Generations Fountain of Youth: Floating Between Being a Motherless Child and a Childless Mother
“I am unmoored, my place not easily defined, my presence not immediately understood.”
My stepmother is phoning Boca Raton bagel stores from the front seat of the car.
“Hello,” she says, enunciating mightily into a bagel answering service, as we cruise along the Florida Turnpike. “I’m calling to find out if you have small bagels. I think they’re called ‘mini bagels’? Do you make those?” She leaves her phone number, with instructions to call her back.
My father and stepmother are hosting a brunch, in their new Florida condo complex, for all their friends from their old Florida condo complex. Egg and tuna, lox and cream cheese, salads, plenty of vegan options. (She and my dad became vegan four years ago, overnight, after watching a documentary on heart disease. Neither of them, thank God, has heart disease.) But they need to buy the bagels. And the bagels, apparently, have to be small.
The sourcing of the bagels is—no pun intended—an open loop that my stepmother is desperate to close. The brunch isn’t for another two weeks, a fact that my father, behind the wheel, reminds her of at regular intervals. This is not an emergency. We are in Boca: You can’t swing a cat (not that anyone here would ever swing a cat, feh ) without hitting a bagel store.
We pick up my father’s first cousin Phyllis from her Florida condo. She joins me in the backseat; it takes a bit of work for her to negotiate the height of the SUV.
Phyllis is all over the bagel discussion.
“One of the men I golf with—he’s ninety-two, can you believe it? I can’t keep up with him!—he gets his bagels every week when he takes his wife to get her hair done. He was telling me about this place next to the salon; he said, ‘Phyllis, these are the best bagels in Florida.’ And last week, he brought me a little bag of bagels, with one of each kind for me to try.”
“You know,” Phyllis says, “he has a point. They really are very good bagels.”
Now my stepmother’s interest is piqued. “What’s the place called? Do they have mini bagels?” she asks, holding up her phone. But Phyllis can’t remember off the top of her head. She’ll call the guy. My stepmother puts down her phone, deflated.
“It’s not for another two weeks,” my father intones.
“You could freeze them,” suggests Phyllis.
“That’s the problem,” explains my stepmother. “We don’t have the freezer space. We have to buy them fresh.”
“You know what I do?” says Phyllis. “I cut the bagels in half before I freeze them.”
Everybody does that, I think.
“Oh, I’ve always done that,” says my stepmother, her tone slightly colder.
“I’ve started cutting them into thirds,” counters Phyllis. “They’re just so big these days.”
“Well, that’s exactly why I want mini bagels,” says my stepmother.
They arrange for Phyllis to put together a little care package of bagels for my stepmother to sample.
“Maybe we could talk about something else,” I suggest.
“Yes,” says my father. “No more bagel talk.”
As if on cue, we drive by a bagel store. My stepmother’s head whips around. “Look at—”
I cut her off. “That bagel place is awful. The worst. ”
She laughs. “Fine, fine. We won’t talk about bagels anymore.”
I wasn’t planning to make it to Florida this year. Usually, it’s an annual pilgrimage, a trip I started taking almost a decade ago, when my father and stepmother first began wintering there. That first year, they flew me and my wife and our baby and toddler down, from our chilly home in Northwestern Ontario, to spend a week in the gated golf community where they made their winter home. Year after year, we returned, trading off the ease of an inexpensive, warm-weather getaway with the sometimes stifling world of the golf club and its written and unwritten rules. No children under twelve in the hot tub, no hanging beach towels on the stair rails to dry, no calling attention to oneself.
“Everyone here looks exactly the same,” my wife and I would whisper to each other, glancing around the clubhouse dining room filled with grey-haired white men in baseball caps, pastel polo shirts, and beige shorts. Their wives, it seemed, came in two flavors: small, dressed in yoga or tenniswear, or large, in tasteful T-shirt and Capri coordinates. Both versions came with intact mani-pedis and heavily ringed fingers.
As a two-mom family, we were conspicuous then. But as mothers of young children, we had a function that the residents of the community understood and respected: We slathered sunblock on little arms and legs, played motorboat and “shark attack” for hours in the pool, picked up hot dogs and macaroni and cheese from the kosher grocery store for kids’ lunches, called out “Put on your hat” at regular intervals. We were the kids, our kids were the grandchildren, and my father and stepmother were the benevolent grandparents, reading stories to my two boys and taking them out to the putting green or for ice cream, nodding sagely through temper tantrums, babysitting while my wife and I snuck out for dinner dates.
