A MONTANA MOM IN MANHATTAN
A Travel Essay
by Lea Page
I left the chicken simmering on the stove and stepped out onto the balcony. I wasn’t sure if I had heard the front door buzzer or not, but there was a tall young man—my daughter’s apartment-mate was tall, she had said—standing outside the building, fiddling with his keys. Maybe he had gotten locked out. I propped open the apartment door with a mop and ran barefoot down the three flights of stairs. So many things to adjust to in New York City: locks, shoes.
By the time I made it to the front foyer, the young man had entered. “Are you Luke?” I asked, pretty sure that he was, now that I could see how extraordinarily tall and handsome he was.
“He’s a model,” my daughter had told me when she called to say she had signed the lease on a new apartment and would be sharing it with a friend she had met when she first moved to New York City.
“I’m Nina’s mom,” I said, sticking out my hand. “I thought you might be locked out.”
It wasn’t such a far-fetched worry. A week or so before, Nina had called me on a neighbor’s phone to ask if I would call Luke and her boyfriend to find out when Luke would be getting home from work that night and if her boyfriend could bring her a jacket and maybe some shoes—she had locked herself out with only a tank top and booty shorts on. Before either boyfriend or apartment-mate could come to the rescue, the neighbor kindly offered his lock-picking services. Crisis avoided.
“Get a deadbolt,” was all my husband had to say about it.
But Luke had not lost his keys. He had just been pausing outside. We chatted as we wound our way up the stairs, and once inside the apartment, he tossed his gear on his bed and half-closed his door while he changed. I went back to the stove, lifted the lid on the chicken to check it, and stirred the yellow lentils before tasting them—they needed more turmeric.
Nina texted me that she was leaving work just then and would be home in an hour or so. I took the colander of Brussels sprouts out of the sink and shaved them into thin slices.
The last time I visited my daughter, she had just gone through a bad breakup. I have become relatively adept at communicating various forms of love and comfort over the phone between Montana and New York City, but all of those murmurings had felt inadequate in the face of her desolation, so I’d gotten on a plane and arrived with a grocery list already forming in my mind. I spent two days cooking, all four burners and the oven going, and filled her refrigerator and freezer with chicken burritos, lentil salad, polenta, and roasted vegetables. I couldn’t mend her broken heart, but I could make sure she felt loved and cared for long after I had left to go back home.
This time there wasn’t heartbreak—well, there was—my husband’s aunt had died, so he and I had flown flew to New York for the funeral. After quick stops at Target and Shop Rite, my husband and his brother dropped me off at Nina’s apartment on their way back to the airport—me, along with ten bright yellow Shop Rite bags full of groceries and a long box containing the parts of a tall bookshelf from Target. Nina had a closet in her room and a bed but no other furniture. I figured the bookshelf would hold whatever she couldn’t hang.
“Do you want us to put it together for you?” my brother-in-law asked, after we had hauled everything up to the apartment.
“Yes, please,” I said, before beginning to slice onions on a cutting board.
The menu this time around: white bean and chicken chili, yellow split pea dal with spinach and rice, peasant bread, a Thai coleslaw and another salad made from kale, Brussels sprouts, walnuts, and parmesan. Oh, and a pot roast, if I could find a pot to cook it in.
I had originally planned on bringing my Dutch oven for the pot roast.
“That’s crazy,” my husband had said. “You can’t put that in your carry-on.”
“I once brought one in my carry-on,” a woman had told me…I had mentioned my upcoming trip to New York City, my desire to make a pot roast, and my need for a Dutch oven. “But I recommend packing it in a separate bag,” said the woman, “because the TSA will want to take it out to check it.”
“I once brought one in my carry-on,” a woman had told me, recently. She had been sitting across a table from me at a local Planned Parenthood Get Out the Vote calling session, and I had mentioned my upcoming trip to New York City, my desire to make a pot roast, and my need for a Dutch oven. “But I recommend packing it in a separate bag,” said the woman, “because the TSA will want to take it out to check it.”
