Travel Memoir Gold Winner: Time or the Sahara Wind

By Marcia DeSanctis

Both are relentless, and impossible to stop.

In my favorite photograph from my first visit to Morocco, I appear as if on the floor of a canyon. Behind me is a cinematic backdrop: a towering pomegranate-red clay mountainside speckled with clusters of trees. I’m standing on a wide open restaurant terrace, wearing white Capri pants and a black tank top, sneakers with no socks. The wind blows my hair into chaos but one hand pushes the bangs off my face. In the corner, over my shoulder, there is a sliver of Matisse-blue sky. I am 24 years old.

I recall arriving at this place, wherever it was, to the staggering sight of the mountains opening up beyond the valley and then, my mother’s voice. “I’m just out of words,” she says as her narrow foot swings lightly out of the car into the sunshine. “Isn’t it something?”

My mother documented that trip to Morocco as she did everything in her life. Perfectly. Painstakingly. With the observant eye of a woman who was born an artist, but in a time and place where it would never have occurred to her actually to declare herself one. Me stroking a carpet or chatting with a merchant at the souk, my sandaled foot in the stirrup of each camel I rode (there were, I’m afraid, more than one), the cluster of mimosa branches that riffled beyond the hotel window—it was all preserved on film. Back at home, my mother’s deft hands slipped the photographs into albums, which were left untouched for decades like monuments whose purposes are overlooked or forgotten, and certainly taken for granted.

The photos seem to be brushed with a brownish glaze. Maybe it’s the passage of time, but perhaps it was the grit from the chergui, the wind from the Sahara that blows west across the Atlas Mountains and through Marrakech, Meknès, Ouarzazat, carrying fine particles of rust-colored sand. It was ferocious that year, the fall of 1985. The dust hung dense but invisible, and may have left a film on the lens of my mother’s camera, giving the snapshots a tawny cast that dimmed the brights of morning and churned the milkiness of the clouds.

The fine orange coating on my skin made it erupt with tiny hives upon arriving in Marrakech and some memories of the trip now seem as if they were filtered through a pleasant Benadryl haze. Even the novel I was reading poolside at the Hotel Mamounia—The Mists of Avalon—bears remnants of this dry desert wind. The paperback remains on my bookshelf, smudged with fingerprints the color of dried blood on pages stippled from pool water that dripped from my hair and dried in the heat. My mother photographed that, too. Her youngest daughter, asleep in her bikini, stretched out on a chaise under the prickly sun with a book resting on her stomach.

There are no photos of my mother from that trip. This is the fate of many mothers, of course, who are so busy capturing memories for the family archives that their existence is obscured behind the camera. But even if she is invisible, her presence is everywhere in the pages of these two albums, collections of moments she created, assembled and enshrined. In each picture, she is there, reflected in my own eyes that faced both her and her camera. Back then, on the green lenses of her sunglasses, I saw a moving pinprick that was me looking at her. Her arms, legs and face were browned, and her short hair tousled from the stifling wind that rolled across the terrace. She grasped the camera and when the shutter snapped, her engagement ring, and the other one with a row of tiny rubies, flashed white in the sun.

This is the version of my mother that passes through me in dreams. I want not to forget the image of her as she was, vitality intact. Thirty years have passed and today her mind is a vacant chamber, her voice often a profusion of unrelated syllables. Occasionally she can muster up decipherable language, but rarely context for the words that emerge. In Morocco, with her suntan and the skin still tight across her cheekbones, her eyes were almost-sapphire dark. Today, her hair is a tangle of white semi-waves that the staff at her home frequently grooms back into place. That, plus the pale skin on her face render her eyes a vibrant, almost pastel, blue. I have looked at them forever but only really notice them now. Her gaze is direct but tinged with opacity, and I cannot know what it sees. Though she is alive her life is behind her. So I seek her out by studying photographs not of her, but of me. It is in this gathering of images, through the negative space she dominates completely and in every frame, that I understand, miss and grasp most urgently for the woman she once was.

I don’t think my mother was searching for much when she first inhaled the sweet, orange-flower air in Marrakech, but Morocco was where she found herself. It was a midlife bloom, the triumphant gift of the empty nest. My father, a Boston cardiologist, was asked to look after King Hassan II’s heart and occasionally made a house call to Rabat, Casablanca, Marrakech—wherever the monarch was in residence at the time—with my mother always by his side. Of course, they traveled in style on these brief jaunts to North Africa, but that was the least of it. My mother was from humble New England stock, an academic wife and a far cry from a social climber. She was very pretty but plain, barely wore makeup and certainly never colored her gray-streaked hair. In Boston, it was undignified to make pains to turn back the clock. Maybe it was the suntan, or the sudden swoosh of plum lipstick, or the muscular legs (no longer suburban) that descended from her light summer dresses, but in Morocco she blossomed like a teenager into a beauty.

