When do you gently unknot your child from yourself?
Does it happen when he or she moves out, finds a partner, becomes a parent? Or does it happen when you least expect it, in this case on your fourth distillery visit in as many days in the 95-degree July heat of Martinique, where your shirt sticks to you in the Caribbean humidity, the rhum agricole you’re chasing and tasting around this French West Indies island vaporizes fragrantly out of your pores, the roads are twisty and winding, the roundabouts devilish, the GPS hapless, and the rugged jungle so beautiful you care little that you’re not sure where you are?
We — mother and son — emerge from the tangle like Livingstone and Stanley into an emerald valley dotted with crimson buildings, the silvery echo of water tumbling over rocks in the distance. The Rhum J.M distillery is our day’s destination. I park the car and watch my 22-year-old son, Adrian, unfold his man-size frame out of the tiny vehicle and stretch. “There’s the river,” he says, eyeing a glisten not far from the dirt parking lot. “Let’s check it out before we go in.”
I’m craving the air-conditioned promise of the J.M tasting room, but I do what my son tells me — not my normal parenting style — because he’s the mastermind of this trip and it’s his to orchestrate. It’s my job to step back and follow his lead.
A spur-of-the-moment proposal
This all began with an earnest, albeit impulsive, curveball from me. Offered a job as the travel editor of Coastal Living magazine, I’d moved nearly a thousand miles away from my out-of-college kids. As I ascended into a dizzying schedule of destinations, I was traveling more than I ever had — but solo. It had been a disconcerting switch. We had been a traveling family, and after their father and I divorced, I maintained a road-tripping, getaway-dotted rhythm with my son and his older sister. With Adrian, whom I felt deserved a double dose of adventure after he’d been deprived of daily life with his dad, I’d concocted journeys out of my vision of Boy’s Life: an exotic car festival in Florida, fishing the St. Lawrence River, driving the length of California with two of his skateboards in the back seat of a red convertible Mustang. With those quirky journeys quietly grew a companionable new relationship between us that transcended the built-in mother-son bond. While I’d always been happy, I felt, to let Adrian grow up and grow independent of me, I found myself missing one of my favorite travel companions.
On a quiet spring Saturday in my new home, I mulled this a bit over coffee and thought it was time to propose a trip for the two of us. My travel-control instincts kicked in: What would he love? What would tickle his fancy? I began sorting out the things I knew about my child, like going over a résumé — since toddlerhood, his sturdy grace and love of playing any game; from high school, his strong Spanish; from college, his pursuit of physics, architecture and art. What was a Man’s Life adventure for my kid, I wondered?
But then it hit me, and here actually is where I felt the deeper knot between us first loosen. Instead of me imagining a journey for him, what if I asked him to imagine a journey for us? What if I handed him the keys to the car in a much deeper way? What if I let my son show me who he was and what he could propose for me? I grabbed my phone. If we could go anywhere on a trip, I texted Adrian, where would we go?
Two words, he typed back quickly: Rhum agricole.
I needed little explanation. This was the rare style of rum made directly from the juice of sugarcane — not molasses, the common and widespread formulation — that he’d discovered his final semester of college on a spring-break trip to Martinique with friends. A kid on a tight budget, he’d bought a pricey bottle of it for me then, which he’d kept tucked away until he placed it in my hands on his college graduation day. He didn’t say, “Thank you for everything you’ve done for me, Mom,” a greeting card message far too obvious for a boy with the biggest, kindest heart. He said something far better: “You would love it there.”
Yes! I texted back.
And that’s how Adrian took over our lives, at least this time, as travelers.
His plan — a five-day circumnavigation of the island with a daily distillery as our goal (why didn’t I ever think of that?) — became a framework for discovery. Tiny Martinique has 14 distilleries. Which would make our list, and why? He pressed for Habitation Clément, not because its rums are perhaps the island’s best known but because of its brilliant sculpture garden and on-site art museum. Distillerie Neisson because it was among the smallest and still family-owned. Distillerie Depaz because an ornate French chateau anchored it. Distillerie Saint-James because its tasting room looked excellent. And the remote, jungle-surrounded J.M at Martinique’s remote northern tip because its water poured from the flank of the island’s dormant volcano. Pins went in the map, and from there a journey sprang.
We were pilgrims, and the trip grew from that simplified pursuit: a new bed every night, a new round of coffee and croissants in the morning, a new bout of route-finding, and then a long and thoughtful time amid barrels and distilling equipment, sipping and talking. What did we like? What was delicious? What should we each buy? More bottles went into the trunk of our rented Renault, and then another journey to find our next hotel, a walk to the beach, a swim, a dinner, more rum.
Every day was novel, with the landscapes rolling slowly past — the bright yellows of banana fields, the black sands of volcanic beaches, the cheery pink of a plantation house belying its legacy of enslavement. Martinique showed itself to us, but we tasted it as well, the essences of each field of grassy cane, as pronounced in its rum as the terroir woven into a sauvignon blanc.
On our first day, Adrian bought a box of white rhum agricole — the unaged version of the spirit that locals use in the island’s famed Ti’ Punch — plus a bottle of simple syrup, a half dozen limes and a bois lélé, a spidery wooden swizzle stick that, when rubbed between the palms, blends and lightly aerates a cocktail. Every night, he’d set up a bar on whatever small table we had in our room, mix up a pair of Ti’ Punches, then deal us a hand of gin rummy. Cocktails and a childhood game. It was adult, nostalgic, easy and an ideal way to wind down from the day. Why didn’t I think of this?
Seeing things differently
As the days on Martinique spool out with Adrian calling the shots, I realize how this way of being in the world is very much a part of who my son has become. That he learns and considers by being and doing. That for him, the action holds the key. And by putting him in charge of our trip, I’ve begun a new journey of looking at things more like he does. And this signals that it’s time for me to admire and see him as, finally, movingly, no longer mine. Of me, yes. But not mine.
Loosening that knot can be hard on a mother, but it’s a beautiful liberation. In that dusty, humid moment in the Rhum J.M parking lot, “Let’s check it out” is his gentle hand on my back, not the other way around. And so, on that fourth day of a pilgrim’s journey, at our fourth distillery in as many days, I follow my son from the hot sun to the river’s shade. We slide out of our sandals and pick our way out to a shallow spot in icy water pouring from a volcano. Adrian is right. The air conditioning, the marvelous rums, the conversation can all wait. As we stand in the cool embrace of a West Indies jungle, quiet, just us, here is the moment that matters.
Besides being travel editor of Coastal Living magazine, Tracey Minkin is a freelance contributor to Travel + Leisure, Food & Wine, Veranda and other print and online publications.
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