My Mother’s Other World

A daughter reflects on wanderlust, travel, and her mother’s life before triplets

When my mother found out she was pregnant with triplets, she quit her job and let her passport expire. She was elated and scared, nauseated and starving — and by her second trimester, under strict orders to stay in bed.

For the next four months while she lay on her left side, my mother’s belly swelled, stretching in such a way that it required scaffolding — a harness doctors custom-designed to support the weight of us all. From the back, she looked narrow. From the front, enormous. A marvel of form and function people stared at with the same bewildered gaze reserved for architectural wonders, buildings whose shapes defy what seems physically possible.

With my older brother at school and my father at work, my mother spent the first eight years of our lives at home, her days choreographed around our triplet meals and triplet naps and triplet needs. Three new lives meant date nights and restaurants were logistical and financial impossibilities. There was no such thing as just picking up and going anymore. Life became something more insular, less mobile. We became our own entertainment.

Every evening we ate dinner around a circular wooden table, my parents the poles in our frenetic orb of six, and afterward busted our best Motown moves in the family room. In the summer, after pooling together whatever money remained, my parents drove my brothers, sister, and me to our favorite place on Earth — a place my mother was less crazy about — the Jersey Shore. We shared slabs of Neapolitan ice cream sandwiched between hot Belgian waffles and piled into a single motel room. My older brother took the cot, my parents a double bed, while the three of us were stacked horizontally on the other double. My parents lived to make us happy. We were their world.

It was only after our family moved to the outskirts of a town named Boring that my perception of their world began to shift.

“Guys!” my mother called from her bedroom one afternoon. “Look at this!”

She was busy unpacking boxes, and cradled between her hands was something I’d never seen before. A keychain collection.

From a single silver ring, the world became a borderless pile. A miniature wooden clog from Holland, the thimble-sized book from Frankfurt. There were dozens of these keychains, each one an intricate sculpture, and my 10-year-old self stood there mesmerized. Here was a secret map my mother had kept, the topography of a past life that now stretched out before me, and, in it, I could see the places of herself that were hidden from me. There was a woman who existed before there had ever been an “us,” and she was foreign to this world we now both inhabited.

Looking at photos, you’d never suspect my mother didn’t sleep for three years straight or that her days were physical and emotional marathons. As toddlers, our outfits were meticulously coordinated: pink, purple, teal. Sarong, jumper, overalls. The kitchen counters were spotless and her nails, somehow, always manicured. Instead of falling apart from the overwhelm, it was as though my mother fell even more together when she stepped into the role of Mom.

“I’d do it all over again in a heartbeat,” she was always saying about those early years.

But staring at her keychains, I had a thought:

Would I?

My mother’s keychain collection.

It wasn’t that my mother or her mother had arrived at the sort of crossroads I would come to imagine for myself: Children or no children? Children in my twenties or thirties? Or maybe in my forties? Motherhood had always been her path. In exchange for it, however, the woman before me had surrendered her keys to the world. Motherhood had taken something from my mother. It had clipped her wings. It had landed her in Boring, a place best known for bingo at its volunteer firehouse.

The longer I lay there, continents cupped in my palms, the more the wonder of each medallion evolved into something heavier. The weight of her sacrifice, maybe, or the beginnings of my own fears.

“How far does the Leaning Tower actually lean?” I asked her. “What does it feel like to stand at the base of the giant Buddha?”

My mother told us about the sheep in Ireland, the barge she and my father navigated through the canals of rural France. There were netted tents in the Serengeti, Rod Serling at a pharmacy in Acapulco. She told us about TWA.

My parents met in 1976 while working for Trans World Airlines (TWA), the high-profile airline beloved by Bob Hope and the Pope. This was back when commercial aviation was still considered glamorous. If the destination was France, Chateaubriand was carefully carved and plated onto fine china. Shrimp cocktail configured into the sails of a Hong Kong junk boat were reserved for the Far East routes.

As a perk of the job, employees could fly anywhere in the world. So in between shifts at Newark Airport, where they worked as customer service agents, my parents would pick a place on the map and just go. Tahiti, Thailand, Rome a dozen times over. You name it, they saw it.