I decided to leave my Dutch oven at home and make do with whatever pots and pans my daughter had. I had already committed myself by buying a roast at the Shop Rite, where there were no less than eight guys in the meat department, chopping and hacking.
It’s not that my daughter can’t cook for herself, but she works two jobs and, well, you know how it is. There is something reassuring about a mom puttering a kitchen. Luke, apparently, thought so, because after he changed, he sat down at the counter and told me that he had broken up with his girlfriend the night before and was feeling uncertain.
I grated parmesan cheese into a bowl and nodded.
It had been a long-distance relationship, he said, and he had met someone else.
We haven’t done anything yet, he said of the new woman. Just talked. And kissed.
I measured olive oil and whisked in a spoonful of mustard. And nodded.
His guy friends had told him to keep both relationships going, Luke continued. But, he reassured me, he wasn’t that kind of guy.
I opened the fridge and reached for a lemon.
“Thanks,” he said. “I feel much better.”
Then he left, and Nina arrived.
Nina was off the next day. While she was at the gym, I started the pot roast—I had to settle for a stovetop version. I helped her unpack, and then we set out on some errands. She had dry cleaning to drop off, and we needed to go to a hardware store to make a copy of the mailbox key, replace a faucet screen, and—if we went to the hardware store in her old neighborhood, Nina said, we could buy a few plants. Luke had brought three with him when he moved in. Two were unrecognizable black husks, and the third, an aloe, was more dead than alive.
“Which way?” I asked when we left her building.
“I don’t know,” she said. “I don’t know this neighborhood at all.”
A champion at second-guessing herself, she said, “I don’t feel at home here.” And then, “I loved my old neighborhood.”
I slipped my arm through hers and said, “Give it time,” and hoped that was what she needed. There are times, still, after 24 years, when I question my ability to know what my daughter needs, let alone provide it.
We turned a corner, crossed the street, and stepped into a dry-cleaners whose hours were posted on the door in Polish. In that stuffed but orderly way of tailors and shoe repair shops, the front window was entirely taken up with plants. Each ceramic pot held a mixture of textures and shades of green.
“This window must face South,” I murmured to myself, thinking of that limp aloe. Getting my bearings was always challenging for me in New York. I grew up in Washington, D.C. and had mapped that city with my feet. Then I moved to Montana, where you navigate by mountain range. I love the raucous pace and vibrant mix of virtually everything in New York City, but I am easily lost there and overwhelmed after a few days.
An old woman set her needle aside and rose from her worktable behind the canopy of living green. Her hair had been dyed—a while ago—a burnt orange. Her smile revealed worn, yellowed teeth. While Nina unloaded her bag onto the counter, my eyes were dragged back to the window, to the burgeoning greenery.
“What’s your name?” the woman asked.
“Nina,” my daughter replied.
The woman nodded gravely and said, “A good name.”
I turned back to the counter. The woman, sorting the clothes, was still nodding. “I agree,” I said. “A good name.”
“There’s a stain on it,” my daughter said, indicating the lapel of a white jacket. A conversation ensued, the woman commenting on each piece of clothing.
“You have good taste,” she said to Nina. “This one,” she said, referring to a white-with-a-hint-of-peach designer dress. “This one is old silk. You don’t see that anymore.” Nina had bought the dress at a sample sale for $35, some $3450 less than the original price. The old woman nodded again, approving of Nina’s bargain-hunting abilities.
“Are you two related somehow?” the woman asked.
I looked at my daughter. She is tall—taller than me only recently, having grown while I shrank, a fact of aging that I am still adjusting to. Her skin is her father’s Irish peaches-and-cream. Her eyes are arrestingly blue. “A rosebud mouth,” the pediatrician said when she was born. She is, to me, one of the most beautiful beings on Earth. She also doesn’t look much like me. My son takes after me, and I explained this to the old woman, who froze, holding a pair of slacks midair, and looked over her glasses at me when I told her that I was Nina’s mother.
Later, it occurred to me that the woman might have thought I was too young to have a daughter Nina’s age. At the funeral, my husband’s cousins had, in their hilarious and loud-mouthed way, excoriated me for aging backwards. The funeral was, in many ways, a joyful occasion. My husband’s family is irrepressible in their fondness for each other. They felt their loss deeply, but applied equal measures of alcohol and good humor to their wounds.