She deserved the extra-big seat on the plane, the little dop kit with Hermès perfume, and once in Morocco, the official car and driver who ferried her to the souks, to other cities and across the streams and valleys of the countryside. In Boston, my father was known and beloved for his dedication to his patients, his medical school students and to medicine—to being a physician and healing—writ large. But his success had a price. He also worked 18-hour days, seven days a week, leaving my mother to raise four daughters essentially alone. I can’t imagine her exhaustion when she packed me, the youngest, off to college. Sometimes I wish I had asked her how she celebrated that first night in an empty house. If she celebrated. Perhaps she wept, now that the second half of her life sprawled before her and there was no grand plan.

Like most women married in 1955 she had given up her own work to be a wife and mother. It’s still not clear to me if it made her happy or if she ever stopped to consider what she was sacrificing, and if resentment simmered beneath her unadorned exterior. I don’t know what my mother questioned, if she ever questioned anything. I never asked her that either. I knew she loved us and that was all.

After her first trip to Morocco, it was clear that the country filled the great gaps that had opened in her life. She lunched with new friends. She devoured tagines swimming with candied lemon peel and tart black olives. She gazed up at the ramrod-straight palm trees crowned with sprays of leaves that burst like feather dusters. She reclined by the pool in the hard sunlight, savored the warm breeze that blew across her face at nightfall, and loved to divert for a spontaneous meal of fresh fish and chilled wine on the beach in Essouaria. She trod her sandals over the rich green tiles and past the bougainvillea that grew in dense thickets along ramparts. She marveled at the oversized crowns of roses, two feet high and two feet wide, that His Majesty left in my parents’ hotel room on each visit. She was dazzled by the mottled ochre walls and the lyrical disarray in the souks.

She was delighted that she, that daughter of a quarryman, could visit the palace (or palaces…there was one in every city) of the king she was invited by, but her real exhilaration came from how effortlessly she could transpose herself onto this strange and beautiful place, and freely seek adventure there. Sometimes, she stayed on after my father’s medical work was done, even for a few days—still attended to by minders from her royal hosts of course, but unscheduled and on her own. My mother was entirely and happily liberated for the first time in her life and hungry to explore the country where she felt embraced and at ease. She was always my father’s spouse there, but more than just a doctor’s wife. Morocco dictated the flowing words of her second chapter.

And she wanted to share this new passion with me. As the youngest of the girls, though not the favorite by any stretch, I was often the lucky beneficiary of my parent’s generosity. I was the last one at home, suddenly an only child, so during those two years after my next-oldest sister left, I cleaned up on travel. My parents took me along when they could: to London, to Greece, the Soviet Union and elsewhere. Maybe also they felt guilty about all the hand-me-down clothes I had to wear, the incessant teasing, or the cropped haircut my mother, grown weary of three older girls in braids, inflicted on me. They certainly made it up to me. That year, in 1985, while I stewed over changes both professional and in love, I was invited to Morocco.

My mother and I explored while my father met with the medical team, but more often the three of us were together, in Marrakech or on the road. We drove to the Atlas Mountains, to Meknès and the great Roman ruins of Volubilis. In the photographs, often there are others alongside me and my father, strangers who were in my life too briefly to remember their names: Moroccan physicians, their wives perhaps, the driver who always joined us for lunch. But in almost every image in the album, I appear.

Here I stand behind my own bouquet of roses—hundreds of red, yellow, pink and white blooms bursting over a vase—on the terrace of my room. I am wrapped in a robe and my eyes are puffy. I had been crying and though we hadn’t discussed it, my mother knew—how could she not? I had received a pleading telegram at the Mamounia from the man I had left for another and my face bore the stain of anguish.

In another, I am standing in front of a massive carved doorway.

“Isn’t it beautiful?” she asks as she takes a picture of me. She is impossibly slim, in tan trousers and a light blue blouse. She snaps on the lens cap and stuffs the camera into her canvas tote. She hoists a bottle of water and takes a gulp.

“Are you thirsty, honey?” she asks. “Do you need sunscreen?”

Sometimes she photographed me doing business with the basket-makers in the souk, or buying a round of bread to nibble on, or ordering a glass of tea packed with mint leaves at the hotel restaurant. I am beside a donkey and my hand grazes the saddle. I seem intent while loading film into my own camera, or a tad awkward with a troupe of dancing girls in long brocaded caftans swaying behind me. Shoulders bared, I am in a sarong that is wrapped around me like a dress, seated on a mosaic fountain. In the pool behind me float thousands of roses cut from the stems. I look annoyed.

“Mom, please. All you do is take pictures,” I likely said to her. “Don’t you have enough?”

“You look so pretty, honey,” she would have said and then sat beside me on the tiled ledge, listening to the splash of water into the basin.

There are many shots of my father, the driver and me at a restaurant, sitting around a table with her chair empty after she jumped up to chronicle these moments, too. As I look at the album now, I imagine her seated the second before the snapshot, opening our bottle of Sidi Ali water, mothering me to smithereens, asking if I like the stewed pumpkin or the lamb couscous I’d ordered for lunch. I wish it was she who had turned to face the camera once in a while, but I am comforted with the assurance that when I smiled into the lens, I was really smiling at her.

