Traveling through generations
There were very few things my grandmother, Ellen Gladding, loved more than traveling. When I was really young, my perception of her travels revolved around the unique magnets she’d bring back from each trip to add to the collection on her refrigerator. As I got older, I’d often stop to admire the map on her wall that was nearly saturated with pushpins marking her various destinations.
I got to travel with her a few times, and was even lucky enough to accompany her on her last venture outside of the States, but I knew very little about the trips she took on her own aside from their general destinations. It occurred to me, too late, unfortunately, that I never really took the time to ask her about her experiences and listen to her stories. This realization generated a sense of something between guilt and regret I’ve carried with me ever since.
The first Thanksgiving after her death in the summer of 2021 was really difficult for me and my family. No one jumped to take over her responsibility of hosting. Maybe this was due to the tensions that arose over the course of her illness and after her death, or maybe it was just because we weren’t quite ready to gather as a family without her. My grandmother had quite the presence, and I think everyone dreaded having to face her absence in that way. So, in true Ellen Gladding fashion, my parents and I decided to travel instead.
Unable to decide between England and France, we split the week between the two, somehow managing to make it to every one of our desired destinations. Since so few Americans travel internationally during Thanksgiving, major attractions like Versailles and Buckingham Palace were essentially empty, giving us more time to explore lesser-known areas, enjoy meals at fantastic restaurants, and spend time as a family without the distractions so frequently provided by our lives at home. Albeit atypical, it was our way of honoring my grandmother’s memory and finding joy during an otherwise difficult time.
A few months after that first Thanksgiving trip, my grandmother’s travel legacy reemerged in a collection of scrapbooks I found tucked away in a bookshelf as we cleaned out her house. In about 30 leather-bound binders, she’d carefully documented every aspect of every single one of her adventures. Plastic sheets enclosed plane tickets, travel itineraries, photos, postcards, restaurant menus, bar napkins, and hotel brochures. She’d left a detailed trail that we could easily follow to replicate any of her trips, and no one in my family had really known about them during her lifetime.
Among these scrapbooks were ones documenting her own journeys to England and France. I vividly remember turning the pages in awe as I recognized familiar sight after familiar sight. I found comfort in the knowledge that we’d appreciated and documented many of the same places and immense gratitude that she’d taken the time to record her experiences in such detail.
I insisted that we find a place to keep all of the scrapbooks, as they felt like a semblance of the connection to her I’d been searching for since her death. They allowed us to look into some of her experiences we’d never gotten the chance to ask about and inspired us to create experiences of our own in honor of her memory.
When trying to plan where and how to spend our next Thanksgiving, a close friend’s decision to study abroad in Copenhagen put Denmark on our radar. A few weeks after I moved into Duke, I got a FaceTime call from my dad.
He’d found another one of my grandmother’s scrapbooks documenting her own trip to Copenhagen. Our decision was made. The next time I was home, we took the time to look through each page carefully and find current information about the places she’d visited there.
Over the course of the 8 days we spent in Copenhagen, we were able to weave in several excursions that were mainly for the purpose of retracing her steps. More than once, this led us off the beaten path to find castles, museums, or restaurants we might not have otherwise. Even when we visited some of the city's main attractions, the ability to imagine seeing the city through her eyes was incredibly meaningful. For the first time, that guilt and regret I carried began to feel a little less heavy. While I’ll never be able to ask my grandmother about her trip to Copenhagen or tell her about mine, the knowledge that we’ve had common experiences there bridges the gaps of time, life, and death.
Despite my appreciation for the incredible opportunities to explore new parts of the world, each time Thanksgiving day rolls around and photos of everyone celebrating with their families invade my Instagram feed, I can’t help but feel a bit empty. Nostalgia overtakes the novelty of exploring new places as I remember the smell of her homemade pumpkin bread baking in the oven, the feeling of the soft pink blanket she’d put over the seat of my chair when I was little so I wouldn’t complain that it was itchy, or the sound of her voice as she delivered the lines she knew would make everyone laugh.
Family most certainly fell into that small category of things more important than traveling in my grandmother’s life. She loved fiercely and cared deeply, always doing everything she could to bring joy to the people she cared about most. I found this especially true on holidays, when her delight at having her whole family in one place was made clear by her tireless efforts to provide everyone with a picture-perfect celebration. The peace I found by traveling in her memory will never rival that of the palpable love I always felt when sitting at her dining room table surrounded by family.
This concept of “never” is one I struggled most with in the months after her death. It was the first time I’d had to experience the death of someone truly close to me, truly central to my life, and it was incredibly difficult to wrap my head around the finality of it all. It’s still really difficult, in all honesty; “never” doesn’t get shorter over time. Finding ways to rekindle my connection to her in the absence of her living presence helps make “never” feel a little less definite and a little more bearable. My love for traveling is undeniably a byproduct of hers, and indulging it is the closest I’ve come to restoring that connection. I’ll never again be able to share stories and laughter with my grandmother over Thanksgiving dinner, but I find comfort in the knowledge that I can always share my holiday with her by taking time to do what she loved most.