Last spring, around the time of her 82nd birthday, my preternaturally optimistic mother seemed just a little off. On the outside, her eyes and loving smile still sparkled. And her health was in good order: In fact, she so relishes spending summers at the beach with a rotating cast of her children and grandchildren that she marches herself off to weekly rehab. It's not to heal an injury but to gird her strength for those everyday tasks that the young take for granted -- balance, walking, climbing stairs, tromping through sand to the sea.
At the end of the previous winter, my brothers Jim and David had sent an e-mail to the rest of the family, expressing concern about her. By June, when our youngest brother, Peter, paid a routine visit, she was privately in peril. Turns out suppressing your feelings is a bad idea at any age -- but doubly so when old age is upon you, and you withdraw and feel vulnerable.
Our mother, Rose -- born adventurer, artistic soul, 1940s Detroit art student who never missed a chance to see Louis Armstrong or Ella Fitzgerald perform at a local venue, mother of four, wife to the same man for 40 years (albeit over three separate marriages) -- has always had a creative spark, but we feared it was dimming.
One night, she quietly confessed a longing to travel but then immediately listed the fears and hurdles: She had no one to go with; she didn't have the physical strength; she couldn't justify the expense. I suggested that she and I take a trip together in the fall, to somewhere we'd never been. She could spend the summer getting into physical shape and also have something to look forward to. My brothers were skeptical, what with my crazy life and our mother's bad feet. Still, we made reservations and put down a deposit, and she greeted the challenge with guts and courage.
We chose Amsterdam -- a direct flight across the Atlantic, and easy enough to navigate once there. We found a modestly priced first-floor room in a hotel right on the Amstel River, within view of the city's iconic "skinny bridge." I figured that if nothing else, we could sleep in, read, eat locally, and visit the city's outpost of the Hermitage museum down the road.
As it happened, though, from the second we stepped off the plane, it was as if Mom had started waking from a slumber. The first night, after a chilly walk across the skinny bridge and past ancient row houses and chic shop fronts, bicycles whizzing by us, we tucked into a restaurant for rijsttafel (or "rice table" -- a medley of dishes adopted from the former Dutch colonies in Indonesia). Giddy, jet-lagged laughter set in, and all fears began to gently subside.
Over the eight days we spent in Amsterdam, the less I planned, the more we did. The more we did, the stronger she got. And did we get around! Art, theater, street life, fashion, flower market, river rides, garden tours, and street fair. This lady with the bum foot -- and leopard-print cane -- even wound her way up and back down the four narrow flights in the Anne Frank House. One evening we saw a performance called Songs of Migration, led by South African composer Hugh Masekela. An electrifying cast delivered music that had us practically levitating out of our seats at the Royal Theatre Carre. Afterward, she tucked one arm in mine and confidently burst out, "Well, honey, I've decided to embrace my 80s." Right then, it dawned on me what had been wrong with her back in June: Unsure of her future and less sure of her place in this world, she had felt in danger of losing the creative inspiration she'd always coveted.
On our last night, we drank chocolate milk shakes at a coffee shop. Afterward, there were no taxis in sight, but a pedicab did pull over and offer us a lift. Hesitantly, we jumped in and let the driver cover us with a blanket. He asked if we liked music. So it was against a Ray Charles soundtrack that we sped off into Van Gogh's starry night. Right there, my mom gifted me with her unfettered happiness and a wish of my own: Oh, to be 82, crossing a magical city at night in an open carriage, with music in the air and the wind in my hair, and one of my children tucked in beside me.
Lucinda Scala Quinn is the executive editorial director of food and entertaining at Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia. Her latest cookbook, Mad Hungry Cravings (Artisan), was published in March.