She loved to take pictures when I wasn’t looking, as I do now with my own children. She was fascinated by this living entity she gave life to, and the sight of me seemed to never bore or tire her. In one shot, I lean over to inhale the scent of a pile of oranges. She snapped me with my eyes closed on a bench in the Majorelle Gardens. She captured me time after time with my face tilted up to catch the sun. I appear entranced, as if in meditation, but I was only grabbing a moment to turn myself a deeper shade of brown.

My mother was always there.

My mother is always there.

I returned to Morocco many times, several with my parents. I went to weddings and New Year’s parties, but they were more rushed affairs, never with the desultory pace of my first trip with them. Occasionally I flew down from Paris, where I was living, with the man I married. My parents returned countless times to Morocco until King Hassan II died in Rabat in 1999. They had seen everything by then and still had never seen enough. My mother shot rolls and rolls of film on her voyages there, but it was only during that first, perfect visit that she documented me with such persistence, as if she suspected I’d reach for these photos as an anchor thirty years later. Those photographs are aging much slower than we are and in them, I feel not just the presence of the woman who loved me. More intensely, I sense a woman I knew, someone exactly my age now who was tackling her hard-earned freedom with wonder, openness, and a sense of abandon. She hurled herself upon the big, open landscape of Morocco and found her place in the world.

Twenty-five years passed since she had first landed in Casablanca, and she was well into her seventies when she realized she wouldn’t return. In truth, these cross-ocean voyages were trying, even in first class. Even so, she mourned the end of her travels there with enough grief and nostalgia to make it clear that the sense of loss was for something more than just Morocco and a maybe a decent couscous (something that never quite made its way to Boston).

Then came her decline. It was slow, but inevitable. These days, my mother’s sweet little room at her Alzheimer’s home is decorated with a few things, now relics, from the souks she roamed so freely. Over the years, she amassed a lot of stuff, most of all carpets that seemed to be delivered to my parents home with stunning frequency, as if my mother could not resist another tactile remembrance of the place she loved and belonged. There is a small woven basket, a little silver tea pitcher with a long spout. On the wall is a framed menu from one of the king’s New Year’s parties, engraved with gold and royal blue script, all in French. When I visit her there, I like to chat about her travels to Casablanca, Marrakech, or Fez, as if mention of them might dislodge a secret door to a clear, bright place.

“How many times did you go, about 100?” I ask.

“That first trip with you and Dad was one of the best times of my life. Remember how happy you were to show me the Jemaa el Fna?” I ask.

“There must have been a million roses in those bouquets at the Mamounia,” I say.

“I hated the bones in pigeon pie,” I say. “Didn’t you?”

Last time I went to see her, I brought a photograph. It’s impossible to know what an Alzheimer’s patient is seeing, and least of all remembering. “My favorite picture of me ever is from Morocco,” I say. “You took it.”

I open my purse and remove an envelope, which contains the shot of me on that great open terrace, under brilliant slice of sky with the clay slopes behind me. Like all the others from that year, the picture is tinged a slight rusty brown.

She looks at it. “Yes,” she says.

“You can’t see yourself, but you are there,” I say.

She nods.

“You took this picture. You were wearing a gray flare skirt, a navy short-sleeved blouse and little blue flats that day.”

She stares.

“In this picture, I am looking at you. You are younger and you are beautiful. You are my age, the age I am now. And you are looking at me,” I say.

She stares.

“I am Marcia, your youngest daughter, and you showed me Morocco.”

She tilts her head.

“Here,” I say. “This is me, and I’m looking right at you.”

She turns her face to me. Her hair is unruly, and though she is usually tidy, there are drops of soup on her sweater. She grasps my hand. Her skin is smooth and her touch is feathery, like the drape of a filmy scarf.

“Except I have no idea where this is. Near Marrakech? I just don’t remember,” I laugh.

She fixates on the photo again.

“Do you know where this is?” I ask. “You know Morocco better than anyone.”

She turns her face up to me and a smile unfolds like a handkerchief across her face. The gray creases brighten, her mouth unfreezes, her whole aspect alters in a millisecond from moribund to dewy and bright. Her eyes a shattering blue.

“Yes!” she shouts, startling me. She shakes her head vigorously as if to say, “Of course I do!” My mother takes the photograph from my hand, sets it on the table beside her and closes her eyes. Her lips are still turned upward in a smile, but within seconds her face is glazed with tears. I reach over her and take the photograph, slip it back into the envelope.

She grasps my hand again and squeezes gently. Her fingers graze mine with a light sound, soft as the rustle of mimosa blossoms, yellow as the morning, on a warm night in Marrakech.


Marcia DeSanctis is a former television news producer who has worked for Barbara Walters, ABC, CBS, and NBC News. She is the author of 100 Places in France Every Woman Should Go and is an award-winning essayist whose work has appeared in numerous publications including Vogue, Marie Claire, Town & Country, O the Oprah Magazine, More, Tin House, and The New York Times. Her travel essays have been widely anthologized and she is the recipient of three Lowell Thomas Awards for excellence in travel journalism, as well as a Solas Award for best travel writing. She holds a degree from Princeton University in Slavic Languages and Literature and a Masters in International Relations from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. She worked for several years in Paris, and today lives in northwest Connecticut with her husband and two children.

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