Reader essay


Creating a rite of passage London trip makes for lifetime of memories By Deborah Niemann-Boehle


photo courtesy of Deborah Niemann-Boehle Deborah Niemann-Boehle (right) and daughter Margaret made memories together on a 10-day trip to England to celebrate Margaret's 13th birthday.

Come on Mom! We have to go down in the dungeon!" I stepped a little closer and peered down the dark, narrow stone stairs that led to the place where Englishmen and foreigners alike met inhumane, painful deaths or suffered unspeakable torture in previous centuries.

"I don't think so, Honey."

"Oh, come on! I have to see the dungeon!"

"Well, according to the map, this is the only exit, so I'll wait here for you." I tried to smile reassuringly. "OK?"

I watched as my almost-13-year-old daughter confidently ran down the stairs into the scary cavern beneath Warwick Castle. Tomorrow she would officially become a teenager as we celebrated her birthday in England.

But this was more than just a celebration of her birthday. It was a rite of passage, created to mark her entrance into the sometimes-turbulent teen years. Having been adopted as an infant, I had no heritage from which to draw such a rite, and there were no religious rites that would mark this important milestone for us.

As I explained my plan, a friend admitted her jealousy of another family who was planning their son's bar mitzvah while she was researching inpatient treatment programs for her 13-year-old son, who was addicted to drugs.

"We were going through hell, and her son was marking that year with this wonderful celebration," she confided. The plans being made by those two families were so completely different. While one family celebrated, the other was struggling to keep their son alive.

Although my relationship with my daughter has always been positive, I wanted something special to mark her entrance into the world as a growing young lady. I wanted more than just a ceremony or a day. Recalling my own eighth-grade graduation, I know that a single day can go badly-and for the rest of your life, that's the only memory you have.

I was so embarrassed of my own mother when I was graduating from eighth grade. I lectured her on how to talk, how to dress, what to do and not do. I'll never forget the look of anguish on her face as she shook her head and whispered, "You don't have to worry Debby, I don't feel good. I'm not going." Although a small part of me felt guilty, I was overjoyed that I wouldn't have to worry about being embarrassed. And then she died before I was old enough, smart enough or humble enough to say "I'm sorry."

I wanted to give my daughter-and myself-a storehouse of memories that would be so strong and enduring that regardless of what harebrained teenage mischief she found, we would always remember that time together. We would know how much we really loved each other and enjoyed each other's company and could count on each other. The trip would buoy our confidence in each other and strengthen our relationship.

From the moment I conceived the idea, I knew we would go to England. It was across the ocean in a foreign land, akin to the voyages found in great literature. As my mind envisioned a debutante floating down a grand staircase in a white gown, the setting was England, land of William Shakespeare, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, Jane Austen and afternoon tea. It is a land of fairy tales, castles, princes and dreams. It is a land to which I have been inexplicably drawn my entire life, although I had only visited once. It is a land in which to create a legacy.

As the plane lifted off from O'Hare International Airport, I took a deep breath and squeezed the hand of daughter, Margaret. She had been named in honor of Margaret Thatcher and Margaret Rothchild, two very strong English women whose courage and no-nonsense attitude I hoped would somehow be imbued within my own daughter.

Over the course of 10 days, we faced problems together and laughed at our mistakes. It was just the two of us in a foreign land with no tour guide to advise us or shuttle us from place to place.

When we rented a car, we worked together to stay on the left side of the road and out of the ditch. Each time the left side of the car would get too close to the curb or sidewalk, Margaret would say "curb," sometimes repeatedly before screaming "curb!" only a moment before we felt a jolt.

"Mom, you're on the sidewalk."

"No, I'm not."

"Yes, you are."

As I stopped behind a line of cars in downtown Stratford-upon-Avon, I looked to the left and saw two people squeezing between our car and the hedge. I was on the sidewalk.

Margaret couldn't contain her laughter at the mistake as I slunk down in my seat and tried to avoid the glare of the people who were not amused at my lack of driving skill in their country.

We found our way through unfamiliar train stations together and deciphered schedules and maps for the Tube and buses. We applauded together at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, explored a castle and got to know people who love, hate and care just like we do.

On our final night in London, Margaret's 13th birthday, we faced the prospect of staying in a dreadful hotel. Together we decided that we'd rather sleep in the airport. After enjoying our days in Bath and Stratford-upon-Avon, it was a shock to walk into our London hotel and find sagging beds, ripped bedspreads and missing tile on the bathroom wall. We walked into the dark street, rolling our suitcases behind us with nowhere to go. It was a Saturday night in London, the worst time to find a hotel room. Miraculously we found one-a good one.

After spending 10 days alone with her in a foreign country, I learned that she is adventurous, yet sensible. I saw a girl who was completely different from the one who argues with her siblings. And I had a pleasant surprise months later when I asked her what she learned.

"Sometimes you really do need your mom-to make you feel at home when you aren't."

Deborah Niemann-Boehle is currently writing a book on newspaper freelancing, as well as another on homeschooling. She and her daughter continue to enjoy traveling together and took a trip to Hot Springs, Ark. They hope to travel to New York City in 2005.



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