Location: Freeland, Michigan
If you are going to be rerouted on a flight to Los Angeles, leaving several hours later than your original flight, and you get one of the last two seats available, you want the other one (for the middle seat in your crammed row) to go to Maria Callahan. We initially bonded over our good fortune and foresight in getting on the flight in the first place, since we kept getting phone alerts that the one we had abandoned was continuing to get delayed. Maria then offered me some of the plumpest, sweetest red cherries and her generosity and open spirit, coupled with her good nature about getting up to let me use the restroom (“It will give me a chance to stretch my legs!”) cemented our BFF status.
Maria was meeting up with her grandson, who lives in Virgina, in Los Angeles and they were then going to fly together to Australia. The trip is part of a tradition she started a few years ago, when her oldest grandchild was in her final year of high school. Maria wrote an email to her five children (Todd, 49, Stacy, 44, Kelly, 42 and Tara and Tyler, 37) telling them that she wanted to give each of her grandchildren a special high school graduation gift. “I told them I would love to take each grandchild on a trip of their choice.” Maria’s seven grandchildren range in age from two to twenty one years old, so she also added a caveat that she would make sure that there would be money set aside for the youngest ones if she was is not able to make it on their trips to, as she put it, “keep it fair.”
Maria has always loved to travel. And part of the enjoyment of travel for her is sharing the experiences with her loved ones. When the kids were little, it was financially challenging to indulge in her wanderlust. Both she and her husband were teachers and taking five kids anywhere, let alone on public educator salaries, was a stretch. But they did what they could. They purchased a timeshare and would trade it in each year for whatever location and timeframe fit their family’s needs. “We would scrimp and save and give up other things,” Maria says, “so that we could travel with the kids.” Maria loved showing her children a world beyond their small, rural town in Michigan. “I wanted them to see that there was more out there and to learn about the world that we live in and that we are all connected.” She didn’t even mind that they sometimes encountered undesirable sights and people on their travels because she wanted her children to know that, as she says, “there is no perfect place.”
Each of her grown children received a week’s time share as their wedding gift so that they could continue the tradition of traveling and experiencing new places each year. But Maria decided to take it a step further with her grandkids. “Now that the kids are grown,” she says, “I have a little more money to play with. I love exploring and I thought it would be fun to do it with each of my grandkids and it would be a unique way of bonding with each of them.”
The only parameters for the trips is that the grandchildren have to pick places that were safe. Hope, now 21, was the first grandchild to get to take Grandma up on her generous offer. She opted for Paris as her trip of choice. Maria got to see Hope put her six years of French study to good use and she was also impressed with her granddaughter’s savviness about French customs and landmarks. And when Hope got flustered that a day’s itinerary did not go according to plan, Maria got to teach her granddaughter about the importance of letting go and that everything can still be great even if it is not perfect. The trip was the bonding experience Maria had hoped it would be, and now Hope is majoring in International Marketing at college.
Grant, who just graduated from high school in Virginia, is the lucky recipient of this year’s trip. He chose Australia, but was happy to let Maria plan the itinerary. They have two weeks chock full of hikes, safaris, the Great Barrier Reef, and the Sydney Harbor. They are also traveling a long way to showcase that, says Maria, “there is goodness in other people and other places too.”
Maria thinks the trips are a much better use of her money than giving her grandchildren something material as a graduation gift. She would much rather given them an experience. “The older I get,” Maria says, “the memories I treasure are the experiences, not the things.”
She is planning to go on as many trips as she can, saying she will “keep it up until I can’t walk anymore.” But, she adds, “I may have to write a check for the three year old!”
She has joked with her children that there may not be a lot of inheritance left over once she is done with all of these trips. “I told them there may not be a big pot of gold at the end,” she says. “I am using it to create memories.”
I am sure no one is complaining. Reflecting on my dad’s death, that is still so raw and painful, I find myself consumed with gratitude for all of the travels and experiences we had together and the opportunities he had to get to know my own kids. Bravo to Maria for creating the memories that will be something her grandchildren will always cherish, and for opening up the world to them at a time when we need folks to realize that we are all citizens of the world. As Maria puts it, “It is so important for them to see how other people live and to realize that we are all one.”