Almost halfway through my 11-year-old daughter’s first flight to New York City, I handed her my book. She looked at me in surprise, pulling her headphones out of her ears, and said “Really?!” I nodded and nudged the book toward her, with my finger marked to a particular chapter. She’d been watching me thumb through it throughout the flight, preparing for a talk I had to give. Mia would be in the audience, and I wanted her to read at least a part of it, if I expected her to sit there comfortably.
Mia’s presence throughout the pages is like the glue in the binding that holds the book together. My story about being her mother couldn’t be without her. “You should read this part,” I said with an air of confidence that was masked in doubt. My whole book is not only dedicated to my daughter, but she is also on almost every page. Her influence was not only why I’d survived those long days of working as a house cleaner and going to school; she was the reason I did it. Yet I hadn’t allowed her to read any of it until then.
She started to read the chapter I’d thoughtfully chosen for her, from a time when she was much younger — by nearly eight years — and I knew she wouldn’t remember. That chapter focused on a day I took her to a specialist for a surgical procedure to get ear tubes inserted. How I’d questioned and doubted myself, how alone I’d felt throughout it all.
I watched her flip the pages and even took a picture to mark the moment, then she closed the book purposefully. She looked straight ahead at the seat in front of her, then looked at me and said, “Wow. I was really fierce back then.”
I wanted to hug her and clumsily tried to. “You still are, kiddo.”
In writing, revising and reading the book over the last couple of years, I tried to read it through her eyes. What would it be like to read about your own life? Would she be embarrassed? Would she eventually hate me for never having asked her permission? It was a sort of documentation of her early life, a time I felt I had the freedom to write about. But did I really? All of these questions swarmed around me for weeks after I handed in the first draft of the manuscript, absolutely sure I’d stolen her right to a private life.
Though, my daughter has never shied from the spotlight. At her first dance recital, she stood and gave a solo performance while her teacher spoke, the entire company sitting quietly behind her, their mouths a little open, nudging each other. A few pointed. I kept the camera poised, the video recording, but sank a couple inches into my seat. After I finished college, when pieces I’d written about her started showing up in local magazines and newspapers, she flipped straight to her picture next to the title and smiled broadly. “Look Mom,” she said. “I’m famous!”
Still, in writing about her, I tried to keep the story my own, careful to not attempt to tell hers. It simply wasn’t mine to tell. The book holds heartbreak for her — things her dad said or did in her earliest days of life that I’m not sure I’ll ever want her to know. I’ll someday have to tell her. How can I allow hundreds of people to know but not tell her?
My choice to bring her to New York City to accompany me on a work trip was one of spoiling her, mixed with a bit of showing off. I wanted her to see what these trips were like for me: riding in taxis to fancy hotels that I don’t have to pay for; rushing to events where a lanyard with my name awaits; a small team from my publisher greeting me with warm smiles, asking if I needed water, or coffee, or a snack. I wanted her to witness that. I wanted her to be proud of me.
But I also wanted to spoil her. Our first night in town, we walked from our hotel in Midtown to Broadway, both in new dresses, equally eager for the showing of “The Phantom of the Opera” that I’d bought tickets for weeks in advance. On a sidewalk near the venue, we groaned and sighed over the best sandwiches we’d ever eaten, from the Starlight Deli. We sat on top of the stadium seating over Times Square, stopped in the M&Ms store, and stayed out way past her bedtime. I ordered room service for breakfast — pancakes piled high with whipped cream — and took her to the American Doll store for dinner. Every time I watched her eat, I saw her tiny self, sitting across from me in our moldy studio apartment, trying not to show the stress I felt over her eating every bite because she wouldn’t eat leftovers and I couldn’t afford to feed her more than what I’d painstakingly budgeted for.
I wanted to spoil that part of her, even if she didn’t remember it. Then I realized through reading the book, she could.
After my speaking event, people asked her to sign her name next to mine. I wondered whether she felt better knowing why they knew her name, and how much she’d grown, how she was just a toddler in their eyes. They remarked on her perfect penmanship, and she smiled and said she’d been practicing. “Well, you have a great mom,” one woman said.
“I know I do,” Mia said and turned to smile at me. “I’ve always known that.”
Stephanie Land’s writing has appeared in many publications, including the New York Times and the New York Review of Books. Her memoir, “Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother’s Will to Survive” is coming from Hachette today (Jan. 22).
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