After the fifth or so Florida family visit, I brought the kids to the golf-club condo on my own; my wife had decided that the annual trip was wearing thin for her and we agreed that things might be much more enjoyable for everyone if she took a break. The year after that, my dad and stepmother had to cut their winter holiday short and return to their Toronto home when he developed a mysterious ailment—intermittent spells of dizziness and weakness—that invalidated his health insurance coverage. I hadn’t planned on making the trip that year in any case: I was newly single, and the thought of trekking south on my own with two children seemed more overwhelming than comforting. My father’s mystery illness—a brain tumor? ALS? Multiple Sclerosis?—threw my already shaky sense of well-being, my identity, into a tailspin. We’d lost my mother a decade earlier to cancer. I couldn’t face the thought of being orphaned and alone, divorced, in such short order.
Mercifully, the dizzy spells turned out to be a benign inner-ear condition; my dad was cleared to return to Florida the following year. And so we went, the three of us, for my week of the winter holidays with the kids. As a single parent, I shepherded the boys to activities or waited for them to come back, picked up wet bathing suits, refereed water fights in the pool, grimaced at the outsize Florida restaurant portions. At the end of the day, there was no one to go out to dinner with. I paced the condo, went to the gym, read my novel, played solitaire, counted down the days until we could leave.
The following year, I came up with an ingenious idea: I would send each child, now old enough to fly on his own, to visit his grandparents by himself, one after the other.
“But when will you come?” my father asked. “Maybe you need to get away.”
“Oh, I’m fine,” I said breezily.
A few weeks later, he mentioned it again. “ You could come to visit, you know.” And a couple weeks after that: “Why don’t you come to visit?”
And it finally hit me: My father wanted to see his daughter. My father, mercifully hale and hearty at seventy-two, was asking me to hang out with him for a few days. One of the biggest regrets of my adult life is not spending more time with my mother before she died at the age of fifty-nine. Why hadn’t I ever suggested we fly down to New York for a weekend? Why hadn’t we gone for lunch more often?
I booked a flight, solo. Just me and my dad and my stepmother. Four nights and three days in Boca Raton.
My flight arrives a bit after 8 p.m.. The Fort Lauderdale airport feels strangely quiet, and I try not to think about the mass shooting that took place here a month earlier. My father pulls up in the SUV; my stepmother waves cheerily from the passenger-seat window.
“How are you?” I ask.
“How are we? How are we?” answers my father. “Every day we wake up and we’re feeling good, we say, ‘Thank God I get to spend another day here.’”
I blink from the back seat. I was expecting a We’re fine. Every week, my dad continues, they hear about another Canadian who’s had to go home with a health scare. My aunt and uncle had to cancel their December plans because he had mystery leg pain; they’re here now. Another friend, in remission from lymphoma, developed a nasty cough, so he and his wife flew back home to Toronto.
The new Florida condo is enormous. My father and stepmother are renting it from a wealthy Venezuelan family that uses it, they presume, as a place to park some US cash, or maybe as a safe haven in case of civil unrest. Donald Trump has just been inaugurated; his first executive order barring entry to the United States by refugees or those from seven Muslim-majority countries is still in force. We all wonder how the Venezuelans are feeling about their investment these days.
I get the tour of the condo, which is filled with what my father calls “furniture-store furniture”: mass-produced artwork and mirrored coffee tables and lamps and L-shaped sofas and rugs. In the kitchen, my stepmother opens the fridge, shows me what there is to eat: the usual round of berries, apples, lox, and cream cheese. (They’ve veered, in the past couple of years, from strict veganism.) My father made a great pad Thai with tofu the previous evening, and there’s some leftover squash soup that I should try. “Oh!” she says, pulling out a Tupperware container, “And here’s some cantaloupe! I cut it up for you.”
“Thank you,” I say.
The next morning, while my father and stepmother attend synagogue, I explore the neighborhood, wandering past the decorative fountain that sits as the centerpiece of the condominium’s circular driveway. There’s still a gate, and a guard, but the vibe overall seems much more relaxed. Until I get to the pool.
Maybe it’s the tattoos. Or maybe it’s the way I’ve wandered in like a pleasantly lost duckling, looking around the pool to try to get a sense of its amenities, whether there’s a table I can write at later. A younger woman is busy with her three small children. An older woman, fit in a bathing suit, looks me up and down. “Can I help you?”
