Eighteen years ago, on a blisteringly hot, profoundly humid day Rich and I moved into our house. Pregnant with Harrison, I was still in the enchanted stage of pregnancy (those last three months; not quite as enchanting) and our excitement over having purchased a home was overshadowed only by our elation over the impending birth of our first baby.
It was during the very first week in our house that we met the neighbors to our left. They were a couple in their early seventies who had raised and launched their own children from that very house, having started the process better than forty years prior. Eve and Hy were lovely, warm and welcoming from the very first time we met. One of the first chats we had took place in the small lot of lawn that lay between our houses. Half of the patch of green was theirs, the other half ours, although the boundary was vague at best. In that area of grass stood a single, winsome, and seemingly proud flowering tree which Eve told me she had planted around the time her first child was born. It was so simple yet clearly held such great sentiment to her that one could not help but smile when looking at it.
Born to be a grandmother, and having, at the time, just one grandchild, Eve was nearly as excited about our approaching delivery as we were. She checked in on me often and became a surrogate grandmother to us as our due date grew closer. When Harrison finally arrived (eight days late), she was on the short list of people we called from the hospital – right after our own parents.
As Harrison grew, so, too, did his attachment to Bubbie Eve (soon the Eve would drop off) and HyHy (the peals of laughter from Harrison when he would greet Hy and say, “hi, Hy” were just too insatiable to let the nickname slide). When he began attending daycare I would retrieve him on my way home from work, we’d pull into the driveway and, as I would try to collect his and my assorted stuff to take into the house, he would make an immediate beeline for Bubbie’s house and, more specifically, the shelf in the pantry that she reserved for him. It was perpetually stocked with kid-friendly snacks and an occasional surprise trinket of some sort. It was a true love affair.
The day that we (mistakenly, as it turns out) thought that Harrison was finally potty trained he couldn’t wait to go over and announce it to Bubbie. Beaming with pride, we arrived at the house where Hy told us that she was lying down in her bedroom nursing a sore back. Harrison ran to the top of the stairs, hurled himself into her room to announce his great accomplishment and promptly peed on her floor. He looked down, looked up at her and they both started to laugh. It was one of many loving encounters they shared.
Then one day, when Harrison was about eight, Eve told me that she and Hy were moving to an apartment. The house was too much for them to handle and the stairs were proving impossible for her increasingly bad back. We were heartbroken, but assured one another that this was not the end. They moved about ten minutes away and, true to both of our promises, we never lost touch although our chats and visits often fall off for months at a time.
Last year, Harrison was given a history assignment that required him to interview someone who had lived through a historical event. He knew immediately who he wanted to interview and asked if I thought it would be okay to call HyHy to talk to him about his experience as a POW in WWII. Hy had always been reluctant to discuss it, but I suggested that Harrison call Eve and asked her what she thought. He called her right away and learned that Hy had just gone into rehab for some heart issues, but she would be more than happy to talk with him about it. (It is a fascinating story – he was shot down and was a POW/MIA for a year, while Eve went through a pregnancy and delivery in his absence, not knowing if he was even alive.) Harrison hung up with her and, right then and there, headed to her apartment. Being the love that he is, and knowing that she doesn’t like to drive much anymore, he offered to take her marketing or on any errands she had to run and, I am happy to say, she took him up on. They spent several hours together, Eve sharing her memories of Hy’s experience, Harrison taking it all in with amazement. Oh, and Harrison got an A on the report.
Yesterday I got a message on my voicemail from Eve simply asking me to call. My initial reaction was of concern that something had happened to Hy. He is close to 90 now and, although he has all his faculties, he has been in declining health for some time. Thankfully, she was only calling to check in and to wish us a Happy New Year. (She has never missed calling us before the high holidays to wish us well. I keep trying to beat her to the punch, but she gets me every time.) As we were catching up, she, of course, asked about the kids. No sooner were the words out of her mouth than I realized that I had not told her about George/Jessie. (Because they moved right around the time she was born, Eve’s attachment to “George” wasn’t quite as profound, but she adored him just the same.) As the conversation continued, I glanced over at Jessie, happily involved in something and looking every bit the part of a nearly eleven year old girl and I was, for the first time perhaps ever, at a loss.
I half listened and shot perfunctory responses to Eve’s inquiries about Harrison while frantically trying to come up with a response to what I knew was going to be the next question: “how is Georgie?” No sooner had she asked than I slipped for the first time and used the female pronoun which has become natural over these past few months; “she’s doing great” I replied. I quickly glazed over my “slip” (ironic that now calling my son “she” is considered a slip, huh?), hoping that she didn’t notice and found myself teetering very close to rudeness in my quest to be done with the conversation. Rich wandered into the room and I, in a show of cowardice, told her that he was anxious to speak with her. I thrust the phone into his hand and immediately felt relieved. And ashamed.
Knowing her as I do, I am quite sure that she would hardly have skipped a beat upon hearing the news. She is not the sort that needs to be protected or danced around. In fact, despite being deep into her 80s, she has a degree of cool that we should all aspire to. She wouldn’t have cared, judged or questioned. Yet I had wimped out and opted to not say a word. I know that it was not for her benefit that I was avoiding the conversation, rather I was sparing myself. And, just to add insult to injury, I was so lame that I literally scampered off the phone faster than I would with a random telemarketer.
Later I mentioned to Harrison that I had spoken with Bubbie and had successfully (for lack of a better word) managed to avoid telling her about Jessie. He, quite reasonably, asked me why. Here’s my story and I am sticking to it: I don’t know. Was I trying to keep alive the story of what I thought our family was going to be? Was I somehow fearful of her not understanding and perhaps, even unconsciously, distancing herself from us? Or perhaps I was just too tired to start at the beginning again. I truthfully don’t know.
I think back to standing by her beloved tree with a baby in my belly and a blissful ignorance as to what lay ahead in the adventure called parenting. At the time that we had our conversation eighteen years ago she had already successfully brought her three children to adulthood with all the trials and tribulations inherent in doing so. I never have or will face some of her particular challenges; I am quite confident, for example, that Rich will never be a POW and I will never be left to fend for myself with a newborn. I have long been in awe of her fortitude, but, for reasons I am still trying to determine, I felt the need to keep this chapter from her.
I know in my heart that I am going to have to tell her, and I need to make sure to do so before we find ourselves in the same room at the same time. I loathe to even write this, but I fear the next time we see one another as a family unit could well be when HyHy dies. In fairness and out of love for Eve, I am not going to wait for that. I am going to call her. Maybe tomorrow…
p.s. A likely picture to accompany this post would be of the tree. However, the new owner’s of the house promptly removed it put up a (freakin’ ugly) fence. It was sad to see it go, and, in a silly twist, we learned, when they asked our permission to remove it, that, in fact, it was primarily on our land. We grappled with being stinkers and disallowing the removal out of respect for Bubbie, but decided that it was in our best interest to maintain friendly relations with our neighbors. Given the complete lack of interaction we ever have with them, I wish we’d kept the tree.