My Fellow Traveler
The woman who shared my love of travel for nearly half a century has left on a journey of her own.
Part of the world knew her as Alice, Katie, Auntie Kay. To me, she was Kay, my wife of 42 years, and the person with whom I would see the world that I write about on IBIT.
Alice Kay Gross died last weekend in a San Diego hospital following a brief illness. She would have been 69 on June 1. She would have been a retired educator from the San Diego Unified School District a month later.
Kay shared my passion for travel and we would spend most of our lives seeing the world together. There was always somewhere else to go, something else to see, do, experience.
You’ve never read about her on this blog until now because she wanted it that way. Her circle of life was small and she was extremely selective about who she permitted into it. Those whom she allowed inside saw someone both genteel and gentle, who practiced kindness as if it were a religion, and had one of those smiles that could light up an auditorium.
They also saw an accomplished world traveler and a dedicated cruise enthusiast.
We met as university students in Northern California in 1971. The Journalism Department’s office copier had run out of paper and I went next-door to the Sociology Department to borrow some. When I walked through the door, there was this new student secretary behind a typewriter.
That moment sealed my fate for the next 45 years.
Three years later, we married on the front lawn of her grandparents’ house in Berkeley, a short bus ride away from the University of California campus.
We both loved the San Francisco Bay area. We never thought we’d leave it. Four months after the wedding, a job transfer deposited us in San Diego.
“LET’S DO IT!”
Kay had the white-picket-fence dream of most young women of her generation — a house, a car, the whole bit. Unbeknownst to me, though, she wanted something else first.
The surprise came in the form of a brochure she brought home, a travel package just for teachers and their families. Ten days in Asia — Japan, Hong Kong, Bangkok. Air, hotels, flights, tours. Less than $1,000 per person.
“Let’s do it,” she said. We’ll have to save for a while, I said.
“It’s worth it,” she said. “Let’s do it!”
We scrimped and saved for nearly a year, but we did it.
Both our families came down to see us off at LAX in that summer of 1976. Few of our elders had ever left North America, and never would. For us, it was a trip. For them, it was a milestone, an achievement in which they probably took more pride than we did.
It was a different time then. No metal detectors, no TSA. Your loved ones could go with you to the gate. We practically ran down the ramp to board the Japan Air Lines Boeing 747.
Jumbo jets were still pretty new in ’77. Boeing had debuted the 747 only five years before and most of the world had yet to fly on one. Long before we touched down at Tokyo’s Haneda International Airport, we were already in another world.
Ahead lay a fortnight of dazzling sights, incomprehensible sounds, tantalizing aromas. We soaked it all in together, one mind-expanding moment at a time.
Years would go by before we left America again. The house, minus the white picket fence, was next for us.
One day, she popped up with something out of the blue. Carnival Cruise Lines had a three-day cruise to the Bahamas out of Miami for less than the cost of a cross-country flight. It was on one of their new ships, the Ecstasy. She was sleek and white and a trip we could actually afford.
“Let’s do it!” she said. So we did it.
That was the start of a life-long devotion to cruise travel. We would go on to cruise the Caribbean, both coasts of Mexico, Alaska, the Mediterranean. We fantasized about buying a cabin aboard a cruise ship like The World and making it our permanent home.
Like Arthur Frommer, the man I call “the Godfather of Travel,” Kay loved just being on the open sea, losing herself in the split-level eternity of sea and sky, soaking in sunrise and sunset over the rail as if they living paintings of her own creation, delighting in the lights of a new port like a child on her first trip to Disneyland.
As the years took their toll, the cruise became her refuge, her journey to a few days of serenity and peace. But it was not the only traveling we’d do together. Europe became a focus. The 11-hour flights were hard, but the Old World capitals more than made up for them.
She wasn’t big on frills and finery. Most of our meals on our first visit to Paris came from nondescript cafés, Sidewalk crêpe a gas station mini-market next-door to our hotel in the 6th Arrondissement (don’t laugh too hard; their Quiche Lorraine was off the hook).
In London, we stayed in a South Kensington apartment across the street from a 24-hour supermarket and cobbled together meals in our own kitchen. We went everywhere via double-decker bus and the London Underground, the subway that Londoners call “the Tube.” The Gloucester Road stop became our home station.
And like all London subway riders, we learned to “mind the gap!”
Nor was she big on museums or other designated tourist attractions. She liked to walk the neighborhoods, check out the shops, the bookstores, the churches, the parks. She wanted to breathe in the heart and soul of a place.
She had her favorites. London, because it was the first European city we ever saw. Venice, for the romance of the place, its canals and its total absence of cars. Barcelona, because it reminded her so much of her beloved San Francisco. And Paris, because…well,because it was Paris.
Kay was my back-up on the road. The things I missed, she noticed. She found meaning in the things I dismissed. She was the one who made sure that nothing was forgotten, left behind, overlooked.
She wanted me to take a million pictures, but she never wanted to be in any of them. The one exception is the one above, at the Louvre in Paris, with the Mona Lisa.
I hope old Mona wasn’t too jealous.
Of late, she had been very short of breath. Walking even a few steps was difficult. When I took her to the hospital last week, doctors suspected she was losing blood from somewhere, but the first set of tests found nothing. They wanted to keep her over the weekend for more.
Saturday afternoon, we watched Rick Steves’ Europe on KPBS, as we did every Saturday. He was touring the little kingdoms of Europe — Liechtenstein, Andorra, San Marino, Monaco and Vatican City. That we were watching from her hospital bed in the emergency room scarcely seemed to matter. We were preoccupied with our satisfaction at having “bagged” the latter two and debating whether to add any of the former three to our destination list.
The next morning, I get a call from her doctor. “There has been a terrible development,” he said. “Alice has stopped breathing.”
The hospital was 14 miles from the house. In the 12 minutes it took me to get there, she was gone. No one saw it coming. No one could explain.
I’ll still see as much of this incredible world as I can in the time I have left. I’ll still work and write and advocate for travel, especially for people of color. And it will all still be wonderful. But it won’t be the same.
Kay and I do have one more trip to take together. She wanted so much to see Africa, to touch the Mother Continent, to bond in Ethiopia with the people she considered the original Christians. This year, I promised her, we would go.
Later this year, I will take her ashes to Africa. Kay will touch the motherland.
But even that will not be the end.
Because my fellow traveler is now on a journey of her own.
And knowing her, I’m sure it’s the Best Cruise Ever.
Services for Alice Kay Gross will be conducted at:
5050 Federal Blvd.
San Diego, CA 92102
A public viewing will be held Tuesday, March 8, from 5pm to 8pm. Funeral services will be held at 11am, Wednesday, March 9. Cremation will follow. In lieu of flowers, the family asks donations to the American Cancer Society or the United Negro College Fund.
Greg Gross is the Publisher/Sr. Editor of “I’m Black and I Travel!,” and the owner of the Trips by Greg travel agency, specializing in cultural and heritage travel worldwide.