There is a restaurant that sits on the shore of New York City’s East River. As a matter of fact, it sits so close that one feels as though one is nearly floating in the river herself. Yesterday, Mother’s Day, was so windy that the river’s currents flowed wildly and visibly. It was surprisingly cold for May, and so we sat indoors – four seats right next to the clear pane glass window. Despite the cold, you could see for miles.
My daughter was at home in Massachusetts and my oldest son was flying home from a bachelor party in Las Vegas. It was my husband, myself, my youngest son and one of his closest friends whose Mom lives in California.
The restaurant is not where we go with frequency. It’s pricey. One of those places we reserve for special occasions. And every time we go, we wish we would go more often. Anyway, between the appetizer and the entree I went upstairs to the rest room – one of the few rest rooms in New York City where I don’t go with trepidation. I left my purse at the table. I didn’t remember that the rest room was “attended.” The woman attendant was shining the sinks as I walked in the door. There were sprays of flowers on the shelf above the sinks, an array of lotions, potions and hard candies – and the requisite porcelain dish filled with dollar bills. I washed my hands and the woman handed me a cloth towel.
I left my purse at the table, I explained, glancing at the porcelain dish. I’ll come back.
She probably thinks I’m just saying that, I thought.
She told me that it was “OK,” patted my arm, and wished me Happy Mother’s Day. I thanked her and asked if she was a mother, too.
Not really, she said. But I raised my sister’s eleven children.
That makes you a mother, I said. So, Happy Mother’s Day, too.
And then I wondered what it was like for this woman who was probably somewhere in her seventies, or maybe not even quite seventy, to spend her afternoons and evenings catering to women like me who were fortunate enough to have dinners there. Women like me who drop dollar bills in a porcelain dish with a nod and murmured thanks. Women like me who don’t know what her life was like raising those children of her sister’s, and who don’t ask the many questions laden with answers that are the story of the woman’s life.
I had to get back to the table. The words “limousine liberal” haunted me as I walked back down the stairs.
The restaurant started to empty after we finished our entrees. It was time for me to go back upstairs as promised. No purse again, but two five dollar bills in my hand.
I walked in the door to the rest room just in time. The woman was packing up her belongings – this time leaning on a footed three-pronged cane; her cardigan that had seen better days, hung over her shoulders.
I told you that I would be back, I said, pressing the bills into her hand.
And then I asked her about those eleven children. They were her sister’s (as she said before), and her sister had them one after the other, and then her sister died young. Two of the children died when they were in their 30′s. The oldest one is now 60.
So, this is your older sister, I said.
No, this was my younger sister, she said, shaking her head.
Quick calculations told me that her sister must have been a teenager when she started having all those babies. More calculations told me that the woman was probably not more than a teenager herself when she started to take them on as her own. And then the woman talked on, telling me of the ones who are successful, the “grand babies” she has now.
Once, a long time ago, an older journalist named John Hanna mentored me. One of the greatest lessons I took away from him was that the best stories are big ones about little people.
I’m Stephanie, I introduced myself. What’s your name?
I’m Mae, she said.
And in that moment as we told our names, Mae took my hand in hers and just looked at me. And within a moment she pulled me into a tight embrace and planted a kiss on my cheek, and then she just hugged me into her and squeezed me hard in a way that I imagine she had squeezed those eleven children at one time or another.
I was going to take the subway home, she said, tucking the two fives into her skirt pocket. But now I am going to take a cab.
She said she was there on Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays and had been for many years.
Come back and see me, she said.
My mother used to say that “any cat can have kittens” when it came to motherhood. So true. Being a mother isn’t about giving birth – as proven by Mae. I was missing my mother yesterday – no more than I do every day, but her absence was driven home even more by all the cards I couldn’t buy for her again for the second year in a row since she died.
There was I who was so grateful for my children who are simply my favorite people on earth (and not because they’re “mine”). There was I, feeling such a kaleidoscope of emotions with Mae as we stood in that rest room. Two people from such different worlds with a common denominator of womanhood and motherhood. And, if I were to be perfectly honest, that maternal embrace of hers meant the world to me when I needed one so badly. Next time I see Mae, I want to hear more about her life. Mae has become my special occasion for going back there – even if all my husband and I do is have a glass of wine at the bar.