Friday, May 11, 2012

A Granddaughter Remembers

It's the same thing every year. I don't even need a calendar to remind me. Something inside of me just seems to sense it. I can feel Mother's Day approaching. My mother died 17 years ago and for nearly a decade every Mother's Day inevitably left me in tears. Then, in 2005 I became a mother to another motherless daughter when my husband and I adopted Madeline from China. Since then the holiday has been a mixture of joy and wistfulness for me. I love that I can celebrate the special bond I have with my daughter and cherish her handmade gifts and heartfelt proclamations of love. Today, she brought home a fill-in-the-blanks book that she made in her first grade class. On one page she had to complete this sentence: My mom loves ______. She wrote 'me.' I'm thrilled to see she is secure in knowing that she occupies a place in my heart -- and my life -- that no one else could ever fill.

I have grown used to the recurring tape that plays in my head whenever something special or important happens with my daughter. "I wish my mother was here to see this," I tell myself over and over again. I have come to accept this voice will never go silent. As Madeline grows up and becomes more of her own person, I now find myself remembering the kinds of things I did with my mother when I was my daughter's age and a deep yearning to share these experiences with my mother has taken root. I know now that there will always be milestones where the joy is just a bit less than it could have been had my mother been there to share it with us.

But miraculously I no longer dissolve in tears at the thought of my mother's absence although sometimes a mixture of hormones, lack of sleep and utter frustration of having no family member nearby to help out -- ever -- can tip the scales in the other direction. As if by radar, I always used to be able to spot the mothers and grown daughters out enjoying an afternoon of shopping or sharing a conspiratorial laugh over lunch whenever I was out. Since becoming a mother, my focus has shifted and I most often find myself smiling at a mother like me with a young child when I'm at the mall or on the train. I love sharing in the sisterhood of motherhood. I've become more of a mother than a daughter and that has saved me from so much heartbreak.

But today, as Mother's Day approaches, I felt the tiny cracks skitter once again across my heart. I found myself sitting a few seats down from a mother and daughter at the restaurant at Bergdorf Goodman. I was alone having decided to treat myself to a celebratory bite after one of my most productive work weeks in years that yielded two new clients. At first I noticed how perfectly groomed the two blondes were in the Michael Kors cashmere and tasteful gold jewelry. Then I saw that one was the younger version of the other. There were a lot of smiles between them and their body language conveyed a naturalness and comfort level that was unmistakably familial. Although I hadn't overheard a word of their conversation, I suddenly felt like an intruder and I had to look away.

But this time my thoughts did not turn to my mother. As I turned my attention to the stunning views of Fifth Avenue and Central Park visible from the restaurant's windows I suddenly remembered my yearly visits to the store with my Nana who worked next door at the Plaza Hotel. For one week every summer once I turned 10, I took the train in from Long Island to stay with Nana who lived in Riverdale. Every morning, we'd sit at the small kitchen table in her apartment and plan our day that usually involved shopping expeditions on Fordham Road and or a visit to the Automat. The grand finale of every visit was a trip to Bergdorf Goodman where I was allowed to pick out something "reasonable" in the junior department for my birthday which usually fell on Labor Day weekend. I still have my favorite present -- an azure blue Shetland wool sweater from Crazy Horse that I wore all through high school until it resembled tissue paper held together with suede elbow patches.

After having Nana's present wrapped and put into Bergdorf's iconic shopping bag, we went over to the Plaza not to eat (too expensive!) but so she could show me off to her colleagues. Suddenly a widow at 40, she went to work when very few of her generation did and moved up from bath maid to executive housekeeper in her decades long career at the Plaza (she'd come over on the boat from Ireland as a teenager and her only other job had been on an assembly line at a candy factory -- "Just like on 'I Love Lucy'" she used to tell me). Nana  refused to retire until she was in her sixties despite being mugged twice on the subway and having debilitating arthritis. Her stories of her encounters of the stars that stayed there (she told Barbra Streisand her son couldn't write on the walls and called Mick Jagger a 'pig' for leaving an unspeakable mess for the maids) were my first taste of getting celebrity gossip from a reliable source. When she would visit us on Long Island twice a month, I'd barely let her unpack before I'd demand to know which stars had stayed at the hotel asking for any tidbit she could offer. Looking back, it was Nana who set me on my career path as an entertainment journalist.

My mother, a former model who loved the city, seemed to feel as if she'd been banished from Manhattan once she moved out to Long Island. Without a driver's license, she was marooned in the suburbs. Over time she traded her smart suits and Jackie O sheaths for separates from JC Penney favored by the housewives in the neighborhood. Her visits to the city were limited to our yearly family pilgrimages to see 'the tree.'  She'd given up that part of her life willingly to raise a family and it was only later, when her marriage to my father began to disintegrate, when she returned to work as a secretary at a nearby car dealership, that she would speak longingly of her days working in New York City.

When my father finally left it was Nana that came to live with us and helped out. While my mother's guilt at having to rely somewhat on her mother at this late stage in her life often manifested itself in some harsh words (only from my mother), Nana never took offense. She understood. Then, a few years later, when my mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer it was Nana who was there for her every day. She never complained, cried or let us see her despair. Even during those dreadful final weeks, Nana never faltered. When I woke her that night in August to tell her mom had died, she reached over and took my hand, calling me by the nickname she'd given me when I was a baby and told me, "Ducks, she's not suffering anymore. She's out of pain."

This afternoon sitting in Bergdorf's it occurred to me for the very first time that while I had my mother to thank for my roots, it was my Nana who had given me my wings. When she died a few weeks shy of her 90th birthday, she had lived her life her way -- she kept going no matter what. She passed her love of New York City on to me, as well as her pride in a job well done, and, I hope, some of her strength. I have missed my Nana for so long. And, for the first time in a long time, I felt her with me as a walked down Fifth Avenue today.

So this year, I'm dedicating Mother's Day to my Nana. I know my mother would understand.

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