But if there were photographs of these adventures, I never saw them. Every frame in our old and new home had been filled with pictures of my siblings and me. The TV console was a library of methodically cataloged VHS tapes chronicling childhood. So in the years before high-speed internet, each one of my parents’ journeys became a myth. If the contours of the Alpine slopes appeared on television, I envisioned my mother and father skiing down them. At the first sound of Strauss’ strings, I placed my parents in a Viennese park. I gave them strudel.

The couple who supercut through my mind were not the ones who, by the time I was in high school, seemed exhausted. She wasn’t drained from long days of secretarial work at the local elementary school, where she now worked. He wasn’t depleted from conference calls. They were the two carefree people who returned whenever I brought up TWA at the dinner table.

My father (second row, first from the left) and mother (second row, fourth from left) photographed with TWA employees in the 1970s.

“Every employee had a codename with their initials,” my mother would tell us. “I was Rockin’ Robin, R.R.”

“And I was Tough Meat, T.M,” my father would say, making her laugh.

Of all the traveling they’d done, there had been one trip my mother regretted not taking.

“Venice,” she sometimes said. “Maybe when your father and I retire, I’ll finally get to see Venice.”

When my plane touched down at John F. Kennedy Airport late one Sunday in 2016, all I could think about was the fridge. It was probably half-empty. Stale bread and wilted kale. Was there anything I could salvage for lunch tomorrow? Sundays were for laundry, cleaning, and grocery shopping. By now, the stores would all be closed. Rushing past baggage claim toward the cabs outside, I felt the word pulse: home, home, home. Get me home.

But then there they were, opposite me: those letters, TWA, attached to a building that glowed from across the taxi waiting area.

There are certain places that stand separate from everything else in their vicinity. Failing to blend in, they announce themselves. They ask you to really look. And when I looked at that building, what I saw was a gust of swooping white cement curled around a wall of slanted windows. A bird midflight with wings outstretched. It was a mirage in the middle of Queens, and though I didn’t know it then, the first note of a migratory call.

In the years after college, I forged a path for myself that included a steady job as an editor, an apartment in Brooklyn, and a long-term relationship. What I had not done was backpack through India. As I’d sifted through my mother’s keychains in Boring all those years ago, I’d made up my mind that I would be the kind of woman who was ruled by her own wanderlust. I wouldn’t settle down until I’d stood on the Bolivian salt flats. Starting a family would be out of the question until I’d drunk ouzo in a smoky bar in Greece. The world was big, and two decades later what had I seen of it? There I was, returning from a work trip in Texas, about to blow what probably amounted to a week’s worth of curry in Cambodia on cab fare home. I was playing it too safe.

TWA Flight Center rendering. Courtesy: SFO Airline Collectibles Show.

During the car ride back to Brooklyn, I searched the internet and learned the TWA building was about to undergo a $265 million transformation. When it opened in 1962, the Flight Center was architect Eero Saarinen’s magnum opus, a physical manifestation of jet-age intrigue. By 2018, if all went according to plan, it would become a 505-room hotel. With the Manhattan skyline blurring past me, I reflexively slotted the landmark into the way of every recent remodel in my neighborhood. Ticket counters turned hipster coffee outposts. Gift shops with new age crystals. Millennial pink rooms. I imagined my parents wandering through the reimagined space. Would it make them feel old?

There were dark spots sprouting in my father’s receding hairline, an unsteadiness in my mother’s balance. It wasn’t just that triplets had shredded her stomach muscles to a pulp. Despite the secretarial work that kept her planted at a desk for eight-hour stretches, my mother had carried on with all of the other tasks she’d assumed as a mother. There was no time for exercise, or for putting herself first. She and my father were lodged in routine and it seemed as though every time I returned home, the hand of time had imprinted some new feature on them. As I watched them watching Jeopardy! while the Roomba vacuumed circles around the house, a ribbon of panic unspooled itself in my throat.

Anything that sat in one place for too long — the battery in the car, the milk in the fridge — would eventually break down. They had taught me this, my parents. It was why squeegeeing the shower tiles had been a house rule. Stagnant things decayed. So what were they waiting for? The nest was empty. It had been empty. Why weren’t they looking beyond the horizons of Boring?

