My childhood best friend has just become a mother. She sent me photos of her newborn daughter; they both look sleepy and gorgeous and I’m so happy that this shimmering tiny person has entered the world. But events like these also have a way of bringing up old sadnesses. A wave of prickly loneliness washes over me as I think about my own mother.
A megawatt smile with a tough interior, my mom personified Dyker Heights, the neighborhood where she spent most of her life. All thick, dark Italian hair and bubbling giggles, she was made for evening dates on the water in Sheepshead Bay, eating ices on stoops in Bensonhurst, and walking dogs on the waterfront in Bay Ridge. But she died unexpectedly when I was a teenager, not yet even old enough to understand the emotional setback that losing my primary caretaker and best friend would be.
Though she’s been gone for over a decade, meeting this little dark haired newborn on the week of my own birthday–while I’m at the exact age my mother was when she had me–opened up longing for specific moments of time, a slick slide projector of inner need; the Brazilians call it saudade.
I still see her everywhere, like a filter over this borough.
I saw her last week, having brunch with friends at a place in Park Slope that didn’t exist when I was in high school. But those towering brownstones have been there forever, and as a boy-crazy teen, I dated a shaggy haired young fellow who happened to live in one of them. His mother was slim and delicate with no trace of a New York accent, his father was never around. I would walk up the steps of their home gingerly, afraid I would break things just by being me, a natural bull in a china shop.
I was smitten with his family, his lifestyle, so foreign from my own, though we lived in the same borough. It was faster to drive back down Fourth Avenue, but my mom would take the subway to meet me, because I wanted to take the subway back, even in the oppressive summer heat. Through the entire trip, transfer included, I would pour my heart out over this unattainable lifestyle I was a tourist in; I would talk about the expensive takeout, the sophisticated fashion, and, my God, that railroad-style apartment. It never occurred to brash, young me that I was highlighting all of my mother’s shortcomings in those replays, while she quietly soaked it all in, never interrupting my North Brooklyn fantasies.
When I drive down the Belt Parkway, crawling in the painful prerequisite of dangerously dead traffic, I see my mom outside of what used to be Nellie Bly Amusement Park. Even as a toddler I had trouble figuring out which of my emotions to display, and so, I rode the tiny steam train, the candy colored fun slide, and the whirling miniature helicopters, all with wonder, but without smiling. Some of the rides were so hot that my chubby pale legs would burn on contact. “Are you having fun, Annemarie?” she would beg to know. I beamed back up at her, so happy to spend a day off with the woman who usually worked for the telephone company, one of the only women on her team who worked on the telephone poles, when the sun was out.
I’m on my way to dinner with friends, but for just a moment, I see my mom on 13th Avenue. It’s 1997 and I’m on my way to school. The weather was nice enough to ditch tights under my school skirt and I couldn’t wait to find my friends in the courtyard. My mom walked me to the school door every morning, and because she didn’t have time to cook that early, we made a pact that she’d pick me up breakfast if I took a packed lunch. My favorite was the silver dollar pancakes at the Parkway Diner.
We’d pack into a cramped two-person booth while coffees and hot chocolates were brought over, no matter the weather. “Those were your grandmother’s favorite, too,” my mother would say, gesturing to my short stack of silver dollars drenched in syrup. In that moment, I would imagine my mother’s mother: Sweet, traditional, the long-suffering matriarch. What was it like raising a headstrong daughter like my mother, only to have her come back home after a failed relationship and live under my grandparent’s roof just so that I could have a family and a home. What was it like for my grandmother to take my mother back home even then, when my very traditional grandfather did not? I’d never know, because I’d always been supported.
My train of thought was broken by a clump of napkins landing on my lap that she had tossed over, knowing I’d spill something on my uniform, anticipating when I’d need help even before I did.
I see my mother’s own choices in the men I’m drawn to. One summer night, at 17, I snuck out way past my bedtime, taking three local buses down 86th Street to Coney Island, where I was scheduled to meet up with a boy I desperately wanted to like me. I waited outside, in a very different Coney Island than the over-developed one we sun in now, for a boy who never bothered to show up. Finally, I dig around for my clunky first-generation cell phone and dialed my home number in tears. She’s in tears, too, but tells me to stay where I am. She’s just left the house to come and find me, but I already feel safe. That corner is marked with an overpriced candy shop today, but I can’t buy expensive gummy bears without thinking of the relief I felt when I heard her voice that night.
For better or worse, I’m not in Dyker Heights a lot anymore. It’s too expensive, and most of my friends have moved out, crossed a few bridges, past Staten Island and already over to New Jersey, gentrified right out of our homes. The house I remember growing up in is not the one I see today on 14th and 73rd, off what used to be the B train, but is now the M line. I remember a tiny plot of land where we grew tomatoes and basil and a fig tree, with space for a hose and a tiny sprinkler for me to run through on the really warm days. It was red, it was three stories tall with a deck that wrapped around the second floor. On really uncomfortable nights, my mom would grab light blankets and we would slept outside on the deck, right under the stars. The house I grew up in always smelled like wine and tomato sauce. It was always filled with people: My grandparents, my aunt and her family, and most importantly, my mother. We shared bedrooms, my mom giving me hours of privacy to read, plod through homework and monopolize the phone, with the cord stretching across the hall and under the bedroom door.
There were Sunday dinners and Italian records played while I helped spoon handmade meatballs onto china plates while my mother and grandmother took care of the sauce and pasta. Today, the house on that plot is not red, there is no vegetable garden. I can’t hear Italian classics streaming out the window and I can’t smell garlic or basil. But, for whatever reason, the family that owns the house now never tore down our garage. I can see it peeking around the side of the driveway, still big and red. I wonder if it remains packed with my baby toys or the statuettes we couldn’t fit in our many curio cabinets. I wonder if there’s still a vine of thick, fuzzy grapes growing along the side of it, and if a mother and her daughter lay out in beach chairs under those vines. Probably not.
I live a very different life than the one filled with tomato sauce Sundays and Frank Sinatra records. It’s a comfortable life, with a fun job, a big house on Staten Island and, yes, baby showers for best friends. I do well, despite the fact that it feels like my memories are fading the further away from Bensonhurst I get. I’m not really connected to the people or places that made up those memories anymore. But, when I do cross the bridge, even though there’s no family to greet me here anymore, I swear, in a tank top and sunglasses, hair bouncing in the light summer breeze, I can still see her there.