Our home became a refuge for strays. My mother opened the door to Navajo orphans, a Cuban family, and, during the Vietnam War, student activists who were "raising the consciousness" of the suburbs. For months hippies came and went from our guest room, as did their Frank Zappa and Jimi Hendrix albums, until my father decided his consciousness had been raised quite enough.

Years later when my grandmother went into a nursing home with Alzheimer's disease, my mother was outraged by the center's neglect of the elderly, many of whom were tied to their beds, their pleas for attention ignored. Distressed to see my grandmother's free spirit smothered, she made nursing home reform her new passion. She was hired under a federal grant to be the ombudsman for Colorado's elderly, fighting for residents' rights and taking nursing home administrators to task for their shortcomings. Recently, she received the state's Martin Luther King Jr. Humanitarian Award and was inducted into the Colorado Women's Hall of Fame.

I'm grateful that the lust for adventure runs in my family. But even when I'm island-hopping or riding a camel in the Sinai, I know—from my mother and her mother before her—that the riskiest, most important adventures in life aren't the ones that are physically daring and far away, but those that make a difference in the world close to home.

My mother is retired now, after 20 years of public service, though from the number of e-mails she returns, you'd never know it. These days she is mainly content to stay home and play with her grandchildren, but she's also itching for another trip. At 73, with Parkinson's disease, she wants to take a train ride through the Copper Canyon in Mexico.

Fine, I told her. But this time, get a ticket.

Laura Fraser is the author of An Italian Affair (Vintage).

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