My sister and I were granted special permission to visit the TWA Flight Center before construction began. We took the C train to JFK airport where a representative from the Port Authority took us on a tour of the empty space.

The first thing you felt when you entered was the afternoon light. It poured in from the strips of windows sliced into the domed concrete ceiling, then it bounced across the thousands of white tiles that blanketed the steps, curving into the kind of entryway you might expect to find in heaven. Standing there, it was as though you were grounded on the earth but also elevated. Floating, yet fluid. It felt like possibility.

A clock hanging from the ceiling in the TWA airport ceiling.
Architect Eero Saarinen’s TWA Flight Center in February 2016.

Saarinen had wanted the architecture to “reveal the terminal not as a static, enclosed place, but as a place of movement and transition.” To do this with 5,500 tons of material, he improvised an untested process that included contouring maps and elaborate plywood formwork. In the end, he managed to design a space that was the same square footage as Madison Square Garden, but with only four support buttresses holding it all up. It was a feat critics declared “miraculous.” He married form and function in a way that revolutionized airports.

Our guide wanted us to look at the new carpet, though.

“The red you’re looking at is exactly the right red,” he beamed, “1962 red.” A facility manager had held onto a swatch. “Thank god for hoarders,” he said. Then he took us into a darkened basement where sets of boxes were split open like soggy dumplings. From them, thousands of custom-designed penny tiles spilled onto the floor.

“Just to get these tiles approved was a 12-month process,” he explained. Then there was the matter of the grout. “Finding the right shade.” He walked my sister and me through the details of the decade-long preservation process that kept him awake at night. It was grueling, his quest. The fight to halt what nature was always going to try to reclaim — the want to help a space figure out how to be both old and new.

“So what brings you here?” he wanted to know.

A photo collage of tiled stairs illuminated with light on top of a red bench inside the TWA Airport terminal.
Penny tiles and reupholstered “TWA Red” details.

Every international flight my mother had ever taken, departed from the Flight Center. To enter it, I felt, was to finally access a region of her world that had always been out of reach. Now that I was inside, though, all I knew was that I felt a weird sense of guilt — guilt, perhaps, for the way triplets had affected my mother’s body and ultimately her mobility. It was guilt my rational mind knew to be ridiculous, but ridiculous as it was, felt tethered to something uglier. Angrier.

The marble fountain designed by Isamu Noguchi for the upstairs lounge had dried. Gum beneath the broken down bars had fossilized and the sun had fried the upholstery into a petrified shade of red.

Have you seen a camel pea coat? my mother texted from her desk. I lost it in the downstairs café 40 years ago.

I saw no coat. What I saw was her — and not a square inch of her invested enough in her own existential re-tiling process. She was getting old and not doing enough to stop it.

“When your mom comes back here,” our guide told us, “this place will feel identical to 1962.”

“When my mom comes back here,” I responded, “she’ll be retired.”

She would be retired and she would pick up, I decided, where she left off. The ache in her step would heal. Venice would stop sinking. This layover in which she was aging too quickly would end. Yes, Rockin’ Robin and Tough Meat would open their eyes and realize they were seeing the world from the inside of a gondola. They would travel again. Traveling would bring them youth. It would save them.

A white tunnel with red carpet inside the TWA Airport terminal.

In December 2019 my mother ordered a new suitcase. After it arrived, she took the empty four-wheeler for a spin around the kitchen. “Nice and light,” she noted proprietarily. It was a kind of statement piece, this suitcase — the announcement of a new era. It was part of a bigger plan.

In May, the plan went, after celebrating her birthday in Tuscany, my parents were finally going to see Venice together. My mother would be turning 70, a number that felt like crossing a threshold, and this trip would be our first abroad as a family — my parents’ first as retirees. Afterward, I’d backpack through Europe, stretching the money I’d saved as far as it would go. We would both beef up our keychain collections, return home, and swap stories.

But the suitcase went nowhere.

