When a young woman starts a journal of letters for her baby girl, she does it to help them remember the special moments they share when her daughter is too young to speak. Little does she realize that this exercise in communication, memory, and love will eventually become a fundamental balm for her own emotional and often fraught journey of being someone’s mother.
Letter No. 1
July 14, 1996
I was sitting on the grass in Central Park, watching your daddy and your Uncle Marcus play the stupidest game of Frisbee I’ve ever seen. It involved one-handed play since the other hand had a Bud in it. They were both pretty drunk off the six pack they’d brought into the park and hidden under the carriage of your stroller, even though neither of them had drunk more than two beers a piece. Yeah they’re lightweights, and we’re lucky the cops didn’t spot them; but they were having fun so I didn’t mind. Your daddy works so hard; I like to see him let loose when he can.
You were there, lying on the blanket Grandma crocheted for you. I worried that the yarn she’d used was too scratchy, but you never seem to mind and always fall asleep on it like it’s the most comfortable thing in the world. Not this time though. This time you were wide awake. Your beautiful, expressive brown eyes were opened to their fullest and staring at me with such intensity, it startled me. It was like you could see right through the back of my head. It surprised me so, I said, “Oh!” Both my hands came up to my mouth to hold back all the other errant exclamations that wanted to come out of me.
Either your dad or your uncle must have seen the gesture because the next thing I know, they both came running. Your father knelt in front of me and said, “Honey, what’s wrong? And I blurted out the one thing that probably would succeed in doing nothing to ease his mind. Yes, your altogether ludicrous mother said, “We can’t die!” And then, your dad’s eyebrows shifted to a different height on his head very near his hairline. I’m going to digress here and say that’s the same exact look he gave me when I told him I was pregnant, but that’s a totally different story.
I could feel them, your dad and his brother exchanging looks, but I kept staring at you. See, it was in that moment approximately ten weeks after you were born that it hit me like a sledgehammer on the foot. You were so utterly beautiful lying there; truly the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen. It was the look on your face, I think; so innocent, such trust, such helplessness, and so much love all mixed together and confined in the face of an angel; and it was up to me and your father to protect you, cherish you, and love you. That meant we had to take care of ourselves until you weren’t helpless anymore. No, it wasn’t a sledgehammer, it was something larger—an anvil around my neck.
Your dad reached over to you then. “Lucky,” he said, easily getting your undivided attention in a way he often did with me too. “You really need to stop scaring Mommy.” And the spell you had me under was broken. Whatever you had communicated to me in that moment wasn’t gone, it was just released into the atmosphere and leaving me with only two thoughts: One, I need to join a gym, and two, I need to start writing you letters.
The letters, I realize, sound like an obscure idea; but it made sense to me then and now as I write this. There would be things that I want us both to remember; things I want to tell you that for many years, you won’t understand at all. I’m not a writer, but writing them down seems the best way to share those moments. So that’s it for my first letter to you, my darling Penny. Except to say I will love you always (even though you scare the crap out of me).
P.S. — Three, have to stop swearing.
Letter No. 82
May 12, 1998
Dear Alien Being (who has inhabited our child),
You’ve learned many new words. Since it’s likely that English isn’t the language used on your planet, I might say I admire your skills if it weren’t for the fact that the only word you seem interested in saying is No.
“Pen, will you go to the park with Mommy?”
“Penny, honey, let’s eat your lunch now.”
“But I put gold fish on your hummus.”
“Lucky, it’s time for your nap.”
“Penny, don’t throw the toy horse at your friend Sarah.”
Tell me, do children outlive their parents on your planet?
