Last weekend I watched my nine-year-old daughter Francesca swim in the Hudson River with my mother. This would not have been a remarkable event if I had ever gone swimming with my mother as a child. Or listened to her read bedtime stories or felt her lips on my cheek or watched her eyes widen in delight as I presented her with a hand-made Mother’s Day card.
I didn’t do any of these things with my mother because I didn’t meet her until I was a junior in college. (The circumstances of her secret pregnancy with me, my adoption by my adoptive parents, and my reunion with my birth mother are intricate and can be read here.) After reality crashed our euphoric whirlwind reunion, and we were faced with the task of accepting who the other truly was instead of the fantasies we had projected, our relationship sputtered and we had little contact for years. Lifecycle events over the past two decades — particularly the birth of my two children — reconnected us in a cautious, but more genuinely intimate way.
Adoption, divorce, losing parents to death, losing children through custody battles, finding long-lost relatives — all these events have touched my life and have made me keenly aware that no relationship is forever, that parent-child bonds can be severed, that if you work hard sometimes those bonds can be renewed, and that relationships don’t always progress in a linear fashion. Sometimes they grow in circuitous, quixotic, leapfrogging ways.
Years of penny-pinching single-motherhood and exhaustion from post-divorce litigation had made cross-country visits to relatives prohibitive. But after my father’s memorial service last spring, I began to experience clutchy, wheezy pangs of panic that my daughter, my only child that lives with me, the only child I still feel honest referring to as “my child,” would never get to know, in any meaningful way, her one remaining grandparent — my birth mother — if I didn’t seize the day.
So I booked the cheapest red-eye I could find and flew with Franny to New York for Memorial Day weekend. My birth mother, Suzanne, lives by the Hudson River, in a village filled with Victorian gingerbread houses and populated by artists, therapists, and Type-As who commute to swanky offices in Manhattan.
The rain that had pelted New York all spring lifted when we arrived and the days that followed were warm and sun-drenched, the air slightly humid and thick with the smell of freshly-mown grass. Franny has done most of her traveling with her father’s family, who organize trips that involve private jets, safaris, and week-long ski passes. Now that she’s old enough to recognize the differences in her extended family’s lifestyles, I wondered how she would feel about a vacation of simple pleasures.
I also wondered how she would feel about her grandmother, whom she had met only a few times, and how my birth mother would feel about spending a chunk of time with the daughter of the daughter she didn’t get to raise. Given our complicated back story, would the visit be filled with painful questions and awkward pauses?
It wasn’t. Not once. Maybe it would have, if my birth mother hadn’t taught art to children for the past 40 years, or if Franny had ever met a person she couldn’t chat up. The two of them fell into a seamless, easy rhythm. They could have been any grandmother and granddaughter doing regular grandmother-granddaughter things.
They took walks and collected leaves.
They picked herbs from the garden. They made dinner together. Franny perfected her special sauce of lemon juice, lime juice, rosemary, basil, mint, salt and pepper, which she drizzled over everything we ate that weekend with the exception of dessert. When Suzanne “oohed” and “ahhed” over her culinary endeavors, Franny beamed and announced her plans to open a restaurant one day called Dinner at Franny’s.
On Saturday we drove into Manhattan, where Franny met her pen pal who was visiting from Ohio. Suzanne snapped a photo of the moment they saw each other for the first time. Everyday, Franny helped her grandmother water the plants. They took turns spraying the hose into the air and made a rainbow.
The Hudson River lies at the end of Suzanne’s street. So we strolled two blocks, past Victorian homes with large wraparound porches, toward the river. Franny announced that she wanted to live there because “you can walk down the street in your bathing suit and no one looks at you funny.” Suzanne has an easy, mellifluous laugh, and she laughed at this.
Suzanne’s friends have a house at the edge of the Hudson, so we crossed their backyard and plopped our towels on the steps that led down to the rocky banks. Franny, like her grandmother, has the constitution for ice-cold water. I don’t, so I sat on the steps and watched the two of them swim past the dock, deep into the River, their heads bobbing at the surface.
I could hear bits and pieces of their conversation — “Where does that bridge go?”; “Look at all the sailboats!”; “Are there sharks in here?” — but mostly I heard their laughter bouncing off the water into the twilight air. I reflected on the things Franny and my birth mother have in common: freckles, love of nature, comfort in the water, an ability to be fully present in the moment.
I have always been more of an observer, so I walked along the grass, snapping pictures of them with my iPhone. For years every interaction I had with Suzanne was tinged by a pit-in-my-stomach longing for the childhood I never got to have with her and feverish daydreaming of what it would have been like to grow up as her daughter.
Looking out onto the water, I noticed that the familiar lurching wistfulness was gone. I no longer needed fantasies of lost years because I had the present. In this moment that was both remarkable and unremarkable, Franny was swimming with her grandmother in the river.