our van, my mom, and me

words & images claire thomas

When we were teenagers, my mom took my sister and I on a spur-of-the-moment city break to New York one frozen February weekend. It was a definitive trip, absent of our father, and one which she says marked the start of her passionate affair with travel. In the years that followed we grew ever closer (and sadly my parents ever more distant). Mom and I took advantage of the burgeoning Easyjet era. We started holidaying together just the two us: a spring weekend in Amsterdam, where I almost convinced her to try her first joint, another to Barcelona where we craned our necks at Gaudi, and our trip to Petra, where we met some not-so-eligible Bedouin bachelors who tried to give us more than we’d bargained for on a donkey ride.

When she suggested we go on a campervan trip together around New Zealand’s South Island for a few weeks, I leapt at the chance, but not without some reservations. Now in her sixties and with me in my twenties, we had dramatically different lifestyles, energy levels, and sliding scales of financial freedom. How would the mother/daughter dynamic even play out now on a “family" holiday, when I’d not lived at home for the best part of a decade?

Three weeks lay ahead of us; the campervan our new toy, the South Island our playground. High on the cleanest air our lungs had ever inhaled, we burned along the two-lane highway, lip-syncing like maniacs to Prince’s Greatest Hits. A few days in and a routine was soon established: explore, drive, marvel, eat, shower, sleep, repeat. Even on this grandest of road trips, amid the glacier-trekking and whale-watching days, we were governed by alarming domesticity...washing the dishes, bed-making, shopping, laundry. Life must go on, even for Frodo.

Patience. Tolerance. Humor. This was our unspoken mantra. The last dosed up as frequently and generously as we could muster. I teased her for bringing four hairbrushes. She badgered me for my multiple messy piles. She put up with my farts. I dealt with her snores. She hummed along to my Bill Withers. I tapped my toes to her Elbow. And of course in every scene, the South Island stole the show.

The ultimate conundrum came one afternoon when I was asked out on a date. Not only was I campervanning; I was doing it with my mother. I obviously said yes. And invited my mum to come along too, a most unorthodox wingman. Pre-date, we changed like gypsies in our van, discussing the logistics of how to orchestrate the evening’s events. Surprisingly, it played out smoothly. Turns out mom knows when to call it a night.

It wasn't all laughs though. Sometimes I was a bitch. She was self-righteous. I was distant. She bored me. When I made her climb that mountain though, she said it taught her a valuable lesson in positive thinking. When she convinced me to take that alpine flight, I understood the power of fearlessness.

As the decades pass, the dynamic of our mother/daughter relationship has changed markedly. Right now, and I hope onwards, we are more like friends. Only perhaps she is the best kind of friend: the one who will insist on paying.

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