Until the birthday party, you almost had us fooled. It was there, in the middle of the Bronx Zoo, next to the elephant sanctuary, that you stood in the cute red corduroy jumpsuit I’d pick out for you and wearing your little black beret, to complete the budding anarchist colored ensemble. Glaring at me, teeth bared, your mushed, half-eaten birthday cake in one hand, and your Apple & Eve juice box in the other, it was enough. Your dad’s eyes collided with mine. We spoke without speaking, as humans who are very tight with each other sometimes do. Without a word, we communicated our realization that you, the real you, had been abducted. I hadn’t given birth to the high octane gremlin in front of me who seemed to be urging the four other two year olds at her party to run very fast in different directions on the grounds of a 200-acre tourist attraction replete with predatory and dangerous animals. No, my charming, angelic little girl was somewhere else, no doubt being tested to see how she might help increase the likelihood of a more beautiful and superior gene pool on your planet.
Well, we are on to you now. Our daughter’s rescue will commence…as soon as we get you back home, and we all take a nap.
The Real Penny’s Mom
Letter No. 138
December 23, 1999
Yes, we’ve adopted all manner of silly nicknames for you. This one came about because sometimes when your dad cooks dinner, he says “Nothing could be as scrumptious as my Pennylicious.” And given that your dad is absolutely, hands down, the very best chef on the isle of Manhattan, that’s saying a lot, little one.
I worry sometimes that you won’t like your name, and in your teen years when you hate us, I fantasize that you’ll try to change it. I always hated my name as a kid. Brenda. Yuck. People used to tease me by calling me Brenda Starr from the comic strips. Brenda Starr was white and skinny, with long red hair and green eyes. I’m about as far from Brenda Starr as I am from Nancy Reagan. Yeah if I’d known I could, I would have gone to court and had my name changed to Zenobia. Your dad says I worry too much, but he didn’t grow up in the middle of WWIII with your grandma.
I guess I also have concerns because though it goes well with our last name Thompson, the name Penny is like a loaf of Mighty White bread. Maybe if I tell you how you got the name, you’ll warm to it? You might even like the story.
First off, your parents’ names are pretty simple two-syllable words; so we knew we wanted to try to keep it simple for you too. Nothing long and complicated that you couldn’t learn to remember or write until you were in the middle of first grade. Penny also isn’t a family name because your daddy and I didn’t like the idea of naming you after anyone. Not that you didn’t have cool ancestors, we just wanted you to blaze your own trail. We also wanted your name to symbolize the love that created you somehow without being sappy or calling you something crazy like Carnal Thompson. Actually, I would have loved to have seen Grandma’s reaction to that one.
I was about six months pregnant and knew you were a girl (thank goodness cause your dad thought a boy named Monroe Thompson sounded presidential). Then one night your dad turned to me and said “Maybe we could name her after the best day of my life.” And after I stopped kissing him, he started singing Lionel Ritchie songs to me and we came up with Penny. Your dad is a master at that. He can get me to stop everything and start kissing him no matter what else is happening around me at the time. I’m only warning you about it now in case we embarrass you later. See, I knew he was talking about the day we met. So here, for your future enjoyment, is the unvarnished truth about what went down that day.
Five and a half years ago…
I’d just started my last year at N.Y.U and was out of work. I had an interview to be a bartender for the lunch shift at the Union Brasserie in Chelsea. It was a trendy place, and I was nervous. I’d been bartending on a boat at South Street Seaport for the summer, so I figured I had experience; but it was more like a club where these suits from Wall Street would lay a twenty spot on the bar then ask for a Foster’s Lager and a Sex on the Beach for their lady. I’d serve them their Peach Schnapps in plastic cups, cause it was a boat and we were constantly moving. Then they’d let me keep the change. What can I say? It wasn’t exactly The Plaza. Union Brasserie wasn’t either, but it was a hit because everything local restaurateur Jason Diringer owned was a hit.
I was right outside the U.B. when I saw it, brand new, shiny, and calling my name. Despite Stevie Wonder’s sage advice, your grandma has always been superstitious. Unfortunately, despite my countless rebellions, I still inherited all her crazy habits. This one involved pennies. When you spot one, especially if a bright one catches your eye, you’re supposed to pick it up, pocket it, and say “Find a penny, pick it up. All the day you have good luck.” So that’s what I did right outside the restaurant. I considered it a good omen for my interview or at least hoped it was.
