a photo illustration of a London Tube map from 1977
Madison Johnson/CityLab

As a newly arrived immigrant from India, my mother used this London subway transit map to understand an unfamiliar city. Today, I use it to understand her.

The summer after my mother died, I went through her closet. I was 16 years old, and alongside my father and brother, I had to help clear out her things and decide what to keep. Mourning and being a teenager is an odd combination; so isolating, but also, strangely freeing. I felt as though all the rules had been broken.

In the swirling newness of my grief, I still found myself fascinated by my mum’s version of womanhood. I tried on her red lipstick and her brightly colored court shoes from the 1980s, reveling in their adult-like feeling. I loved her saris, but I feared them too; I hadn’t grown up wearing the yards of delicate material, as she had.

But most of all, I loved the long-forgotten items from before my birth, when my mother was still new to our city. In a cream leather shoulder bag, I found a soft, worn pamphlet containing a London Tube map from 1977. It was familiar to me, but also strangely different, like a house with a person missing. Compared to a modern map, the layout was pleasingly uncluttered; the saturated colors jump out, and the capital letters naming all the subway stations feel like shouting in a digital age. It had a rough-hewn, artisanal quality that almost made it look handmade.

In truth, the map was as mass-produced as any other. But it was immediately precious to me, for it was a remnant of a defining moment in my mother’s life. In 1975, she had just left behind her native city of Kolkata, India, and was getting to know the contours of London.

My parents often laughed about how the first places on my mother’s mental list to visit were tourist traps: Buckingham Palace (Hyde Park Corner station, on the Tube map), Big Ben (Westminster Station), and the Tower of London (get off at Tower Hill). She acted as though she only had days to spend in London, and she wanted to see all the places she had once only imagined. When homesickness struck, my parents headed to Chinatown (Leicester Square), which just about made up for the two Chinatowns they’d left behind in Kolkata. Or they’d dine at the Indian restaurants of Drummond Street (Euston Square). It took my dad a while to convince her to try a burger from McDonald’s (many locations across London).

I took things like Happy Meals for granted. I spent my sheltered early childhood in Hornchurch, a residential suburb on London’s northeastern edge. But whenever my mum took me into the city—sometimes taking me along to the beloved job she’d eventually secure as a college lecturer in the Docklands—I collected Tube and bus maps, filling my small pockets and fantasizing about my grown-up life, when I’d be able to jump on transit whenever I needed to, rather than wait for a lift from my parents. The Transport for London leaflets from the 1990s were glossy like women’s magazines, and in those last few years before mass internet access, I pinned my dreams of the future onto that expensive-feeling paper that somehow spoke of adulthood.

A 1977 map of the London Underground. Copyright Transport for London, from the London Transport Museum collection.

What about for my mother? If she had stayed at home in Kolkata, my mum could have carried on collecting degrees in literature while living under her parents’ roof. For her, getting married was the only truly acceptable route into adulthood. London gave her a measure of liberty. But it also came with a generous helping of loss. Bringing up children in a city 5,000 miles away from her own family was a lonely challenge.

On some mother-daughter trip into the city, she once made me promise that, if I was ever using the stairs at a Tube stop in the future, I would help any mother I saw struggling alone with a stroller and child. She learned that lesson because she’d had to. When I was a teenager, she confessed to me that the loneliness of early motherhood had surprised her, and made her question the decision she’d made to move so far away. As I moved my eyes over the map, I recalled that confession. In that moment, my 16-year-old self grasped just how brave she had been in choosing to leave the nest and taste freedom for herself.

When I grew up, I moved south of the river to live in Greenwich. Sure enough, I now get around by train, and for my last job I commuted by the Docklands Light Railway, the same line that my mom used to ride to work. The track dips underground to cross the River Thames, and the change in landscape from one side to the other is stark. Greenwich looks Victorian; on the Canary Wharf side, suddenly it’s the future, and everything’s glass, chrome, or under construction.

On some of these rides into the office, I would think of the childhood journeys I shared with my mother, and wonder what she’d make of my life now. My mum’s little paper Tube map is older than me, but it still speaks of her daredevil willingness to get that stroller down the stairs and enter the unknown. She was like the “dove that ventured outside,” as she’d say to me when I was a girl, quoting Rainer Maria Rilke’s poem. Now that I’m an adult, those years somehow feel more within reach, too. Unlike her, I’m one of the doves that remained at home, but that hasn’t shielded me from loss. It turns out, nothing can.

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