Waiting at Ruzyně’s Terminal 2 last week, the children and I tried to maintain a semblance of calm. It was hard; we were all excited for my mother’s annual spring trip. She usually schedules a trip for late March, but her arrival this year in early May meant that we had an extra six weeks to build up anticipation. Unfortunately she missed a tight connection in Paris and spent an extra few hours waiting in Charles de Gaulle before catching the afternoon flight to Prague. That flight was then delayed and we had a good forty-five minutes to kill at the airport before her plane landed.
Anna Lee, at seven, was old enough want to understand how the arrivals/departures board worked. Once I explained the various symbols, she soon began to cheerfully update us on the status of the arriving planes from various European cities. At one point, she rushed to announce that a plane from Barcelona could collect its baggage, remembering that I’d returned from Barcelona the previous weekend, she believed it meant that my mother’s plane was next. Two years younger than his sister, Oliver didn’t know why his “Grana” had to be late and swung impatiently back and forth on the metal guardrail meant to keep people away from the automatic exit doors. Samuel at two is mischievous; he squeezed himself under the guardrail and rushed toward the off-limits automated doors of the customs exit. Each time I caught him, he squirmed away impatiently. At one point, he got down on all fours and crawled toward the exit making “huff huff” dog sounds. The children’s noise rose to playground decibels, but I couldn’t really blame them, I wanted to jump up and down myself.
By the time my mother finally emerged, without her luggage, which had been waylaid in Paris, we looked as wilted as she did after 18 hours of travel. The children rushed into her arms, presenting her with their gifts: two tiny bouquets of wilted roses, a now worse-for-the-wear box of Belgium chocolates and six animal sticker cards from the Billa supermarket. Their reunion was exuberant. Within minutes, I became merely the chauffeur driving the kids and their beloved grandmother to the next destination.
My mother’s annual visits bring a burst of energy and a healthy dose of American culture to our lives in Prague. She comes with a suitcase full of English books and movies, magazines and local newspaper clippings, a few new outfits and various small treats that she’s gathered over the months we’ve been apart. Full of news from my Virginia hometown, she recounts local politics, friends’ weddings, recent births and deaths. She shows the children new pictures of their great-grandmother and two first cousins. She lavishes them with grandmotherly attention and in return receives their undivided adoration.
During her visits, she accompanies us everywhere: gymnastics, ballet and singing lessons, doctors’ visits and trips to the supermarket. Routine decisions are fraught with tension: whose turn is it to sit beside Grana in the car, whose story will Grana read first, whose night is it to sleep in the guest bed beside Grana. Radek and I became referees, trying to make things fair and to give my mother a moment to breathe. But she doesn’t seem to need our help and instead relies mainly on the children to explain our life here to her.
Anna shows her how to open hotel rooms with unfamiliar keys and reads the dámy sign for women on the restroom doors. Oliver teaches Grana Czech and she obediently repeats dolů several times, breaking the word carefully into the two syllables as Oliver insists. Only afterward does she ask what she’s learned and is disappointed that all her effort had gone into learning to say the word, “down.” She wants to learn “up” next.
Czech culture rubs off on her. She visits the children’s schools and takes off her shoes automatically before peeking inside. She has learned to scour the pub menu for párek v rohlíku, knowing that it’s a meal she’ll appreciate as much as the children. She greets the družina teacher with a hearty “dobrý den” and tells her how much she liked seeing the online pictures of Anna at the school’s carnival. She ventures as far as the local garden center with Samuel in the stroller to scope out the spring plants. Only when the children are asleep at night do we have an adult conversation. We stay up far too late night after night, trying to cram the news of several months into an evening or two.
Each visit we try to spend a few nights away from home, showing her another part of the country. This spring we took her hiking in České Švýcarsko (Czech Switzerland) on the Czech-German border where we spent a day walking a 16-kilometer loop through the woods. We saw the spectacular natural sandstone formations of Pravčická brána and the Falcon’s Nest mountain chateau. Afterward, we walked above the river on the metal bridges that run along the edge of the rocky cliffs. We rode two boats through a gulley and listened to guides describe the unusual natural rock formations. They spoke Czech and some German, so Radek, Anna and I took turns relaying Grana the highlights in English. My mother, an avid walker and nature-lover, held up pretty well. Only toward the end the ups and downs of the climb began to make her knee ache. She persevered, but grumbled a bit about not knowing what she’d gotten herself into. Afterward, she told us that she was sorry my father missed his chance to see Czech Switzerland because she doubts she’ll ever come back. The following day, her spirits were back up and she complimented the two older children for walking the whole way without complaining. She said it is probably the prettiest hike she’s ever done and even agreed to come back someday with my father, as long as she has a knee brace.
The next day we visited Tropical Islands, a large water park near Berlin, and again my mother seemed to enjoy herself over the course of our marathon afternoon, despite her earlier fears that she’d be stuck in a wet bathing suit all afternoon. She watched the children play in the sand and swam with them in the lagoon. Afterward, Anna said it was her best day ever.
For the length of my mother’s visits, she brings another adult presence into our lives and in two short weeks she leaves an imprint that must last until our next reunion. I wish we could see her more regularly and with less intensity. I know there are times she wishes she could be the grandmother who babysits for the afternoon and then returns the children to us after a few hours. But because of our life circumstances, it’s often all or nothing. I wouldn’t trade it for anything. I don’t think she would either.
Happy Mother’s Day to all mothers in all their various forms.