“Oh, I’m just looking around,” I say. She looks dubious. “My father is staying here for the winter,” I add, in an attempt to quell her doubts.
“Oh,” she says. “Who’s your father?”
Instead of telling her to mind her own business, I give her my father’s name. “I don’t know him,” she says.
“Oh well,” I say, backing away.
Later, when I tell my father and stepmother the story, my father snorts. “The tattoos!”
“Maybe she didn’t know your name,” my stepmother says to him. She turns to me. “Did you tell her my name? Rochelle Shapiro?”
“ I know your name,” I reply.
She goes to the fridge, opens it to see about lunch. “You didn’t eat any cantaloupe!”
That night, we go out for dinner with Phyllis and my aunt and uncle. The restaurant is huge and packed and noisy. My aunt’s hamburger is undercooked and she sends it back twice; we all console ourselves with the fries they bring as an apology. My tuna is boring; the vaguely Asian, vegan chicken dish that my father has ordered is deep-fried and awash in orange sauce. Nobody can hear anyone. A young man stands up on his barstool and announces to the room that he’s just got engaged; everyone cheers and claps politely.
“We thought you’d like this restaurant because you’re young!” Phyllis says to me.
I’m forty-five. I’m tired all the time. My neck and shoulders are permanently knotted and tense. Nights I can get away with it, I go to bed at 9:30 p.m., and I am grateful each morning—grateful, perhaps, in the way that my father is grateful each morning he isn’t booted out of Florida for health reasons—that I have not awakened at 4:23 a.m., my mind racing.
As we leave the restaurant, we pass by a table of at least twenty girls. They look to be about fifteen years old. Every single one of them, without exception, has long, dark, straight hair. They’re all wearing black tops. They all stare down at their phones. Looking at them, I am reminded of myself at fifteen, sixteen, seventeen: how I used to stand in front of my high school and smoke cigarettes, secure in the knowledge that my parents would never be able to pick me—surrounded by all the other girls with long, curly hair in pegged jeans and leather bomber jackets—out of the crowd if they drove by.
I feel, suddenly, even older.
Without my children, away from my home and its tasks, my time in Boca stretches out leisurely. My father and I attend an outdoor jazz concert, go for walks on which we simultaneously catch up and say not much at all. After forty-five years, I am finally learning how to accept his conversational style: the long silences, the way he can tell stories about himself but drops the ball if I begin to talk about feelings. “Well, okay, then,” he’ll say, cutting me off mid-thought as I try to explain, really, how I’m doing, how the kids are, what life is like in the post-separation world. Sometimes, rarely but crucially, he’ll stay present for an entire conversation, then surprise me by sending me a poem by email.
It’s an awkward dynamic, both comforting and jarring. As a motherless child, I watch, still, with a choking envy as my cousins, my sister-in-law, my friends, all talk to their mothers, relay details about meals and children and renovations and plans. My mother was first diagnosed with cancer when I was nine years old; by the time she died, when I was thirty-three and eleven weeks pregnant with my older son, I had, presciently, cobbled together a network of surrogate mothers and mentors, women who knew her or somehow evoke her, all of whom care deeply about me. But sometimes, often, I crave width as well as depth, the daily or near-daily conversations about life’s minutiae that only, really, a mother— my mother—could love.
My surrogates give and get that from their own children. They would, possibly, likely, give it to me, too, if I asked, if I made the effort, met them halfway. “You can pick up the phone any time,” my aunt has told me, and she’s right. I could try. But everyone’s busy, including me. More to the point, I don’t want to have to try, to muster the energy to talk to someone else about one-pot pasta or report cards or couch upholstery; I want the ease of conversations, even boring conversations, with my mother and not a surrogate.
And yet, there is something comforting about being fussed over. On Sunday in Boca Raton, I decline to go to the Super Bowl party my father and stepmother are attending. Rochelle is putting the finishing touches on the salad she’s bringing. “For your dinner,” she tells me, “there’s some soup in the fridge that your dad made. Squash soup. It’s delicious. And here’s some salad for you, and” — she gestures to a small glass on the kitchen island, covered in plastic wrap—“here’s the dressing for it. And there are bagels.”