The old woman’s hands were back to work but she still looked at us over her glasses. “I can see there are some similarities.”
“Can I ask you about your plants?” I said.
“There,” she said, pointing. “Smell that one there.”
We leaned our noses toward the one she indicated, a lacy plant sharing a pot with an aloe so robust it appeared to be lit from within. We inhaled a lemony scent.
“It’s good in tea,” she said.
“What’s it called?” I asked.
She licked her thumb before placing a paper marker on another stain and said, “I only know the name in French.”
“They are so happy,” I said, back at the counter but still looking at the plants.
“Everyone must have plants,” the woman said. “They bring to a living space…” And here she seemed to be at a loss for words, or, at least, for English words.
I nodded, knowing what she meant, and said, “Yes, my house is full of plants.”
“We’re on our way to the hardware store now,” Nina said. “To get plants.”
“You don’t live here?” asked the woman, looking at me.
“No, just visiting for a few days.”
As Nina and the woman settled on the day for pick-up, Nina told her about the funeral and about my staying for a few extra days to help her settle into her apartment. The woman handed Nina her receipt and said, “When you get your plants, bring them here. I’ll help you pot them.”
“Nina was just saying to me,” I said, “that she missed her old apartment and didn’t feel at home here yet.” I leaned onto the counter. “But I’m feeling much better about it.”
Yes, the woman nodded.
Thank you, I nodded, no English, Polish, or French necessary.
The racks of flowering plants on the sidewalk outside the hardware store had lost that first blush of youthful vigor. A little leggy, a little strung out, they had waited overlong to find their forever home, so I wasn’t sure about Nina’s insistence that this was the place to go for houseplants. But we had other things on our list, even if the plants were a bust. The man at the front register indicated the back counter when I showed him the faucet nozzle we needed to replace and the mailbox key we wanted to copy, so I headed there while Nina disappeared into the aisles.
The man behind the back counter was bald and had two wall-eyes. Unable to look directly at either, I focused on his smile and his eyebrows, which more than made up for whatever lack of mobility age had brought him. He held the faucet head that I handed to him up close to his face. “You want to replace it?”
No, I explained. I wanted to clean it but couldn’t see any way to get it open.
“Let’s see,” he said, and after applying two sizes of screwdriver and a whole modern ballet of eyebrow leaps and lunges, he snapped the faucet head apart and the little screen, which had a tiny black granule lodged in each hole, fell onto the counter. “You got a safety pin at home?” he asked.
He handed me the parts, and I held up the little mailbox key. “Can you make a copy of this?”
He nodded toward the other end of the counter, where the key-cutting machine was. “You’ll have to talk to the guy down there.” Which, I realized with a laugh, was him. He clearly enjoyed his joke as much as I did.
I was still smiling when we left the hardware store, two little envelopes—one containing the pieces of faucet and the other the two keys—in my pocket and a giant Shefflera plant balanced on my hip. When we had stepped into the greenery of the semi-covered porch at the back of the store, the Shefflera had called out to me. We picked out two smaller plants as well, and Nina carried those.
It takes a lot to gain notice on the streets of New York, but, apparently, it was out of the ordinary to process carrying large plants. One woman stopped us to ask where we had gotten the Shefflera. The plant was speaking to everyone that day.
Back at Nina’s apartment, we found dishes to put under the plants and watered them. Then we pulled some of the leftovers out of the fridge, and, while Nina sat at the counter and snacked on those, I started working on the next meal.
“Is there anything special you want to do while you’re here in the city?” she asked.
I looked up from the carrots I was peeling and said, “I’m doing it right now.”
A knitter, gardener and avid dog-spoiler, Lea Page lives in Montana with her husband. Her essays have been published in The Washington Post, The Rumpus, The Pinch, Krista Tippett’s On Being blog, and Hippocampus, among other places. She is also the author of Parenting in the Here and Now: Realizing the Strengths You Already Have. Find her at www.LeaPageAuthor.com.