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The courtyard of Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Photo by Sean Pavone/Shutterstock.com

In Mom's Footsteps

With a handwritten journal as her guide, Alison Brooks-Starks retraced her late mother’s coming-of-age journey to the Holy Land

By Alison Brooks-Starks

On a chilly afternoon in 2008, I was snuggling on the couch with my mom. I was 21. She was 54 and had stage-four colon cancer. That day, we were feeling grief’s presence. Living alongside cancer for years, Mom showed me how to honour my feelings and gave me permission to be angry or sad or devastated.

That day, I told Mom about one way I planned on keeping her alive in my life: “I want to do your trip.” Her blue eyes filled with tears. When she spoke, it was my turn to cry. She looked clearly into my eyes and said, “I will be with you.” My big laugh cut through our tears when she inexplicably added, “Don’t go to Morocco.”

Mom’s year-long trip abroad in 1978 when she was 25 years old had been a turning point in her life — the adventure she’d always wanted. She kept meticulous notes on the 20-or-so countries she visited, the opening lines of her journal explaining that the book was also “a letter” to her partner, Ralph Starks, who would later become her husband and my father. She returned from her trip with a new vision for her life: she would become a public health nurse. Mom always thought a shift at the travel clinic was a great day at the office. Years later, I went to that same office to get shots before travelling to some of the countries she had visited.

When I was young, Mom didn’t talk about her trip much, but I had heard about the time she was “kind of” kidnapped by “sort of” bad guys, who drove her around the hills of Morocco. The story always ended with them robbing her, but in Mom’s proudest bartering moment, she drove the price down until the thieves stole only half her money.

As I grew older, I asked Mom more questions about her trip. Once, when I was home from university, she handed me her travel journal, which opens with Israel. Of all the places Mom travelled, Israel was her favourite. Maybe she’s there now. My mother, Joyce Brooks, died in 2010.

The evening after her death, our stunned and desperately smaller family — Dad, my sister, me — hauled ourselves out to a restaurant. When the server asked, “Table for three?” I thought we would never be the same again. We never were, but Mom left me with more grieving skills than I would have guessed. Our family remembered her through stories; we honoured her by planting a tree and raising prayer flags. We spent the first summer without her building her a deck. I thought of her when I did something she loved, like swimming. I talked to her, but I heard only what she said in life: “What do you feel? Do what you want.”

Four years passed, and I wrote and bathed and cried away much of the grief that I’d come to know so intimately. I still missed Mom, but who was Joyce, the one who had said, “My primary identity is not one of ‘mother’”? I wanted to find a way to meet Joyce the woman, as adults, and keep her involved in my life. I was 27 years old. It was time to do Mom’s trip.

With only a one-month leave from work, I couldn’t do Mom’s whole trip, so I chose Israel, a country where so many people go to connect with the past. Like other pilgrims, I too would be on a spiritual journey. But rather than travelling with a Bible in hand, I would be carrying a photocopied and annotated coil notebook, a copy of Mom’s journal.

In the months leading up to my November 2014 trip, the Israeli Defense Forces and Hamas waged a ferocious two-month war in Gaza that left more than 2,300 people dead and a further 10,000 injured, the vast majority of them Palestinian civilians. An August ceasefire ended the conflict, and with a friend from university, Jamie Michaels, as my travel partner, we began planning our trip.

I met up with Jamie at his cousin Jill’s apartment in Mevaseret, a suburb of Jerusalem. We were very close to what Mom called in her journal “truly a peaceful city”: the Old City in Jerusalem. It hadn’t been peaceful recently. Both Palestinians and Israelis had been throwing stones, injuring people and
damaging homes and cars. When we announced our plans to wander the Old City’s narrow streets right away, a debate unfolded among Jamie’s relatives. Jill said it was unsafe. Her son-in-law said it was fine to go, but then he phrased it like we must go, that we should be able to go. Suddenly, it sounded like we were doing this to make a statement and the uncertainty returned.

A compromise was struck: we could go to the Old City but would remain within about 100 metres of the entrance. There we’d find a popular tourist show, The Night Spectacular, which projects the history of Judaism onto the Tower of David. We caught a city bus and were soon approaching the high stone walls of the Old City. Entering Jaffa Gate, I paused. For Mom, this had just been another sight to record in her journal, but for me, this was the first moment of walking in her footsteps. Already, I felt her presence.

The streets were quiet and calm, so we decided to peek just a little further into the Old City. The cobblestones clicked beneath our feet as we passed families closing up falafel shops for the evening. We stopped outside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, believed to be the site of Jesus’ crucifixion. 

I imagined Jesus walking in the area 2,000 years ago, and the thought brought me to tears. I also thought of Mom here 36 years ago. All three of us were here in a way, all of us around the same age, our histories layered up in the same space. I have never felt as close to Jesus as I did in Israel. No matter what literally happened, a Jew named Jesus inhabited this Old City and walked these streets.

I also felt joyfully connected to Jesus when I swam in the Sea of Galilee. He and I were in the same little lake. Sharing space had power, and I think Mom felt it too. She wrote of Jerusalem, “One must be affected by all this stuff if one has been touched by Christianity in any small way in one’s life. Think of all the deep believers who have visited this spot! All this religion is hard to imagine or grasp. I can also understand somewhat now why people fight to the death over a stupid piece of land — it is so symbolic and does mean thousands of years of history to them.”

What I found that night in the Old City was my privilege. Our hosts had been nervous, yet  because I had a map in one hand and a guidebook in the other, I could go places that Israelis and Arabs could not. As a tourist, I experienced hospitality like nowhere else I have travelled. I was given directions every day from religious Jews, Messianic Jews and Muslim shopkeepers and artists. I made olive oil with Palestinians and discussed gay rights with an Israeli soldier. Once I was given an entire cake.

