A Ghost in My Neighborhood
By Leslie Kendall Dye
Last month the woman was standing in front of the vintage shop a few blocks from my apartment. She was rocking continuously and her back was bent at an alarming angle. I heard her singing—it was a tune I recognized. My own child was dashing down the street, but I called after her—”Do you remember that song? I used to sing it to you!”
The woman turned toward me and I saw a baby—about seven months old—was snuggled into the woman’s chest, wrapped in the secure folds of a wrap made of soft Jersey fabric. She was putting the baby to sleep. I remember that time, I thought. I smiled at her, trying to tell her that I had been there, and that I envied her the simplicity of that moment with her baby. I envied the waves of oxytocin flooding her precariously tilted frame. She didn’t smile back, because she didn’t see me.
My own child is now close to four years old and in a matter of weeks she’ll enter a society larger than the one between parent and child: preschool. I am so very ready for it, as is she. Both of us need more than each other now to pass our days productively and to be stimulated. Both of us need a few hours not intertwined but sailing toward separate adventures. Both of us want friends our own age. Still, I cried bitterly when we signed the paperwork for school. My daughter will have a teacher and a cubby hole and things will happen to her during the day that I will not bear witness to. In four years, there is little for which I have not been present.
As we rush headlong toward this new era, I luxuriate in watching another woman in the neighborhood who has a five month old. I don’t want to go back—yes, babyhood races by quickly, but it is also slow and exhausting and besides, I lived it fully—as best I could.
We had such fun. We took so many naps together. We jumped in so many leaves. We nursed for so long.
I started seeing the new mother in the neighborhood a few months ago. I can tell this is her first baby. She gazes at the reflection of mother and child as she walks by windows. She points to her baby’s face and the baby laughs and bobs in the carrier. I remember how the little legs kick with delight and the arms flap with expressive glee. Maybe the baby has one or two words by now.
I saw her in a bookstore a few weeks ago. Her child seems to grow unusually fast; she’s already standing up. She was with a friend and the friend tried to walk the baby on her legs by holding up her arms. The mother grew alarmed.
“Never hold a baby by the arms to help her walk! She has to build her musculature by walking on her own and only when she’s ready!”
I was surprised, because I too had guarded my child’s physical development ferociously. I’d read that it was bad for a baby’s hips to stand her up and “walk her.” I almost approached the mother and asked if she’d read the same book—she was the first parent I’d heard espousing the same idea—but I didn’t want to seem interfering or crazy.
Instead, I turned to my four-year-old and told her that she had shown no interest in walking until she was thirteen months old; she tore a lot of holes in her pants while crawling at the speed of light.
“Mama,” she said, with a hint of teenage exasperation, “You’ve told me that before.” And then we went back to reading Frog and Toad, because I had refused to read her that awful princess book.
Yesterday I saw the mother in Central Park. The baby had mastered walking. They were by the Alice in Wonderland statue that my toddler and I had visited many times. There was a pile of leaves and the baby was jumping and crunching the leaves and shouting “again!”
I sat on the stone ledge by the boat pond. I called out to the woman “My daughter used to love climbing Alice!”
A cool wind swept by, chilling me. Strange for August, I thought. I then noticed that the mother and child were dressed for an autumn day. Maybe they’d left the house in the cool of early morning and had yet to shed their cardigans. I remembered arriving at the park at five-thirty in the morning, seeking amusement at ungodly hours when my own baby had awakened and announced the start of the day.
Mothers of babies must get so tired of people wanting to re-live the baby days. People are always talking to them, trying to chat with their babies. I wonder if they think: you had your turn. Please stop telling me how quickly it goes. Stop telling me to enjoy my baby. I am enjoying her, can’t you see that?
She didn’t pay any attention to me. She strapped her child into a Beco carrier built for toddlers. She then gathered a swaddling blanket around the baby’s legs the way I used to do when the wind picked up and we had a long walk home. She walked right past me, in a hurry, talking to her baby about dinner and a bath. I looked back at the boat pond. The leaves must have scurried past as well because the August sun was once again shining on a bare, hot ground.
Occasionally I follow her. She goes down to the playgrounds in Riverside Park. I often guess where she’ll be and I find her, just to catch a glimpse of her playing with her child.
I saw her on one of my favorite blocks the other day. She was standing under a pear blossom tree in full bloom, brownstones flanking her. She was telling her child that it was nap time. Her daughter wanted to nurse right there on the street, but she’d grown too big for that.
I wanted to tell the mother that I often gave in even when my child got big enough to wait; I’d nurse her right on that very same brownstone stoop, because the pear blossoms were so pretty, and because why not? Before I knew it, she would not be interested in nursing so why not slow time by enjoying every moment?
When I got to the tree, the woman had begun packing up.
She’s avoiding me, I realized.
I must have imagined the pear blossoms, because I was standing under the green and parched-brown leaves of midsummer by the time I’d crossed the street. I must have been confused because of a memory of my child standing under the pear blossoms and asking to nurse.
And speaking of my child, I needed to get home. I hurried to our apartment, where she’d discovered coloring pages. I was pleased she’d found occupation, but sad that the structure now appealed to her. A mere month ago she never would have had any interest in decorating someone else’s picture. She would have wanted only a blank page and a crayon.
She’s not a toddler anymore, I realized.
I don’t try to talk to the mother anymore. She is in her own world, her own time with her child, her own stage of life as a parent. She doesn’t need my nostalgia. Before she knows it, her child will be begging for school and friends and climbing to the top of the jungle gym and swinging from the monkey bars. Let her enjoy this time with no reminder that it will pass one day. She already knows. I’m certain she already knows. I can tell by how consumed she seems to be with motherhood.
She is not in a rush, this mother.
Still, when it comes upon her, she will not be prepared. She may know that, but it won’t help.
There will be a rupture, and she will feel it coming, the way labor pains come on to alert you of your first violent separation from your child. She may have a few months to prepare for it—as I do now—watching the summer disappear into the lengthening shadows of summer’s end, counting down the days to the sudden change.
Still, she will not be prepared.
I know why she never answers me.
She knows I am there—or will be there when her baby ages. For now, I am only an older mother in her imagination. But she is quite real to me—I know her every route and routine, every bench she nursed on, every path in the gardens of the park along which she and her daughter have stolen. I don’t just know her routines—I remember them.
It isn’t only streets across which I am calling to her, it is time—and that is a dimension through which only memory, not voices, can travel.
Author’s Note: I have a seventeenth edition of “Portrait of Jennie” by Robert Nathan on my shelf, given to me by my father. If it were a first edition it could not be more precious. I’ve no doubt that the book influenced my own little tale in which Time doesn’t play by the rules.
Leslie Kendall Dye is an actress in New York City. She has recently written for Salon, Word Riot, Club Mid, The Washington Post, and Off The Shelf, and has work forthcoming at The Toast, Coffee +Crumbs, and Vela Magazine. She and her husband and daughter are a family that rarely sleeps in the city that never sleeps. You can find her at twitter at @HLAnimal.