I love reading travel memoirs. As a student I can’t afford to gallivant, fancy-free about the world experiencing new cultures and gathering exciting and amusing anecdotes. So I like to read the stories of those who do. Some of my favourite books involve travels in France and Italy – for some reason the cultures of those two countries draw me in and make me long to be there.
Jane Christmas’s book, Incontinent on the Continent, is a little bit different from the travel books I am usually drawn to. Rather than being the story of a journey to a foreign land, this is the story of a daughter trying to reconnect with her aging mother and repair the mother-daughter bond the only way she knows how – by taking her mother on a long-awaited journey to Italy.
The book describes the cities and towns they travel through, but it focuses on how the country becomes a vehicle through which the pair can see one another in a way they never have. They begin to learn about one another’s interests, memories, views on life and dreams. Jane begins to see how her mother has changed over the years and how her medical conditions have transformed her from an energetic, active, capable woman into someone who is fragile and delicate. This is a transformation we all experience as first our grandparents and then our parents get older, and one that we all try to deny for as long as we can. Sooner or later, however, it simply can’t be ignored. For Jane, the pivotal moment comes when she realizes that her mother seems to be spilling more of her pills on the floor and down the sink than she is managing to take. It’s a moment of realizing that the mother who took care of her as a child is perhaps no longer able to fully care for herself.
Of course, despite the bonding that the two experience and the concern Jane experiences for her mother’s health, taking a mother-daughter team who have never gotten along very well and placing them in new surroundings doesn’t magically remove all the reasons they didn’t get along in the first place. There are plenty of amusing anecdotes about Jane’s mother creating drama at the airport, complaining about pretty much everything and constantly commenting on hairstyles that she thinks would be much better for Jane than the one she’s got.
These disparate elements in the book combine to create a picture of the relationships many of us experience with family members over the course of our lives. You can’t pick your family, but you love them anyway. Navigating relationships with people who you love dearly but at times simply can’t stand can be one of the most emotionally draining experiences of adult life. But in the end we find a way to love them in spite of (and occasionally because of) all the idiosyncrasies and irritating habits. That’s what makes them who they are. It’s also what makes us who we are.
I enjoyed this book. It’s entertaining, amusing, insightful and evocative. Christmas has a knack for describing the physical and emotional scenery of her journey and drawing the reader into her experiences and her relationship and bringing you along on the trip with her. Reading about her own struggles to create a meaningful bond with her mother before it’s too late will make readers pause to examine their own familial relationships, and perhaps take the time to reconnect with their own families.