As I attempted to enter the restaurant, there was a man smoking a cigarette near the entrance. Peripherally, I could see he was dressed in a white chef’s jacket and black and white checked pants with black Doc Maartens on his feet. As I approached, he stomped out the cigarette and sidled over to the door before I could touch it. He was broad and a full head or two taller than me which might as well be towering since I’m only 5’3″. He had such a serious face; I wondered how much older he was than me. Three years? Five years? Seven years? Later I realized I only thought he was so much older because he intimidated me without saying a word.
While I stared at his thick hand and long, obviously buff arm barring my entrance he said, “I was saving that.”
It was so peculiar that I didn’t know what he meant, and I guess it must have shown on my face when I looked at him because he repeated it.
“I was saving that for later.”
Then it dawned on me. And it didn’t make any sense. Also truthfully I was a little miffed, as I usually was when someone seemed domineering.
“You mean the penny?”
He nodded very slowly without even a hint of a smile. Then I noticed his eyes. They were a smoky gray; unusual for someone with such a deep umber skin tone. They were so unusual, I was mesmerized. And then, realizing this guy could be important, I shook it off. I hadn’t heard that they had a black chef at U.B., but still… I could have already started my interview right here on the sidewalk.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t see you drop it. I wouldn’t have–”
“I didn’t drop it, but I did spot it first. As soon as I came outside to take a puff, and before you walked up. I was planning to pick it up so it’s mine, and you stole it.”
“You can’t possibly be serious.”
I just couldn’t help how fast that statement of incredulity came out of my mouth, Pen. I was sure the guy was a nut case.
“We’re not open yet. Who are you here to see?”
His changing the topic so abruptly filled me with such relief, I forgot I was angry.
“Sharon. I’m here for the interview?”
“You’re a bartender?”
“Yes.” He’d looked slightly skeptical, so I confirmed it with the brash confidence I often relied on in tense situations, even when it had absolutely no basis in reality.
After regarding me for a few more seconds, he pushed open the door and with his other hand, gestured that I should go inside.
The inside of Union Brasserie was warm and welcoming. Golden yellow walls with white accents were adorned with large angled mirrors that looked onto a long, Cherrywood bar with brass railings at either end. The 120 seat restaurant was sunken from the bar level by three steps. The tables were all set with white tablecloths, napkin-wrapped silverware, and large tulip glasses. This was the kind of place I really wanted to sit down and have a meal in someday when I could afford it, but the second best thing would be working there, so I could actually have a meal for free.
I didn’t see anyone at first so I turned back to the crazy person who had let me in, and he stood there impassively with his arms crossed over his burly chest, saying nothing. He shoved his chin forward indicating I should keep going. I did, and just past the bar was another section of the restaurant. It was a little circular alcove that stood a few steps up from the bar, almost like a stage, except it had six dining tables on it. There were three large, sun-filled windows right behind the tables that brightened the whole area. At the largest table sat three men and two women. All but one of the women had on black pants and white polo shirts that I guessed to be server uniforms. The woman who wasn’t wearing the uniform was gorgeous with skin that looked like it’d been dipped in honey, and was dressed in a gold, black, and gray flouncy blouse that draped her in femininity. Her legs were covered in tight, tan jeans that she wore with a brown suede low heel boot.
When she caught me looking, she stood immediately; and if her low key, chic style hadn’t made me feel like a big pile of awkward before, watching her sway easily down the steps and towards me with a winsome smile would have. Before she got to me, the crazy chef barreled passed me straight to her. He leaned over her, somewhat intimately I thought, and with his back still towards me, whispered something in her ear. Whatever he said surprised her because she looked at him with a questioning gaze for a few seconds. He nodded and left the room. And as he left, I relaxed a bit almost instantly.
