For Mother’s Day: Not the Mother I Remember Excerpt 5

IN HONOR OF MOTHER’S DAY, and in remembrance of my wild and unconventional mother, Jacquelyn Carr, I’m sharing an excerpt from my first memoir, Not the Mother I Remember.

The year is 1965. I am ten years’ old. My mother, my eight-year-old brother, Michael, and I are in the middle of a one-year tour of the world. My mother, ever the nonconformist and budget-minded, didn’t travel like most Americans; throughout Europe we explored the backroads and stayed in campgrounds and youth hostels instead of hotels. On the African and Asian continents, we mostly slept at YMCAs, resorting to cheap hotels only when nothing else was available.

My mother also didn’t like to plan ahead, preferring to take adventures as they came to us (or we blundered into them). As a result, though not without risk of danger, I was privileged to experience an unforgettable and unique view of the world. And for this, among other things, I am forever grateful. Thanks, Mom.


This passage is from the chapter “A Man’s World.”

On a bus from Jerusalem to Cairo, we met Hosni, a light-skinned Egyptian who chatted with my mother for most of the ride. Before we arrived, he offered to be our guide in Cairo in exchange for the opportunity to practice English.

Cairo bustled with people and animals, the air filled with the cacophony of cars and buses honking, people shouting, and music blaring. Hosni took us to Egyptian bazaars, their tiny shops packed with bright-colored wares and teeming with people. We went to the Citadel, and visited mosques and palaces. We rode a boat across the Nile River and went out into the desert where we climbed the claustrophobically small passageway into the burial room of the Great Pyramid. We rode bad-tempered camels and tasted a drink made from crushed sugar cane (horrible). And we ate spiced dishes, made of beans and vegetables and roasted lamb and onions, that set our tongues on fire so that Mike and I waved our hands frantically in front of our mouths, causing our servers to roar with laughter.

Men and boys dangled from the outside of the buses and trolleys, which listed crazily to one side or the other and merely slowed to allow people to jump on or off at the “stops.” As we watched, a woman attempted to get onto one bus with her toddler. The toddler stepped off as the bus driver closed the door and started down the road, the woman screaming for her child, arms stretched out the window. No one, except us, seemed to take any notice or express concern for her, and the driver didn’t halt the bus until the next scheduled stop, blocks away. The mother jumped off, still screaming, and ran all the way back to where her abandoned child now played in the dust by the side of the road.

“Human life has no value to these people,” my mother told us. “Their donkeys are worth more to them than their children.”

I looked around and decided she must be right—the animals were being taken care of, while women and children were not—and thought how lucky I was not to have been born in Cairo.

That evening, Hosni invited us to a “real Egyptian nightclub.” Mike said he didn’t want to go, so Mom left him in the care of a fellow tourist. We climbed into a taxi with Hosni, my mother and I in the back holding hands while Hosni sat in front chatting with the taxi driver, and sped away from the night noise of the city and out into the silent desert. At first, Mom tried to keep up a conversation with Hosni, but finding it difficult to talk over the clatter of the car, she fell silent and looked out the window.

We drove for what felt like hours, deeper and deeper into the desert. We didn’t even seem to be on a road, and I couldn’t understand how the taxi driver knew where to go. My mother’s hand tightened over mine until I pulled away, complaining. I wondered why she didn’t seem excited. I loved music and dancing and the feeling of being included in the adult world she inhabited. Since leaving the United States, I’d been to many nightclubs in Europe, but this would be my first in the Middle East, and I was filled with anticipation.

But the beauty outside my window soon made me forget all about the nightclub. Silhouetted by a brilliant full moon, the three pyramids loomed before us, black and solid and imposing. Above their sharp peaks, the stars sparkled. At their feet, ethereal colors undulated over the surface of the sand in translucent and mystical rainbow waves. I held my breath, afraid to blink in case the vision disappeared.

Then we came over a rise, and a large tent—larger than a circus big top—emerged before us. The taxi parked near the entrance, and Hosni escorted us inside where a wide band of tables circled a large performance ring. He found a table for us close to the ring, where African dancers in elaborate, colorful costumes were at that moment performing. Then two exotic girls danced while balancing tall candelabras on their heads and tables on their chins. A little boy, about six, danced and performed acrobatics with a group of robed men whose long hair reached halfway down their backs. Belly dancers stepped into the ring, shimmying and gyrating to the rhythms of drums, while we ate hot-spiced Oman salad and roasted lamb.

The audience, nearly all men, was lively—whistling and shouting and smoking. We were the only white people in the tent, which made us objects of interest. After the belly dancers were done, everyone got up and danced. I did too. A photographer came over and took my picture with Hosni and the little acrobat.

Filled with exuberant exhaustion, my mother and I arrived back at the hotel and collapsed into our beds just before dawn.

Not the Mother I Remember makes a wonderful gift.
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