I am briefly transported back to 1978, my mother leaving out fish sticks and cucumber slices for me before she and my father went out for the evening and left me with Love Boat and Fantasy Island and the babysitter.
I am asleep well before my dad and stepmother return.
“You didn’t eat the soup,” my stepmother says to me the next morning.
“The salad was really good,” I offer.
“There’s cantaloupe cut up in the fridge if you want some for breakfast,” she tells me.
And so go the days and evenings of my visit. I navigate the tensions and opportunities of what it means to be, I discover, not only a motherless child but also a childless mother, freed at least temporarily from the maternal responsibilities that had characterized my previous visits to Florida. Without my children in tow, free from the constant vigilance and tidying and refereeing their presence demands, I am uncharacteristically relaxed. I read the entire Sunday New York Times in a single seating. I nap by the pool. I attend a yoga class at the local community center with my stepmother; I am the youngest person in the room by at least three decades and the undisputed if reluctant star of the class. (“Have an attitude of gratitude, ” the instructor tells us.) I sketch out goals and possibilities in my journal, imagine a variety of different projects, stories, futures, and how they might be enacted. I am reminded of the difference between “family visits” and “vacations,” feel myself slipping from the former to the latter.
But, relegated like a teenager to the back seat of the car, do I also regress? Certainly, I feel freer than I have to comment upon, say, my stepmother’s tendency to over-explain. I begin to sigh loudly and nearly swear every time my father seems to accelerate towards speed bumps, until I finally ask him—not necessarily kindly—if he knows what they are for. I am snarky about the bagels. I roll my eyes at their ongoing discussions about directions, their front-seat debates (“Why can’t you just say, ‘You’re right, Rochelle’? It would just be nice to hear you say that.”) about the Turnpike versus Powerline, their voices drowning out the calm, British voice of the GPS lady—who should, it seems to me, have the last word. I let them pay for things—lunch, dinner, admissions—until I remember that I’m supposed to be a grown-up and buy lunch at the Pérez Art Museum, in Miami, where we’ve gone for the day. It’s the kind of Florida field trip I never took with my kids in tow. It’s glorious, to wander unencumbered through galleries and installations.
It is also, in moments, lonely.
It’s not, precisely, that I miss my children, from whom I am separated for only, really, five days, for whom the split-custody schedule is the new normal. But, floating in the limbo between being a motherless child and a childless mother, with no real relationship to speak of, I am unmoored, my place not easily defined, my presence not immediately understood. A woman on her own in her mid-forties: That invites suspicion. “Can I help you?” said the lady at the swimming pool. She would not have asked that question had I burst through the wrought-iron gates with two children in bathing suits and sun shirts. She would not have asked that question had I walked in, hand-in-hand, with a husband. I can only speculate as to her response if I had walked in hand-in-hand with a wife, but at least I would’ve had someone with whom to compare notes.
I watch my father and stepmother wander, giggling, through the light-and-sound installations of Julio Le Parc at the Pérez, taking photos and looking at them immediately. They, too, were each once unmoored, their first spouses lost to breast cancer, melanoma. Now, despite their constant arguments about directions, they share a path.
“You should make yourself a lunch for the airport,” says my stepmother on my final morning. She’s already pouring almonds and beet chips into Ziploc baggies for me. I let her—why buy airport food? Especially when there are bagels, lox and cream cheese, berries and apples for the asking.
“Do you want to take some cantaloupe? In a container?” asks my stepmother.
“Oh, no thanks.”
“You should have some. It’s delicious. And you barely touched it.”
“The thing is, I don’t really love cantaloupe,” I say, finally.
She looks like a little kid who has just let go of her helium balloon. “Oh! But I bought it just for you.”
I’m not sure what to say to this. I never asked you to buy me cantaloupe seems a bit harsh, as does pointing out the flawed logic of assuming that I will suddenly like cantaloupe when I find out she’s bought it for me. I’m sorry, though, seems a step too far. “That’s so sweet of you,” I say. “Maybe you could make smoothies with it?”
She frowns. “Maybe. That’s an idea. Leave the dishes—I’ll do them later.”
She goes to get ready for her exercise class at the pool. I finish making my sandwich. I put my dishes in the dishwasher, wash the breakables. I open the fridge, put away the fish, the cream cheese.
And then, alone in the quiet, bright kitchen, I pull out the Tupperware container, and eat a piece of cantaloupe. It’s bland, slightly sweet—not so bad.