Sharon walked over, then offered me her hand and said, “You must be Brenda Manning.” And so began the worst interview I have ever had for gainful employment to date, only I didn’t know that…at first. See, right after our introductions, Sharon asked me for my resume, looked at it for less than a minute, and then told me I had the job. She had me fill out some paperwork for workman’s comp and my future paycheck, and then said I could trail her for the lunch shift.
I didn’t see the brooding chef again until after I’d been behind the bar for an hour or so getting the lay of the land from Sharon. It all looked fairly straightforward except for one thing: at lunchtime, the actual job was part-bartender and part-barista. A complicated looking espresso machine sat behind the bar. Sharon explained its inner workings, and I thought I caught on quickly. She went off somewhere, and I was fiddling with the machine attempting to give it a dry run before the shift started when I sensed him behind me.
When I turned around, the penny lover stood there, only now he wore a black chef’s cap over his hair and the sleeves of his jacket were rolled up. In front of him was a steaming plate of food on the bar. I forgot all about espresso.
“It’s today’s special: fusilli pasta, Italian sausage, summer squash, Brussels sprouts, and chanterelle mushrooms in a garlic white wine sauce. You need to eat fast; we’ll have customers in twenty.”
Then he stalked away again. And I watched him, Pen. If you ask me later, I may deny it. But now with a glass of red wine in one hand and my writing pen in the other, I’m telling you, I watched every inch of him walk away like someone had pinned my eyelids open, put a splint on either side of my head, and nailed my feet to the floor. I don’t remember what I was thinking— maybe “Nice gesture.” or “I still don’t know your name.” It didn’t matter because he’d disappeared through the metal doors with the circular windows like you see on cruise ships, so I couldn’t see him anymore. And since I was starving, I grabbed the plate and ate. It was delicious. No. It was better than that. It was the best pasta I’d ever had, and I instantly wondered what else he could make taste just as good.
I held my own during the extremely busy lunch shift. Sharon put me at the end of the bar, so I was mostly preparing the servers’ pickup drinks for their tables. Sharon held down the espresso machine as well as the customers who ate lunch at the bar, and every one of those seats was full. Sharon was a natural and just watching her, I knew I had heaps to learn. Everything was going well though and would have kept going well if two things hadn’t happened almost simultaneously.
When the shift was nearly over and there were only about four tables still with an open check and only one person still at the bar, Sharon took a bathroom break. The chef emerged from his lair, this time he was dressed in his everyday clothes — black jeans and a Midnight Marauders tee shirt. He walked up to the bar and sat by one of Sharon’s lingering customers, a guy who looked exactly like some of the finance guys I usually served at the Seaport. When Chef started talking to him, the guy turned to me and ordered “a cappuccino with lots of foam”.
I don’t know if it was the squirrelly feeling I got from the chef’s eyes boring into my back, or if it was that I hadn’t had a chance to give the machine a dry run, but I completely forgot everything Sharon had taught me. Foolishly I pretended I didn’t, so when I put the steamer into the metal container filled with too much milk and turned the switch on high, I heard Chef say, “Hey, watch out for–“. I turned to him, which was the only thing that saved me from a face full of hot foamy milk.
His words however didn’t keep the milk from going everywhere else: the clean cups and saucers above the machine, the fifteen or so liqueur bottles next to it, or the angled mirror way, way above it. I also managed to get some on my hand, which was just beginning to sting when my savior sailed over the bar as if he’d stashed a trampoline next to his stool and literally took me in hand. Before I knew it, he’d pulled me down to the sink at the other end of the bar. The warmth of his hands and body flanked me as he held my shaking hand under the faucet of cold running water. I could hear the servers stifling giggles even though he was glaring at them.
Sharon came back and figured everything out pretty quickly. She ordered the servers who still had tables back to work, had the one who didn’t help her clean up, and then she checked on her customer. She was back a few minutes later. It turned out the suit whose foam was all over the bar was none other than the owner, Jason Diringer. Sharon handled ending my short career at the U.B. the way she handled everything else: perfectly.
“Sorry hon,” Sharon said, putting a hand on the chef’s shoulder. “Mitchell and I think you’re da bomb, but Jason has no vision when it comes to anything that’s not a trendy food establishment.”