Reading Mom’s journal in the evenings, I realized she too shared this privilege: she hitchhiked, took impromptu tours and made friends with people of all cultures. However, she also wrote that she “did get tired of the jabs against the Arabs at every opportunity.”

I also heard racist comments. Every family I stayed with, two Palestinian and two Israeli, said they were affected by racism — personally and in the media — and discussed their efforts to resist the negative stereotyping of others. One new friend told me that the violence in Israel “makes you look at your neighbour differently. You cannot know what is in their heart. I shouldn’t be afraid in my own neighbourhood. It makes me feel so racist.” I was aware of my own racism ebbing and flowing. Depending on who I was staying with, I seemed to have total trust for that entire culture and a mild distrust of others. Since I switched hosts so frequently, the absurdity of this was enlightening.

I had arrived not knowing very much about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the violence and the refugees. I made a goal to remain open and to listen attentively. Surprisingly, outside of the news, hardly anyone mentioned the conflict. Unable to contain my curiosity any longer, I squeaked out my burning question to one of my Palestinian hosts: “Did the recent conflict affect you?” It did, said Aaisha. She expressed sadness at the violence and deaths but also added, “In Canada and the U.S., they think it is war all the time here. It is safe, especially [here] in the north.” It didn’t feel right to press for more detail. I simply nodded and kept listening.

Although I got a thrill from finding the tourist spots where Mom had stood, I knew that to meet Joyce, I needed to be on the fertile lands that she had described in her journal. I wanted to see where “the ground is very wet in the orchards and the leaves and fruit were dripping wet from yesterday’s rain.”

With Jamie in the passenger seat of our rental car, we headed northeast from the Old City to the Jezreel Valley, under the watchful eye of Mount Gilboa. In a glorious moment, Jamie, new to the Hebrew written word, managed to read the sign for Tel Yosef, and we made a hard right onto the grounds of the kibbutz where Mom had lived for two months. Joyce was one of the hundreds of thousands of volunteers over the years who have worked in the kitchens, farms and industries of kibbutzim for room, board and a little pocket money. Experiencing kibbutz life first-hand was a popular adventure for baby boomers, inspired by the utopian ideals of collective community on which kibbutzim were founded. Walking the grounds of Tel Yosef, I felt calm, filled with the same peace Mom described when living here. She had gone for runs, danced and worked the fields. Looking across the lush valley, so far from Mom’s hometown of Wynyard, Sask., I could see how bold 25-year-old Joyce had been in 1978.

Living an authentic life was a theme Mom wrestled with in her journal, and one I was immersed in during my time in Israel too. By reading about what she struggled with and what she loved, I gained a more complete picture of who she was. I wasn’t remembering my 56-year-old mom as much as I was meeting 25-year-old Joyce for the first time. And I really liked her. She spoke her mind. She loved a good party and staying up late. She was a firecracker.

Because Mom enjoyed working the grapefruit fields on the kibbutz most of all, I also wanted to pick fruit. I searched and, to my delight, found opportunities to live on two family-operated organic farms.

For both families, farm life was their passion and their comfort. It was inspiring to live with people who were following their hearts, just as Mom had taught me through words and by her own example. Aaisha, who lives near her small farm, sounded like Mom when she told me, “People don’t think about what they really want, what’s in their heart. . . . If you want to do things differently, you have to do it. People are waiting for change, but you have to do it yourself. It is hard. You are seen as unusual to go against everything, culture. But do it; change and revolution was always by people who were seen as crazy.”

Just like Joyce, I found my favourite job was harvesting from trees. Picking olives in the Negev desert with Zyiad was the most memorable experience of my trip. Zyiad is a 16-year-old Palestinian (his name and some details have been changed). From the moment he climbed out of the van and flung his scarf around his neck, I knew I could share my true self with him. In the cool hours of the morning, we tossed fallen olives into a bucket while Zyiad’s uncle and brother knocked more down onto tarps with a little spinning rake. Later, while separating twigs and leaves from olives, I tried to hide my inner excitement as I told Zyiad about my job: “I work at a camp for LGBTQ teens — lesbian, gay and trans people.” His eyes widened. He asked me all about it and added, “I want to go there.”

Over a lunch of pitas, hummus, olives and clementines, Zyiad came out to me as gay. I told him it was a great honour to be trusted with his secret. This is a part of his identity he usually keeps hidden for fear of how his community would react. He has already endured physical threats from a member of his own family.

Years ago, when I came out to Mom, she wasn’t able to give me what I needed in that conversation — full acceptance. Instead, she reacted with emotion and a negative tone. I left hurt and frustrated and decided I couldn’t talk to her about that part of my life. She came around long before I even realized it, but we didn’t have much time to explore that before she died.

In Israel, it was a joy to give Zyiad the affirmation that every gay teen needs. In a way, I got to be the mom I had needed. And I got to be for Mom the fierce ally that I know she would have become. That day left me with an image I’ll never forget: picking olives, my head among the branches, Zyiad beside me singing traditional songs, and both of us so happy inside.

Working with Zyiad gave me an experience that Mom could not, yet the farm was also where I found her. She loved the citrus fields, and when I picked clementines, it was like I was hearing Mom’s story with my body. I was discovering a way to connect with Mom physically. My body, in the present moment, was able to be with her.

By walking my body where she walked hers, I directly experienced Mom’s adventurous spirit. I felt so connected to her, knowing we shared a love of the open skies and vast deserts — both in our hearts and with our bodies, feet on the sand.

Alison Brooks-Starks is a writer in Edmonton.

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