline tickets and a free place to stay in Honolulu conspired to make Mom's dream a reality. After half a dozen telephone calls about the exact nature of "balmy and tropical weather," we were set to leave.
"Guess what?" my wife said to me. "I mentioned the trip to my mother. She didn't exactly ask to be included, but I think she'd really like to go."
My wife and I had been married two years. Our mothers were conspiring to test our marriage.
"Would you like a peanut butter sandwich?" my mother asked a few minutes after take-off. She had been carrying them from the east coast, "Just in case," as she likes to say. The jelly had already soaked through the bread and was clotting on the inside of the zip lock bag.
"No thanks," I told her. "They're going to be serving lunch in a few minutes." Besides, we had finished breakfast only 90 minutes earlier.
"I know," she said, "but I have to have something right now. I'm starved." My mother has the metabolism of a lemming. If she doesn't eat continuously, she's likely to pass out. Her purse is always bursting with crackers, candy, gum, a few vintage sandwiches, and at least half a loaf of bread. In an ocean liner disaster, she would be the last one alive in the lifeboats.
Probably like everyone's mother, mine has a number of idiosyncrasies. To the outside world, they are endearing. "Your mother is just great," people say after having spent five minutes with mom. But we were about to spend five days together. Five days of listening to mom read all the street signs in Hawaii out loud. Five days of watching her write mental notes in the air with her index finger and then erase them with a wipe of her hand. Five days of listening to her hum while she eats, watches television, and reads the paper. I heard myself concocting justifiable homicide strategies to the judge. "Your Honor, I was becoming just like her," I would plead. But she was my mother. She wasn't getting any younger as she often reminded me. Five days. It was the least I could do.
I had no idea what we would do for five days. More importantly, I had no idea if our mothers would get along. My mother-in-law is a firebrand who marched through the streets of Berkeley in the sixties. At the slightest hint of any injustice done to anyone anywhere in the world her first comment is likely to be, "The Bastards!" A piece of plastic litter blowing down the street will start her off on a crusade against the multi-national petroleum companies ("The Bastards!"). On the plane to Hawaii she insisted that we hang on to the sandwich bags and other plastic items for recycling on the mainland. I still haven't found the courage to tell her that, on occasion, I have voted Republican.
My mother, on the other hand, can't stand confrontation. "It's a shame" or "Isn't that awful" or "Someone ought to look into that" are about the strongest comments she can muster about something like, for example, the Chernobyl disaster.
Mom has spent thousands of hours in the beauty salon. My wife's mother washes her own hair and leaves styling to the wind. She grew up eating spicy middle-eastern food. Anything more daring than a boiled chicken breast sends my mother to the gastro-enterologist. As the plane approached Honolulu, this family vacation in Hawaii was looking more and more like a tsunami about to wash ashore.
The balmy and tropical weather I promised my mother turned out to be a tropical depression. Mom's hair was under assault before we left the airport. She quickly produced one of those hair protectors that begins about the size of a stick of gum and unfolds into a protective shield of hideously unattractive plastic. I'm told stores will not sell these to women under 65 years of age.
To escape the slashing, cold rain, we went to the IMAX theater in Waikiki. Circle of Fire, a film about the movement of the tectonic plates of the Pacific Rim, was playing. On the enormous screen, mountain tops were exploding, earthquakes were reducing cities to rubble, rivers of lava flowed from red hot fissures into the ocean which erupted into scalding columns of steam. The theater rumbled with SurroundSound. I looked over at mom. Her head was thrown back. Her mouth was wide open. She was dead asleep.
"Wasn't that something?" she said as the credits came up. "I've never seen anything like that. That was great."
"You know why they let seniors into the movies two for one?" I said to my wife as we left the theater. "Because they figure that together two of them might see the entire movie."
The next day the weather at last turned balmy and tropical. "What would you like to do?" I asked. I had told our mothers and my wife to get some travel books and research Oahu's many sights. I didn't want to be responsible for everyone's entertainment. "I don't know," they each said. "What do you recommend?" We began our first of several circumnavigations of Oahu.
Since our mothers come from the opposite ends of the political activism spectrum, spelling and pronunciation were items they could discuss right away without much potential for rancor. Every street sign, every advertisement, became a pronunciation challenge. It was a reverse spelling bee - in Hawaiian.
