I am an experienced traveler. Patience is not my strong suit, but I know how to wait. I once killed six hours on the Russian – Mongolian boarder reading Tolstoy and trying not to worry about whether the guards would want a bribe.
Since she was little, my daughter has been a good traveler too. Gone are the days when she can sit on my lap tearing up in-flight magazines and riding for free, but we still enjoy traveling when we can.
So I was thrilled when, several few months ago, we planned a family trip to Quebec City. It would be her first time in another country and despite a nail-biting wait for her passport, it finally came just a few days before our departure. Still, this was not going to be an ordinary trip. For one thing, it turned out my husband wasn’t going to be able to join us. Sad, but not insurmountable. I’ve flown alone with the munchkin before, to a business meeting in San Francisco and to see her godmother in Florida.
I didn’t have much time to pack, and admit I did panic a little bit when Air Canada announced (two days before our departure) that their baggage handlers and some other staff was on strike. OK then. Seriously?!
This meant strategic packing; carry on only, which I was not prepared for. Turns out it was a good choice regardless, because when I (finally) was able to pull up our e-ticket reservation I remembered I had booked a package where we had to change planes. We would have had to check our bags, retrieve them and then go through screening twice, which just seems like torture. It was bad enough with carry on.
Did I mention we were flying out the day after my kid’s Kindergarten graduation? Who planned this crazy jaunt, I wondered, staring at the itinerary late one night. Oh, right — that would be me. So I printed boarding passes, had our passports (we even made an adorable mini passport — complete with a photo — for her baby doll Tiny who was coming along for the ride), had the address of the hotel, had a slim travel guide book with some French phrases and hopefully enough snacks and games, etc., to see us through what lay ahead. I felt really together, sort of, since I’d already changed money a few days before. Canada here we come.
I also brought along the kid’s birth certificate — something I got in the habit of doing when she was born. No one has ever asked for it, but I always travel with it. For good measure, I packed the credit card statement that showed my husband had paid for the tickets and hotel reservations, even though he wouldn’t be with us.
Off we went — both of us with our backpacks and rolling suitcases and Tiny tucked under my daughter’s arm. Everything was fine, until we got off the plane and approached customs in Montreal. The customs agent looked askance at me. Why was I going on vacation without my husband? Did I have permission to travel with my daughter outside of the country? I explained the situation but wasn’t that worried. After all, maybe we could call my better half and clear it up. Besides, I had all this identification. (Also I wondered if we were going to make the connecting flight, since we were cutting it a bit close.) In the end, my daughter’s happy prancing around the customs desk seemed to convince agent A that everything was OK even though I didn’t have a letter from my husband giving me permission to take her to Canada. (I mean, come on — it’s Canada — it’s not like I had two tickets to the Middle East.
“My daddy’s in Philadelphia!” my daughter sang out, handing over her baby’s Passport and looking at him with her big blue eyes, hoping he would stamp the doll’s passport. Well there I thought – I am obviously not kidnapping my girl to take her North (although I totally get why they need to be cautious about these things.) Still, he was miffed I didn’t have a letter from my husband. The doll got her passport stamped. Eventually, so did we.
Off we went, for several glorious days in Quebec. (Don’t miss the basement area for kids at the Museum of Civilization if you ever visit with family in tow.) And then there was the trip home. Agent B was an older U.S. official with a super thick Southern accent. He was not ready to play ball. Where was the child’s father? Why didn’t I have a letter? Why didn’t I know I should have had a letter? He held our passports in his thick hands.
“You don’t even have the same last names,” he said, looking up at me. “How do I even know this is your child?” I felt the blood start to drain out of my face. My knees felt weak. My daughter was skipping around, anxious for her next snack and wanted me to watch Tiny do back flips. The agent leaned over and peered down at her. “Is this your mama?” he said. She didn’t hear him. She wasn’t paying attention. His accent was so thick the words drawled together and she turned to him, saying “huh?”
It didn’t help matters that I have very dark hair and dark eyes. I am a petite, part Moldavian-Jewish, German-Jewish French hybrid. I wear glasses. I married a guy who’s less complicated — he’s 100 percent Irish. My girl is a bit tall for her age, skinny, very blonde. Did I mention her big blue eyes?
When we married, I didn’t take my husband’s name. I already have a hyphenated last name (my full legal name). And a middle name. I didn’t need another one. I stood there though, in the airport, feeling like an idiot. I should have taken his name! Oh my god. What if they separate me from my kid?!
Deep breath. I remember that my daughter has one of my names as her middle name. Won’t that help prove the connection?
“Is this your mom?” the agent said, for the second time. I held my breath. I didn’t want to say anything to her, for fear he would think I was interfering or coaching her. “What?” she said, straining to see him over the high desk/cube he sat behind. OMG, I thought. holding onto the counter’s edge. Please focus dear little kid. Focus. “Is THIS YOUR MOTHER?” he said.
“Yeah,” she said, looking at him like he was an idiot. “Her name is Theta.” Whew.
But it still wasn’t enough. “I have her birth certificate,” I said, pulling it out. That made him soften a bit. “Thank you for bringing this,” he said. “This helps a lot.” I tried to keep my face still has he studied the documents for a REALLY long time.
Finally, we were stamped, re-entered onto U.S. soil. I wasn’t thrilled to be back, knowing all the work emails and house work and schlepping to summer camp that awaited me. But I was really happy to be HOME.
This is an original post for Jersey Moms Blog by Theta Pavis, a New Jersey mom.