Earlier this year, in the final throes of winter and on the heels of many other life changes, I moved my small family from the only address my daughter had known in her short kindergartener’s life into an apartment where, coincidentally, all of the south-facing windows look out to the hospital where I was born. My bedroom aligns perfectly with that building, so quite often the last thing I see before I fall asleep is the first place I saw when I entered the world. A few feet away, because my mother is a sentimentalist and has kept nearly everything I have touched in my life, in my dresser drawer (because I put it there once and forgot to move it elsewhere) there is a tiny newborn t-shirt bearing the hospital’s 1984 logo and the slogan “Where Life Begins”.
And so, I am a 35-year-old woman who falls asleep each night looking at the location of her birth—the land coordinates of which I once Googled and typed into an astrology website for a more accurate star chart—and always only an arm’s reach from the memorabilia of that day.
My father has lived in New York his whole life, and my adult real estate history could be distilled down to the christenings of my new home with his retellings of stories of each new neighborhood in his heyday. I am a natural storyteller, a retainer of experiences, and my tendency to anecdotalize my life comes from years of listening to my father (also a sentimentalist but in a different, more cynical way) recount his life with the allegorical prowess of a great poet. When I moved to this apartment I asked him to visit with his power tools to help hang mirrors and heavy things, with the thinly veiled ulterior motive of coaxing out stories about the neighborhood where he met and married my mother and where my brother and I were born.
I often think about whether I might live somewhere else in the world at some point in my life, especially now that I am getting up in age and have done enough traveling to know Earth with some level of intimacy. If my parents are sentimentalists then I am a romantic, and so when I come upon new places, my first instinct is always to imagine what it would be like to live there. None have ever captured my heart fully enough to inspire moving away from New York, but sometimes I wonder whether or not it is just the cowardice that comes with familiarity that keeps me here. When I walk to the farmers market with my daughter on Saturday mornings, we pass the library where my mother brought me as a small child, and the plaza where, according to my father, a three-year-old me was so moved by the music from a group of young boys’ boombox that I climbed out of my stroller and tried to breakdance. Earlier this spring, when I was settling in to Prospect Heights as my adult self, I wandered off from an errand in the neighborhood and swore I felt cell memories of my very early youth with my mother. When I spoke to her about this, she (a sentimentalist but still a realist) told me, “Your body fully regenerates all of its cells every seven years so it’s very unlikely that they actually remember being a small child.” I walked home wondering what, if not cells, could remember these things.
In that same conversation, my mother received an unsolicited speech wherein I rattled off some of the facts and statistics I had learned in the process of moving my career into environmental sustainability, and at the conclusion of my rant about the amount of microplastics humans are ingesting in their everyday lives, she was silent for a while and then said, humbly, “When you were little and I was pushing you around in a stroller I was always so worried about the air you were breathing down there. If a bus idled near us on a corner I was terrified the exhaust would make you sick. I was always so worried.” And the image of my mother, younger then than I am now, a wide-eyed new mom alone with her child all day while her husband was at work, so earnestly and completely happy to have a baby, standing on a street corner pulling her McClaren umbrella stroller just a few inches further away from the street for safety’s sake, later made me cry, because it so succinctly summed up the Fact of Being a Mother, which is to worry endlessly about the possibility of your baby breathing a moment’s worth of exhaust whilst you also prepare to send them out of the nest and into a world of chaos.
When I was her age and my own daughter was that little, I would put her in her stroller and walk aimlessly around Brooklyn, sometimes for miles, frightened about being a single mom, frightened about money, frightened about how unqualified I was for the job of raising a person. I would walk her down to Prospect Park from our house in Bed Stuy and put her little body in the grass in the same place where my parents took me so long ago, maybe somehow hoping that there was a magic to that spot, like planting a small, promising tree in a place where you know the soil to be reliable. Before I had a child I thought that parents made decision after decision from a studied, educated point of view. After I had a baby, I came to realize that we are all just feeling around for clues, relying on experiences or stories that we thought we broke free of when we decided we were going to be better parents than our own. I used to look around and wonder if anyone else in the meadow at the park could tell that I had no clue what I was doing, until I realized that everyone else was busy doing the same thing.
It’s tempting, while raising a child, to think that every problem and every life story is new, and somehow breaks the mold. My daughter’s father died when she was two, and as I coped with the fact that her life (and mine) were going to be even further from the way I had pictured life as a family, I grappled with the improbability of raising a small child alone—the logistics, the finances, the impossibility of it all. I wondered why I had been chosen by the universe for this especially difficult task. Later that year, looking back on old photos of my father’s family, I realized that my grandmother (who was neither a romantic nor a sentimentalist, but a petite and sharp-minded Communist) had lost her first husband to WWII when her daughter was two, and was cast into the business of single motherhood in post-war New York, when there was no work for women and no inspirational meme accounts to follow in hard times. Later in life she was jokingly considered to be a battle-axe, and as I walk in her footsteps 70-some-odd years later I have begun to understand how she fashioned the handle.
I’m older now than my parents were when they last lived here, and my daughter is older than I was when they moved further east to find space for their growing family. Inevitably my mind goes to the memories being made for my daughter every day, and the stories I will tell her that will mold her image of herself, the way my parents stories molded my mind’s eye the same way. Recently, on a late summer evening that bathed Flatbush Avenue in the kind of deep golden light that is only found in air thick with smog, my daughter dawdled a few feet behind me on the sidewalk while I toted home bags full of groceries, lost in her own little world and her own little wonders and worries, when suddenly she yelled “Momma!” I turned around and found her standing below me, hand outstretched and holding a tiny tooth, her mouth and chin covered in blood and smiling ecstatically. “Look!” My arms laden with grocery bags, I stood there aghast, end-of-day-tired and out of ideas on how to handle this blood-covered child on this late summer evening, but for a moment my mind was distracted, pulled into both the past and the future for a moment, indulgent enough to think that the world and everyone in it will be the same in 30 years, when my daughter may potentially stand on Flatbush in front of the bloody outstretched hand of her own child and realize that I, too, had no idea what I was doing.