For her 42nd birthday my daughter said she wanted only luxuries: personal indulgences like massages, manicures, facials, cosmetics, clothes, jewelry. No kitchen appliances or electronic gadgets, no matter how awesome. Forty-two isn’t a milestone, but as a single mother of a troubled and troublesome teen, Jenn was coming off a rough year. Years. Cory—her son, my grandson—had been in and out of trouble throughout high school. He’d acquired a surly attitude and challenged her at every turn; his father was a negligible presence, providing little physical or emotional support. Cory’s problems weren’t over, but he’d turned eighteen that summer. He was ready to fly free as a quasi-grownup and she to loosen the cord, shed the anxieties of recent years. I’d been her ballast and looked forward to a reprieve as well. We could jointly celebrate her emancipation from what I called active-duty motherhood.
“How about a weekend in San Francisco?” I said. “Just the two of us.”
Our fourth-floor corner room at the Grant, a boutique hotel near Union Square, faced the city’s southern skyline. I was mesmerized by the outside elevators at the not-too-distant Marriott off Market Street as they scuttled up and down the perpendicular plane like tenacious beetles. Each morning we strolled through Chinatown as storekeepers set out their displays, the air redolent of fresh greens, musky fungi, and acrid disinfectant. As Grant Avenue fused into North Beach, we made our way to La Boulange on Columbus Street, where we drank coffee from big latte bowls, accompanied by sweet and savory treats. We agreed that smoked salmon at breakfast was the epitome of luxury.
We put aside parental and filial responsibilities as we walked, ate, browsed. We drifted at will and enjoyed a heaping portion of what we called mother/daughter quality time, which back home in San Diego was limited to monthly drinks or dinner after work. We talked non-stop, but we didn’t succumb to deep introspection and analysis, didn’t wring our hands over Cory’s uncertain future. Lighter topics rose to the top: food and fashion, gossip and girl-talk, money and men. Jenn was fascinated by the street vendors hawking jewelry and tchotchkes, something we saw rarely in San Diego. She stopped at every display. Their wares appeared identical to my disinterested eye—colorful baubles lining the pavement like river rocks along a stream—but Jenn sifted through rack after rack of silver, turquoise and coral in pendants, bracelets, earrings. “Aren’t these cute, Mom?” she’d say. “And only three for five dollars!”
On the flight home, we toasted the success of our trip with Southwest Airlines’ miniature bottles of Chardonnay. In the warm and relaxed afterglow I issued an impulsive pledge: “I’ll take you to New York for your 50th birthday.”
Twenty-five years earlier, Jenn and I made our first trip to San Francisco. I was the single parent then, treading the shark-infested waters of her turbulent teens. She was pushing the limits too far and fast—staying out late, defying rules, shirking schoolwork. She accused me of being too hard on her, of impeding her freedom. We argued constantly, and I felt sad and guilty that we spent so much of our time together in discord. A weekend getaway would disengage her, briefly, from a shifty new boyfriend, the source of some recent quarrels. It would allow us both to let our guard down, and we might even have fun.
Our interlude turned out to be a tranquil cease-fire from day-to-day combat. We gave each other space, avoiding triggers that might set off one or both of us. I slipped out early each morning for a walk along the Embarcadero while she slept in. When I returned she’d be ready to start the day. We rode the cable car to Fisherman’s Wharf, ate sidewalk shrimp cocktails, took a cruise around Alcatraz Island. We drifted through Haight-Ashbury, where remnants of its counterculture past were displayed in vintage shops while sparkling new espresso bars and health food stores capitalized on gawking tourists. We visited the Japanese Tea Garden in Golden Gate Park and walked across the Golden Gate Bridge.
In Japantown one night our dinner included stir-fried mushrooms. Jenn had deemed mushrooms’ taste and texture “gross!” since childhood. Now, though—was it the spell of our trip?— she picked up a morsel with her chopsticks, placed it on her tongue, chewed and swallowed. I watched and waited. Her grin reflected surprise and self-congratulation. “Wow,” she said. “I never thought they’d taste this good.” I saw it as a hopeful sign; she was growing up.
We returned home on good terms, both vowing to be more open and accepting. She escaped getting into serious trouble, and I tried to adopt the elasticity of a palm tree in a strong wind. We weathered the tempests and emerged with a strong relationship. When she turned eighteen she moved in with the boyfriend; I had no say in the matter. I bided my time and didn’t gloat when it ended several months later, and she acknowledged what a loser he was.
Her adult life has had frequent potholes—rocky relationships, work demands and financial woes stacked on top of parenthood, which turns a corner but doesn’t end when they turn 18. I’ve always been there for her as needed: babysitter, banker, shoulder to cry on. Now she’s turning fifty, and it’s time to make good on my promise.
We schedule our trip for the first weekend in October. We’re both runners, so we choose a time when we can do a race together—New York Roadrunners’ 10K in Central Park. Race day dawns cool and clear, a perfect fall morning. We wave each other off at the starting line, as Jenn takes off with the frontrunners and I maintain my slow and steady pace. It’s an easy course but exhilarating to pass Central Park landmarks and Manhattan sights. Jenn is waiting for me at the finish, and we still have the whole day ahead of us.
Theatre is the main event for Jenn—her goal is three musicals in five days. She has plans to take me to see Hamilton, but ticket prices exceed even the most extravagant splurge. We see Wicked and Kinky Boots. She wants me to choose the third one, and I pick War Paint, having heard it described as a grown-up musical. Truth be told, I’d prefer an edgy drama; even more, I’d love to see a Yankees game or an opera at the Met, but this is her trip. Her heart is set on musicals, and I’m thrilled just to be here with her.
Food tops my agenda and is second only to theatre on Jenn’s. Not ritzy places with esoteric menus and celebrity chefs, but real New York food. Bagels and pizza top the list. I’ve heard it’s the water that makes them superior. Some say it’s an urban myth, but I’m a believer. (When a former New Yorker opened Bronx Pizza in San Diego, he told me he imported New York water for his crust, the best in town.) Nathan’s hot dogs are a subversive treat for this vegetarian, and the renowned soup dumplings at Joe’s Shanghai are as good as I remember from fifteen years ago. We go upscale for a lunch at the flagship Eataly, and Jenn’s birthday dinner at Blue Water Grill on Union Square is a break-the-bank celebration. An appetizer of octopus bacon blows us away, and we get a second order.
We walk uptown and downtown, the High Line and the Brooklyn Bridge. Jenn still eyes street venders, but we stop only to buy each other red leather purses, hers big enough to tote a walrus, mine a tiny cross-body bag. We memorialize our trip. Jenn takes selfies to post online—in running gear at the start line, at plays and restaurants, mid-span on the bridge. I take notes—meals, destinations, observations—for an essay about the unbreakable bond between mothers and daughters, strong and enduring as the steel cables on the real and metaphorical bridges Jenn and I have crossed together.
Alice Lowe reads and writes about life and literature, food and family. Her personal essays have appeared this past year in Superstition Review, Ascent,Waccamaw Review, Baltimore Review, Stonecoast Review, and Bloom. Her work has been cited in the Best American Essays notables and nominated for a Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net. Alice is the author of numerous essays and reviews on Virginia Woolf’s life and work, including two monographs published by Cecil Woolf Publishers in London. Alice lives in San Diego, California; read her work at www.aliceloweblogs.wordpress.com.