Mary Hamilton James was my grandmother and is the inspiration for the name of our boat, Mata Hari. She was a born storyteller with an infectious, joyous laugh. I’m not sure when she started calling herself Mata Hari, but I remember the sparkle in her eyes and the way her voice danced over the syllables of that exotic-sounding name when she told me about the Dutch spy. Years later when Grandma’s letters, scrawled in her inimitable purple shorthand, arrived describing the far-flung places she had visited, they were signed simply “Mata.”
When I was little I had the supreme good luck to live right next door to Grandma and would run over as early as my parents would let me to spend time with her. Calling me “Moni,” she would tell me stories, pausing occasionally to address Mrs. Demmett, the ghost of the original owner of the house who sometimes visited us in the kitchen. Frankly, I found the whole ghost thing pretty scary, but Grandma seemed perfectly at ease with the spirit world.
Born outside Boston, she spoke with a Massachusetts accent, but she was a California girl at heart. Something she discovered when her family relocated to the Golden State when she was 17. It was in college in Long Beach and later at Berkeley that she began to hatch her plans for helping others and seeing the world. Soon after she finished college she met a handsome dark-eyed California boy who was the antithesis of what her father had in mind for her. So of course she married him! They exchanged vows in 1946 on Treasure Island in San Francisco.
My father was born a few years later. And then six more children followed. As you can imagine having seven kids derailed her plans to see the world, but Grandma still managed to have a full-time career as a social worker where she made a big difference in the lives of a lot of children. At Rancho los Amigos, she advocated tirelessly to make it possible for children with disabilities to be placed with families, rather than being institutionalized. This was revolutionary thinking for the time and not everyone was on board with her ideas, but Grandma wasn’t taking no for an answer. Eventually her work lead to some significant changes in the foster care system. But one of the most important things she did for my family was to bring my adopted sister Carley into our lives. Our family would not be complete without my youngest sister, so for that I am forever grateful.
Through it all Grandma never lost sight of her dreams of seeing the world and when the kids were finally all grown, she was ready. She and my grandfather had a blast seeing the world together, from Mexico to Spain and Ireland to Russia, China, the former Yugoslavia and beyond.
When my grandfather passed away, Grandma continued to travel. She’d always dreamed of visiting India, and eventually she made it there. One of my favorite pictures of her is the one below of her riding an elephant in Jaipur. She was 73, and one of a kind. We lost her in 2006, but I have a feeling she’d approve of this crazy adventure we’re on, which is why we named our boat for her.
The Original Mata Hari
For those of you who don’t know about the original Mata Hari, she was a Dutch dancer, courtesan, and spy during World War I. Her real name was Margaretha Geertruida “M’greet” Zelle McLeod, but she took the stage name Mata Hari, Indonesian for “sun” (literally, “Eye of the Day”) when she began performing in Paris. A lot of her story is still cloaked in mystery, but one thing’s for sure—she seemed to lead a pretty adventurous life!