Vintage travel photographs on a gold textured background.
Photographs taken by my mother during her world travels.

Italy became an epicenter of the Covid-19 pandemic. Planes parked themselves on tarmacs indefinitely, and my mother barely mentioned the canceled trip. “The important thing is that we all have our health,” she’d say whenever any of us brought it up.

I struggled.

Shortly after touring the Flight Center in 2016, I’d quit my full-time job as an editor to freelance, a decision that brought less financial stability but more freedom. With my Brooklyn apartment boxed in my parents’ basement, I’d now spent three years drifting. A month in California, three months in New York, back and forth to Australia, two months in Spain, California again. I had gone to New Zealand, Japan, the French Riviera, and in between it all, I’d used Boring as my landing pad.

“I’m nomadic,” I sometimes heard myself annoyingly tell others. But amid the pandemic, Boring was becoming something more permanent.

In the predawn mornings, whenever my mother and I both found ourselves in the kitchen, I ignored her. She wanted to know how I slept, what I planned to do with the day ahead. “So what are you working on?” she asked. She was so happy to have me there, her in her pink robe — the same one she’d worn in the hospital after delivering the three of us.

If I were in Brooklyn living on my own, I wouldn’t have to speak to anyone right now, I thought to myself. It was my quiet time of the day to write.

“Can we pretend I’m not here?” I responded.

By then, the stories I’d been assigned to write were obsolete. A mentor I cared deeply about had died. I couldn’t get the sourdough loaves I was baking to look halfway normal. The bread was dense and wrong, and like the child I had not been for many years, I found myself throwing a tantrum one day that ended with a loaf flying through the woods out back.

Nothing looked how I thought it would. Behind the facade of gratitude for everything I had, I was pruning in a pool of pity. I was not where I wanted to be. I was an adult who felt like a child. I was stuck in a place I believed I had already discovered, and not proud of the fact that these were the things I was focused on as the world fell to hapless pieces.

But a year into isolation, I noticed something new. Something I’d never seen before. It was sitting in the room where the keychain collection had once appeared, right there on my mother’s dresser “in case the house ever caught fire,” she would later tell me. “It’s the one thing I’d take with me.”

It was a VHS tape.

The video was entitled “Birth.”

“This is it,” my mother says in it. “Take a last look at this big belly.”

She is lying on a stretcher in a hospital gown, her belly too big for its support harness, and I can’t take my eyes off of her. My mother is beautiful. The woman before me has spent eight months being reminded by a team of doctors that triplets are extremely high risk. Still, she doesn’t look tired or scared. She asks the nurse pointed questions about blood levels and enzymes with an ease that makes me laugh. It’s a quality I have known my entire life, her bravery masked by grace.

The video cuts to blue cloth and bright lights. My father in his hospital shower cap.

“Robin, Baby A — it’s a girl,” the nurse declares.

“B is a boy, Robin.”

Then a pause.

“A girl.”

Baby C, my sister.

In the three minutes and eight seconds it takes to brew the coffee we share each morning, I watch my parents go from a family of three to a family of six and there is no framework for understanding it. There is no building or corner of the world that captures the magnitude of all that new life in one small room. Forget the Bolivian salt flats. Forget backpacking through the Himalayas. Give me this, I think. I want this.

From the corner of my mother’s eye, tears slide down her cheek into her nest of dark curls, and I can’t help it. I cry with her, the her from 31 years ago. All I want is to stop time and stand still, to hold on. That’s my impulse. I want to save her scribbled grocery lists, swatches of pink robe, hoard every memento, every gesture, save myself from ever having to roam this earth without her. And suddenly it feels like a sin to mourn like this — for the living.

She is holding me for the first time, the woman in the video.

She is also downstairs.

The birds that share her name circle this home they’ll return to long after its walls have crumbled.

“Maybe your dad and I will do Hawaii this winter,” my mother has said as the world begins to reopen. “Maybe you kids will meet us there.”

But I am finally here, ready to join her. Ready to meet her right where she is.

My mother in Pisa just after sunrise (left). Hands full, my mother with triplets plus one (right).

For an interactive experience of this feature, visit: mymothersworld.com

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