I’m often asked if I always wanted to be a writer, and I always answer with a definitive no. I have a degree in biochemistry and an M.B.A. I spent 10 years at IBM and another two at Rogers Media.
Usually, I’m pressed further. What was it, then, that turned you into the sort of person who’d trade the trappings of the corporate world for the uncertainty of the writing life?
“My mom,” I answer, without hesitation. And then I hope I’ve instilled a smidgen of her moxie — she’s 81 and, at this very moment, traipsing around Cambodia — in my own sons.
When I was 10 and she was 42, my dad came home from the school where he taught and said one of the other teachers was taking his family to Mexico. Did we want to go? I don’t remember the conversation that followed, but I know the gist of what my mother would have said: “That sounds wonderful. Yes. Let’s do it. Why not?”
Why not? Let me tell you why not. The proposed excursion was a two-month camping trip, and my parents had never been camping in their lives. The distance between our home in Niagara Falls, Ont., and the border of Mexico was 3,000 kilometres, and we would drive. The only car they owned was a VW bug. There were five kids, and the youngest was just two, still in diapers, and disposable diapers did not yet exist in Mexico. It was 1973, and the country was nowhere close to being set up for tourism.
But we went, all seven of us, in our newly purchased VW camper van. We climbed Chichen Itza, Tulum and the Pyramid of the Sun, rode on the backs of giant sea turtles, swam in underground caves, and toured a rope factory. We saw Aztec sundials, giant Mayan stone heads, babies toted in serapes, naked kids, glittering churches and houses made of sticks and clay, some with pigs and chickens waddling through the doors.
Mexico was just the tip of the iceberg. I could lay out a litany of adventures orchestrated by my mom, plenty in far-flung places, others in our backyard — being hauled from bed, for instance, to marvel as our cat gave birth.
I’m convinced being raised by a mother with a commitment to wringing every bit of adventure from life is why I was able to walk away from a healthy paycheque and a secure job to take a serious stab at writing.
So I turn a blind eye when my boys, now-teenaged, clandestinely camp on Toronto Island or climb trees to tremendous heights. Our holidays have included encountering a python in the Malaysian wilderness and picking throngs of leeches from our legs in the Canadian North. My sons hear tales of their grandmother crashing a wedding in India and driving all the way to Florida with an octogenarian friend. They know their mother used to do something very different from what she does today. I like to think it’s a heritage that will help them walk boldly through their lives, minds open to the adventure on the other side of the hill.
Cathy Marie Buchanan’s 2013 book, The Painted Girls, is a national bestseller.