Are You My Mother?
By Cynthia Keenan
My daughter Audrey and I stood on the platform at the Stratford train station at 6:15 a.m. to catch the 6:35 to Grand Central. She carried her Little Mermaid backpack full of juice boxes, PB&J, pretzels and a fig bar. My law firm offered employees free day care at a center nearby where I’d drop her off at the lower Manhattan facility and then head to work, one stop north.
I held Audrey’s soft, brown, little hand and looked up the track for the bright light on the steel head of the train. Whoever saw it first “won.” She was five years old.
The train pulled into the station and the door to “our car” opened. The conductor stepped onto the platform to greet us as he always did.
“Good morning ladies.”
I gripped Audrey’s hand tighter, almost lifting her over the gap. She knew where to go as we took this train at least once a month; the first set of two seats facing forward. As the train pulled out of the station, the conductor came to collect tickets. I flashed my MetroCard and Audrey held out her 10-ride for him to punch.
“Thank you very much young lady.”
My daughter clutched Dee Dee, your dark-skinned doll with the Raggedy-Ann style dress, whose hair had taken on a certain Rasta-look after she had recently dunked her head into a sink full of water. We had tamed it by pulling it into two ponytails with rubber bands.
Although we were clearly behaving like mother and daughter, Audrey and I are visibly different, something she realized at an early age, when she asked “why is my skin brown and yours is so ‘pale’ Mommy.”
“Because you were born in the tummy of a woman who had brown skin,” I had said. We had a pregnant friend at the time so she knew about babies in “tummies.” This became my daughter’s explanation when friends asked the same question.
My daughter was curious about the woman with the brown skin, the one whose tummy she was in, and occasionally she asked questions about her—”Where is she?” “What is her name?” “What does she look like?” I supplied age appropriate information as best as I could, but was also extremely cognizant of not appearing hurt or disinterested. I actively listened to her, occasionally nodding my head in understanding and asking her simple questions to prompt her to talk more about it. As a single mother, I relied on many, mostly other mothers, to help me. If some goodness could be found in a relationship with the woman whose tummy my daughter was born in, I was all for it.
Within four stops Audrey’s head was on my shoulder, and by the time we got to Stamford, 40 minutes into the trip, her head had slipped to my lap for the first nap of her 12-hour day. I placed my hand over her body, slipping my thumb into the faux hammer loop on her pink striped overalls to guard against sudden stops, and put my head back and closed my eyes for the first nap of my equally long day.
“Next stop! 125th Street! Next stop! Check the overhead racks and seats. Make sure to take all of your items with you.125th Street, next!”
I opened my eyes and nudged my daughter gently on her shoulder.
“We are almost there,” I said. “Time to get ready.”
The train slowed into Grand Central and we worked our way to the door, scrambling off the train with thousands of others. The volume of the crowd seemed to create the pace of movement. Audrey held my hand while also gripping the strap of my briefcase. We snaked our way through clumps of crowds to the escalator down to the subway platform.
I positioned us near a steel pillar, far back from the edge of the platform, to wait for the train. Although I knew she wouldn’t fall onto the tracks, the image of it happening was horrifyingly vivid and flashed in my brain every time we took a subway. I tethered myself to her via the Little Mermaid, the fingers from one of my hands tightly clinging her backpack loop while my other clutched her hand. Her free hand covered one of her ears to block the loud screech of the arriving train.
We took the number 5 to Bowling Green, to the day care center. Her little hand squeezed the shiny subway pole as best as it could during the 20-minute ride, fitting only a third of the way around, while darkness sped past us. I held the same pole and hovered over, our bodies swaying to the motion of the train, as we held on a little tighter around each turn. The piercing sounds of the turning train prompted a mild look of terror, her eyes wide, mouth partially open.
“Are we going to tip?” she asked, grabbing my coat.
The train partially emptied after a few stops and we grabbed seats. Young black women sat all around us, some with children in tow. Audrey’s polite stares revealed fascination. From their hair, to their faces, clothes, and shoes, she quietly observed them.
“Can I sit over there?” she asked as she pointed to the seat across the aisle that happened to be occupied by one of these women. She was an independent little girl so this was not out of character. Audrey moved next to the young woman who acknowledged her with a motherly smile.
The woman was about 34 years old, dressed in a black pencil skirt and black and white stripe rayon blouse, a typical workday outfit. Her short-cropped hair was neatly styled, and held in place around her hairline with a hair product that shined. Her face was the color of very tanned white skin. Just like my daughter’s.
She moved her head closer to my daughter’s to hear what she was saying. I sat across the aisle wishing my ears were amplifiers. I could only hear snippets of the conversation; words like “day care,” “my mom’s work” and “Connecticut.” I was sure Audrey was asking her questions, as she was also very curious about people. My 5-year-old seemed so grown up in that moment, and so comfortable talking to this stranger who looked more like her than I did. At one point they both looked at me; the woman smiled and nodded her head. I felt like an outsider.
She left the train at the next stop, and Audrey made her way back across the aisle and nuzzled up next to me.
“Hi,” I said. “I see you found a friend. You know talking to strangers is fine, as long as I am with you.”
“She was really nice.”
“She was quite pretty too,” I said. “Did she tell you your name?”
“Well was it a nice name?”
After a few minutes of silence, I spoke.
“Do you think that nice lady with the nice name might look like the woman whose tummy you were born in?”
“Yes,” she said.
She stared at the seat she and the young woman had occupied and looked around at the few young black women remaining on the train. She was thinking. A lot.
“I wonder if that was her?”
Cynthia Keenan is a lawyer, writer and stepmother to six grown children. She is working on a serious of vignettes about life with her daughter and lives in New York with her husband.