Posted on: September 3, 2013

Walt was used to his mother’s itinerant habits. For the greater part of his childhood, he accompanied her as an additional bit of luggage. She was a devoted traveler – her sordid past, her illiteracy, and her general lack of an education were no barrier. She worked only enough to finance her next excursion. Each journey was more ambitious than the last, which made it more and more difficult for Walt to be a part of them. By the time his mother decided that she wanted to make a pilgrimage to a Buddhist temple in Tibet, he had long ceased to be her traveling companion.

But she always sent postcards, at least once a month, with messages scrawled in the shaky handwriting of someone who had learned to write late in life.

I met Walt almost five years ago now and we became fast friends. I was a young professor, eager to make a positive impression on the faculty. I spent my days in the university library, hoping to pad my academic credentials with research publications. Walt worked in the library re-shelving books, but his menial job was a poor reflection of his intelligence. He was brilliant and became the unofficial co-author of several of my articles. He was never afforded a formal education, but his mother always made sure there was a small library of books for him to read wherever they went. In India, he read translated buddhavacana, Siddhartha, and Rushdie. In Central America, he read Neruda, Garcia Marquez, and Cortazar. An education, she told him, was the key to a life she never had but always wanted. Walt was never sure what kind of life she meant by that.

Sometime in late August, Walt came to me at my usual carrel and slid a postcard towards me. “Algiers” was transposed in bright yellow text across an image of a coastal city. On the back, it read: “This is my view. Isn’t it beautiful? Egypt next?

“I have to find her.” Walt whispered.

“What do you mean?” I whispered back.

“My mother sent that six months ago. She never goes more than a few weeks without sending me a postcard. Something’s happened. I need to make sure she’s okay. I’m flying out tomorrow.”

“You’re going to try and find her? You can’t go over there now. It’s a mess.” I said in shock, still whispering. “Did she make it to Egypt? Where will you even start?”

“I’m flying into San Javier. Hopefully, I can pay my way onto a fishing vessel to Algiers from there. I’m going to start at the last place I know she was for sure.” He tapped his finger loudly on the postcard.

“Listen Walt, your mother is a seasoned globetrotter. I’m sure she’s been in trouble before, but she always finds her way home. You don’t even know that she’s in any trouble at all.”

“You don’t understand. Sure, she’s well-traveled, very well-traveled. But she's a dandelion puff. Her wanderlust is like a wind that carries her to these faraway places. At the end of the day it's my job to gather up all the little pieces to try and make her whole again, but it’s impossible. She's left part of herself in every one of the cities and towns she finds herself in. The irony is that she thinks of her journeys as a means to self-realization, to find herself. Yet, she loses more and more of herself each time she comes home. And she knows that. She knows that I know that, and she sends the postcards as a reassurance for my sake, as a sign that she hasn’t completely fallen apart.”

Walt was intent. All I could do was ask him to keep in touch, to let me know he was okay. Almost a full month later, I received a letter from him. He had arrived in Algiers safely and managed to find the small residential building his mother had stayed in.

“In spite of everything that’s happened in North Africa,” he wrote, “my mother was right. It’s beautiful here. The city is enchanting. The people are angry, but optimistic. And life goes on. My mother’s living quarters are Spartan, little more than a bed. The wallpaper is curling from the walls and the hardwood floor is rotting. I woke this morning to a breeze that brought in with it the acrid smell of the Bay, but it was refreshing anyway given the otherwise stagnant air of the room. As I lay in bed, listening to the sounds of routine as the fishermen prepped their boats by the marina, I realized that I could be content settling here. I also realized that that was a sentiment my mother never had the benefit of feeling herself. The landlord said my mother left several months ago. I’m not sure how I will find out where she’s gone.”

I wrote back, glibly sharing the banalities of my days and asking when he would return.

“When I find her,” he replied. I didn’t want to explore the possibility that that may never come to pass.

I didn’t hear from Walt for several months after that. Near the end of the term, I received a postcard from him. The picture was of the Great Pyramids and was sent in an envelope with some photographs he had taken. There was one of young children playing soccer in a sandlot, several candid portraits of Egyptian men and women, and one of him in front of a vibrant marketplace. He was smiling.

There was a short message on the back of the postcard. “She made it to Egypt, but left before the riots. I’m told she may have made her way back east, through Algeria. Tunisia next?”

That was the last I heard from Walt. In the years that have since passed, I realized that the irony of his mother’s life was an irony of self-preservation. We’re all just trying to live and to leave something behind before we die.

Written by: Sam Chow
Photograph by: Emily Blincoe

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