February 3, 2000
The warm-up room at the "Y" where I exercise is right next door to the children's playroom. While I perform a sun salutation, I hear a little girl calling out in a tiny excited voice.
"Can I have one? I want one!"
For a second, I recognize her voice, and so, though I haven't a clue what "one" is, I can picture what's going on. She's referring to a red or blue fat plastic donut. Or a thick salted pretzel. Or a four-inch cardboard box of juice with a tiny clear straw. The little girl, who sounds no older than 18 months, (but am I certain that 18 months yammers while 24 months speaks clearly? Have I lost my instinctive baby calendar by which parents tell time?) wants one. Certainly this Sarah or Rachel or Sadie is somewhere dangerously near the Terrible Twos, having reached the stage of knowing that desire is all. Without our wants, we don't grow. Who wouldn't want "one?"
I left my own little girl in that room, not so long ago. As I do my stretches, flowing up and down in a satisfying rhythm, all time has merged. The past and the future pour into the now. I have moved from "The Wheels on the Bus" to "Bach Motets" in 60 seconds.
I'm so happy now I didn't miss out. We did the "Mommy and Me," and the "Kindergym" and the library story hour. I have nothing to regret, but plenty to miss.
It's the feeling of missing that is so strange. It comes on warm as bath water, not with saccharine sentimentality, but more like a sweet amnesia. I mislaid my daughter some place, the daughter of her youth. Sometimes I feel certain that I made a mistake. I am sure that it's my daughter I'm hearing through the wall, demanding her juice. She's wearing a blue-check dress and carrying her doll with the blonde yarn hair, not her jeans and college-bound backpack. I left her there, minutes rather than years ago.
The "Y" dressing room adjoins the pool. As I shower and dress, I hungrily observe the beautiful young mothers and their babies, stretching themselves into bathing suits, ready for a swim. I stare so hard, at the baby thighs with extra flesh, and the hands that artlessly grab and pull. Perhaps, the moms think that I'm a woman in sorrow, pining for missed chances. Not at all. I'm visiting what I had. Their ultra-modern strollers are huge, like SUVs, front-loaded with a whole gym full of toys and rings, and take up the entire aisle between the lockers. I am jealous for one.
I took my own little girl here, to swim in this very pool. At 6 months old, Samantha was already doing laps in Baby Swim class. Together we smelled of chlorine and applesauce and love. I pulled a brush through her wet hair. We had a little tippy-cup, with a lid, when she was learning how to sip without spilling. Did I leave it here, I wonder? Did she somehow crawl away? Is she still in the pool, paddling without me?
Merle Feld's poem, "jewish mother," part of her lovely new book, "A Spiritual Life: A Jewish Feminist Journey," (SUNY Press) begins like this:
"please don't let me feed you/let it be me/that pleases/not the food."
Feld has it right. A Jewish mother, no doubt like all mothers, lives in a crazy incongruity with her desires. I want to love to be acknowledged, seen, known. But I am destined to be defined largely by whether there is milk in the fridge.
But it's funny how the leaves of our lives change color, how we in our families adapt to each other's climate, over time. When my daughter was young, she bought her lunch at school with pre-paid tickets; better than my sandwiches, she said. Now, I send her off with paper bags filled with Tupperware, leftovers and apples, touchstones of home. As she leaves I whisper, "Let it be me that pleases, not the food."
With this week, we begin a new season; the last semester of high school has begun.
"How's it going?" I ask my friend Debra, the mother of another senior.
"It's going too fast!"
So maybe that's why I see my daughter everywhere these days. The Bygone Girl, is how I think of her. I see my daughter in the mall, as she looked at 12 or 10 or 15. And I'll wonder, did I leave that girl behind? Did I drop her off only yesterday, at the library, at the middle-school, at the volleyball court? No, she's just moved on, while part of me has stayed put.
The heart of the parent is a living museum, where ancient memories still grow and dwell.
Anticipating the next season of autonomy, I'm looking for a car. In a panic, I realize that I have no need for something big. Once the car had to be a four-door, with room for a child-seat in the back. And a huge trunk, to fit a bike with training wheels. Today, I can be like my friend Joe, whose daughter will graduate next year. He bought a Porsche, a two-seater.
But I can't rush anything. I'm pushing fast enough. The seasons pile up on me like commuter traffic. I want to go slow.
Marlene Adler Marks, senior columnist of The Jewish Journal, is author of "A Woman's Voice: Reflections on Love, Death, Faith, Food & Family Life."
Her website is www.marleneadlermarks.com.
Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Her book, "A Woman's Voice" is available through Amazon.com.