I nodded, but all I could think was now I finally knew my savior’s name. Mitchell. Just in time to never see him again, especially since he couldn’t possibly think I was “da bomb” in a good, non-explosive kind of way; but it was nice of Sharon to say so.
Turning the water off, I thanked them and said I understood. I felt pretty mortified and a little teary looking at Mitchell’s face. He looked like he wanted to beat up whoever had given me a bartending license.
I was grabbing my purse and out the door, running down the block towards home seconds later.
Mitchell caught up with me because of a fateful light change.
“Hey, Brenda is it?” He was hardly breathless at all even though he would have had to sprint to catch up with me.
“Sorry, did I forget something?”
“You sure did. You’ve still got my lucky penny.”
I swear, Pen, maybe it was the stress of the day, but I burst out laughing. And your dad, he smiled at me for the first time and stuck his hand out.
I dug into my pocket, pulled out the penny then placed it in the palm of his hand, ignoring the mild shock I got when I touched him.
He grabbed my arm gently, looked down at the small burn on the back of my hand, and then did the queerest thing. He blew on it.
“We get these all the time in my line of work.”
“Yes, I imagine being chef of a headliner restaurant is pretty hazardous.”
“I’m just the sous chef. But someday…”
“Well then, you may want to find yourself a new lucky penny. That one is on the fritz.”
It was hard not to look straight into his dusky eyes when he spoke to me.
“Let’s see if you’re right,” he said. “Brenda, I’d like to see you again. Will you have dinner with me tomorrow night?”
He’d surprised me speechless, so finally I just nodded. But then I remembered something and said, “Will you be cooking? Cause that pasta you made was out of this world.”
And that, baby girl, is not only how I met your Aunt Sharon and you got your name; but it was the beginning of how me and your dad blew you into creation. I told you it was a good story. I hope you like my version because your dad’s version is a lot more embarrassing.
Letter No. 153
October 5, 2000
My beloved Pen,
It’s been too long since I’ve written, I know. Mommy’s new job at the Historical Society is keeping her so busy. I wish I could stay home with you more, Munchkin, but honestly this has been a dream come true for me. Never had I expected to get the job I’d actually been trained for in school, and in seven more years, I’ll be a fundamental part of preserving some of New York’s most historically significant materials for a permanent exhibition.
Yeah, okay. Your Mommy is the biggest nerd ever. It’s a good thing your dad is so cool.
Seriously though, I had no idea how hard it would be to leave you. I miss our snack times, reading times, build a fort in the living room times. I hope you still know how much you and your dad mean to me.
Letter No. 169
September 11, 2001
You are finally upstairs and asleep my girl. It was a long day that started with such promise, you singing on the way to school. That’s how we start most mornings: show tunes and clasped hands. Then a neighbor ran up to us with wild eyes saying “Did you hear what they did to the Twin Towers?” And all I could think was no one calls them that anymore.
And now they’re gone.
It’s night, and even after an unexpected half day at school and both parents at home all day to play with, we’ve managed to keep you in a bubble that we know will burst eventually.
Just now I opened the door, and even in the dark, I could see that the world was covered in ash. I now know what the survivors of the camps meant when they talked about how the ash of their brethren coated the earth. It coats my eyes, my throat. How I wish I’d never opened the door.
The phones are still down but I’ve been able to reach a few relatives on email and let them know we’re okay or at least that we’re alive. Your father can’t turn off the news, but I can’t watch it without crying so he’s sitting upstairs alone in our bedroom watching the same scenes over and over.
And while neither one of us will say it, I know him as well as I know myself; and we are both wondering how, how could we have brought you, our precious girl, into the madness of this world?
Letter No. 183
May 1, 2002
Happy Birthday Baby,
Here are six of my favorite things about you on your sixth birthday.
I love the way you grab me around the waist and beg to stay downstairs with me when Daddy does his impression of Mojo Jojo from the Powerpuff Girls and says “Potty, Hands, Teeth, little girl, it’s bedtime.”