"K-a-l-a-k-a-o-u-a," Mom would spell out. "How do you say that?" she would ask from the back seat as though I were the Magnum P.I. of Hawaiian pronunciation.
"I think these names are very musical," my mother-in-law added. "Ka-me-ha-me-ha," she sang out with the trill of a tropical songbird. "Kai-lu-ah-oo-ah" my mother chirped back.
My wife and I exchanged sideways glances. This back and forth tweet-tweeting went on for the next four days.
Food was another area of non-controversial common ground. One day we passed a store that had dried beans on sale. After spelling out and pronouncing the name of the shopping center ("Ha-wa-eee - Ka-ee" my mother-in-law yodeled), my mother commented, "We really don't have enough beans in our diet."
Reacting as though my mom had just come up with the formula for world peace, my mother-in-law said, "You're right! And why not? They're delicious."
"And easy to fix."
My mother then lowered her voice, as though she were about to reveal the details of a particularly sinister conspiracy, and said, "What I don't understand is why people don't eat more lentils. I love lentils."
"Yes, they have been ignored."
I looked at my wife. She was clenching her stomach, squeezing her eyes, her face frozen in a pained grimace beyond laughter. She either had to let go or we would have to come up with a good explanation for Avis.
"What about lima beans?" I asked of the back seat. "Why don't they get more attention? Or favas?"
"I've never understood that either," my mother said.
"There ought to be equal opportunity for beans," my mother-in-law said. A shriek sliced through the car. Tears streamed down my wife's face.
We did just about everything one could do in Hawaii without getting wet or having one's hair blown out of place. Bit by bit mom broke down. At a roadside stand she tried some papaya. We went out for Japanese food. I ordered the chicken with udon noodles in miso for her, thinking that was about as close to boiled chicken breast as the Japanese got. It wasn't close enough.
The next morning she was at our bedroom door. "Robert," she said, clutching her stomach with one hand and the doorjamb with the other, "I need some bread."
"Now?" I asked. "It's quarter to seven."
"Now," she told me.
At Safeway she tore into a loaf of Italian white bread. The color came back to her face. She was restored.
As we drove around Oahu, my mother-in-law exclaimed over every flowering shrub and tree. "Oh look at that one," she said. "And that one. Oh my goodness, who can imagine such colors." Like a frenzied Hollywood fan at the Oscars, she tapped my mother on the shoulder at every new sighting. "Did you see that?" she would say having spotted another banyan or plumeria. "Did you see that?" -- tap, tap, tap.
"Lovely," my mother answered. "Robert, can you find a store? I'd like to get some bread."
"Mom, what is it with you and bread? Are you worried that Hawaii is going to run out of flour? We've got three loaves at the house."
"I'd just like to have some bread in the car," she would say, her voice a bit more forceful.
"But mom," I'd begin again before feeling my wife poke me in the ribs, a reminder that it was easier to stop for bread than to uncover my mother's incessant need for it.
One day, driving along Oahu's North Shore, I spotted a fisherman poised with his net on the rocks just above the surf. There is tremendous skill involved in tossing a net out in a perfect circle. I thought "the ladies," as we had begun to call our mothers, might like to see it.
For half an hour the fisherman didn't move. He peered into the surf and waited. And waited. And we waited. I don't exactly recall how the following conversation got started or how it evolved, but it went something like this.
"It's very sad," my twice widowed mother said.
"What's that?" my divorced mother-in-law asked.
"When people are alone."
"Yes, it is sad."
"You know who it's particularly sad for? Gay men."
"Yes, you're right. And also for fishermen."
"That's true. Fishermen do have lonely lives."
"Do you suppose a lot of fishermen are gay?"
"Yes, I've heard that also."
"Isn't it terrible? They spend all that time by themselves, on the boat, and then they can't find anyone."
"It's sad to be alone. But to be a gay fisherman and alone, that is really very sad."
"You're right. Oh look!"
A pick-up truck had pulled up on the side of the road. A single man got out. He went down on the rocks to confer with the fisherman. He stood there waiting, and watching, with the fisherman.
"Do you think that's his boyfriend?"
"I hope so. He looks very nice."
