It started with the hats.
First, the red one that I jammed onto my windswept hair. Then my mom reached for hers. As she delicately placed it on her head, we noticed that the couple at the table next to ours was eyeing us with undisguised mirth. The hats were similar, both of them cozy knit coverings embellished with a large flower, my mom’s even adorned with a smattering of sparkles. Noting the way we simultaneously reached up to adjust them, making sure the flower was placed just right, our amused neighbor turned to Julie, one of my mom’s best friends, and asked: “Where’s yours?”
So, of course, she produced her own pale blue version with a small flourish and pulled it over her head.
And at that, we all dissolved into laughter — the three hat wearers and the couple who I’m still not sure was as intrigued by our fashionable warmth as they were the palpable joy that spilled from our table at the bustling Cuban restaurant on Times Square, where we had just finished our meal.
We had purchased the hats from a street vendor just moments before making our way to the restaurant, as a buffer from the brisk winds sweeping across New York City that day. We’d had as much fun choosing them as we did wearing them, and our laughter, as we tumbled back onto the street from Havana Central, picked up the peal that had been our gleeful accompaniment from the moment we boarded the train in Hamilton, N.J., for our jaunt to the city.
I have always enjoyed spending time with my mom. Even as a teenager, when social interactions with one’s parents are often the height of uncool behavior, I looked forward to every walk, movie, shopping excursion and date that we shared, including the occasional Saturday night basement party, where my mom, my brother and I would simply boogie to our favorite songs, after a pizza dinner or some special meal that she would whip up for the occasion. College didn’t temper my enthusiasm for such moments, and from long weekends in Cape May to day trips and dinners out once I graduated, we’ve always felt fortunate that we’ve been able to fashion an easy friendship from the framework of the parent-child relationship.
I know our bond is not unusual, as mothers and daughters worldwide have thrived on that connection. But it wasn’t until our trip to New York last weekend to see the Broadway musical “Fela!” that I wondered whether all that time together had been my offering of a security blanket, my attempt to in some way make up for a quietly besieged marriage that would often leave her alone with two kids for long stretches, and lead to an eventual divorce. When that happened, she became our primary caretaker because my brother and I, both in our teens by then, chose to remain here with her, while my dad returned to St. Lucia, where we had lived before his job with an American company brought us to the states.
It wasn’t that my mom didn’t have a support system as we all tried to navigate the awkward, painful months following their initial separation, or that her life suddenly shriveled in our striving for some semblance of normalcy. And it wasn’t that I consciously chose to spend time with her instead of with my own friends, fearing that she would collapse into some yawning ache of solitude. We delighted in so many of the same things that she was a natural companion in my pursuits.
But looking back now, I see how I was perhaps unintentionally yearning to fill up her life, to somehow pave a broken road with bits of happiness and comfort that would soften the sting of her loss before I began my inevitable slow withdrawal. Before I moved out earlier this year, my mom was wont to reply with a breezy “She’s never home anyway” when friends or family wondered what she would do without me. It was true. While we still savored our outings to the movies and plays and concerts, they were becoming the occasional treat, as I devoted more time and energy to my friendships and romantic relationships, cramming even more into a busy lifestyle when I began performing weddings and later decided to enroll in a ministry program — and of course met and fell in love with Zane.
Yet as I became more immersed in creating my own life, my mom’s blossomed as well. Where she often spent many a night before the TV, she was soon dashing off to dinners or inviting her friends over for impromptu gatherings, taking yoga and pilates classes, spending days at the shore or in Lancaster and the Poconos — even jetting off to Hawaii with Julie in what was becoming a biennial vacation with the family friends who had invited the two of us to accompany them to the Big Island several years ago. Now Julie, and an ever-deepening circle of friends, were becoming her constants — and a welcome addition to our own get-togethers as well.
As the three of us walked the city last weekend, getting caught up in the frenzy of bargain shopping to which Julie claimed to capitulate only in New York, trying on boots and hats and scarves, plotting with relish the meals that would bookend “Fela!” and becoming entranced with the show’s vibrant dancing and jubilant music, I felt a deep satisfaction. Our exuberance and frequent gales of laughter, the snippets of life stories and wisdom woven into our conversation, the way we gave ourselves to the day like girlfriends luxuriating in a long-anticipated gift — I reveled in every moment, flanked by the woman whose love had been an indelible force shaping the life I now had and the one who was helping her to fill her own life with such bright and interesting hues.
When I moved into my own condo in March, I can’t deny that the transition was bittersweet. After years of inhabiting our dependent togetherness, my mom and I were free to fully occupy our own lives, our moments of connection now among the pockets that would line that fabric. I left her knowing she would be OK, which I suppose I always knew, but as I crossed that threshold, I also took comfort in the bounty she had claimed for herself, from the seeds we both had planted while healing and freeing our hearts.