"And he's so patient. I think they're very happy together."
I looked at my wife. For the umpteenth time she was about to pee in her pants. I turned to the back seat.
"You know," I said, "I don't think that people really appreciate just how difficult life is for gay Hawaiian fishermen."
"No, they don't," the ladies chimed in from the back seat. There was a squeal from the seat next to me. The passenger door flew open and Nina raced out of the car holding her belly.
It took a bit of persuasion, but a day later I got the ladies out to Hanauma Bay, Oahu's marine park and popular snorkeling spot. I don't think either had had her face in salt water for many, many years.
"No way my mom is going to do this," I told my wife.
"You're always underestimating her," she said.
"Well, she's not getting her hair wet, I'll tell you that."
We led the ladies out into the water by the hand.
"Now don't let go of my hand," mom said. Although she was very careful not to get her hair wet she did stick her mask in the water to look around. We were lucky. Moorish idols, coronet fish, all kinds of wrasses and puffers swam right up to the ladies. It wasn't clear who was more enchanted; the ladies or the fish.
I was surprised by my mother's adventurousness. But after four days of wind, rain and sun, her hair was a mess. The Aqua-Net force field that has protected her hair for as long as I can remember had failed.
"I really should get a touch-up," she said looking in the car mirror.
"Don't worry, dear," my mother-in-law said, "We'll fix it at home." I sensed a smirk growing across my wife's face.
"You think so, dear?" my mother responded. On day four, the ladies had taken to calling each other "dear."
We dropped them at the house and went to the store for more bread. Mom wanted two loaves even though we had only 24 hours left in Hawaii.
When we returned to the house I heard light-hearted humming coming from the bathroom.
"That looks lovely, dear," I heard my mother say.
"What's going on?" I asked.
"Nina's mom washed and set my hair," my mother said, her hair up in rollers.
"You washed your hair?"
"Sure, why not?" my mother-in-law said. "You think she's allergic to shampoo?"
"HA!" my wife shrieked. "You owe me a hundred dollars."
"A hundred dollars? For what?" my mother asked.
"He bet me a hundred dollars you wouldn't wash your own hair."
"A hundred dollars! I don't believe it."
"Oh yes," my wife said, her hand opening and closing in my direction. "Pay up."
Hearing about our wager, my mother broke up completely. She reached out for the sink, afraid she might topple off the toilet she was laughing so hard. Tears began to fall. In 40 years I have never seen this. "A hundred dollars. Oh my, oh my." The moment her hysteria began to fall to a girlish giggle she would look at me and break up again. "A hundred dollars." I couldn't believe it. She couldn't believe it.
The next day we set out for the airport three hours ahead of departure. Mom wanted to get to there in plenty of time. Having spent most of her life traveling in and out of the northeast, she must have been worried about a freak snowstorm.
"Well, I just want you all to know I had a wonderful time," she said. "Thank you."
"Me too," my mother-in-law added. "This was great."
"I'm glad you enjoyed it," I told them. "Only two more hours till we leave."
The trip I had dreaded and now found myself enjoying was about to end. Neither of the ladies had learned to hula or surf but my wife and I had been hysterical most of the time. Turns out our aging mothers were stand-up comediennes. We were their straight men.
"Anyone hungry?" mom asked as she puttered around in her purse. "I've still got a few peanut butter sandwiches. Let's not waste them."
We chewed our way through the week old PB&Js in silence. My mother-in-law gathered up the plastic sandwich bags for recycling on the mainland.
"You know what I'm thinking, dear?" mom finally said. "I've been thinking about a trip to Sicily next year."
"Ooohhh," my mother-in-law said, "That could be lovely, dear. You know the Italians have the most wonderful bread."
"I've heard that, too," my mother responded. "And some lovely trees."
My wife put her lips next to my ear. "Think they have any gay fishermen in Sicily?" she whispered.
"I don't know," I told her. "But it might be fun to find out."
A version of this story originally appeared in the November 24, 1996 issue of West, the Sunday magazine of the San Jose Mercury News. Other versions were subsequently published in the Chicago Tribune, the Orange County Register, the Sacramento Bee as well as various travel and in-flight magazines and several volumes of the Travelers' Tales series of travel anthologies.