I love that you can read on your own, and that you grab a book to take with us even when we go on short trips.
And though I told you to stop and behave at the time, I LOVED that you told your Uncle Marcus that he was a big stink hole and no more hugs for him because he made Aunt Sharon pregnant and then decided to move to “‘Lanta” and so far away from us before you even got to meet your cousin.
I love that your favorite color is orange, and sometimes you say to me in the morning before school “It’s Happy Time” and insist on wearing it from head to toe.
I love that when Daddy plays Van Morrison’s Moon Dance and asks us to dance with him; you dance with the flashlight, shining it on the ceiling and screaming, “Moon! Moon! Moon!” until we all fall on the floor laughing.
And finally my birthday baby, I love how sensitive and insightful you are. At parent/ teacher’s conference, your teacher told us that you always help Abe who has trouble reading, and that she thinks you’d be a great teacher someday.
I think you’re a GREAT person right now honey, whatever you decide to do.
Letter No. 202
August 22, 2003
How do I tell you the hard stuff? What will you do when you learn your daddy and I aren’t better or worse than anyone else? Will you still love us? I know now how much I used my not getting along with Grandma as a buffer against figuring out what I don’t like about myself. Now that she’s passed, I wish I could talk to her to figure out what’s gone wrong with my life.
Do you think I was selfish for letting your dad go to Miami alone? Or will you think it was brave to want to keep my job? It’s not like Miami is the cultural capital of the world is it? There’s nothing for me there. Besides, it was only supposed to be for a year, and I couldn’t let Mitch pass up the opportunity to start Diringer’s new restaurant — that’s a dream come true for him.
Still, I feel like he’s mad at me. And all I do is miss every single thing about him. To think that he’s mad at me makes me feel lonelier. And temptation is just everywhere.
Truth is, I’m scared baby, and I’m trying hard not to dump that on you. I know you sense how bad things are because you’re acting out more, and I think you blame me for your daddy being gone too.
I’m so sorry, Lucky. Please forgive me for every short, snappish, horrible thing I did in the months before you left to spend some of the summer with Daddy, or what I may do in the next few months before we figure everything out. It’s not your fault, and it will get better. Just hope you know how much we both love you, Lucky. No matter what happens.
Letter No. 213
January 10, 2004
I don’t know how single mothers do this. I feel so inadequate. So ineffectual. I watch the mothers of your friends with such envy in my heart. Every one of them seems to do this better than me. These same Mothers who are now my friends because that’s what happens when you have kids – you join the club. Make new friends. Real friends. Real solace in the eyes of someone who lets you know, simply by their ability to procreate too, that you’re not in this alone. One of them, Jennifer is her name, picks you up from school at least twice a week with her daughter and makes you a snack while you both do homework. Her home is such a happy place I have to beg you to leave it when I come to fetch you. The truth is I don’t want to leave either.
Three weeks later…
“Brenda, it’s after 2 in the morning. What’s wrong? What happened?”
“I messed this up Mitch.”
“What are you talking about? Hang on, I’m gonna pull over.”
“You’re not home…”
“Naw. I was hanging out with the staff tonight. What’s going on Brenda? Talk to me.”
“I’m so sorry Mitch. I thought we could make it work. I thought it would be easier. I was stupid.”
“Is it Penny? Is she okay?”
“No. She broke her arm.”
“What? When? How?”
“It’s my fault Mitchell. She had a playdate. She and Grace were jumping up and down on the bed and she fell.”
“Five little monkeys…”
“Remember that song your mom used to sing to her when she was little about the monkeys falling off the bed and breaking their heads.”
“I’d forgotten that.”
“Look Brenda, you can’t blame yourself for this. Kids do dumb—“
“That’s not the worst of it Mitch. I didn’t know she’d broken it for hours. Work was so crazy this week. I was so tired. I gave her some Tylenol and put her to bed. I didn’t realize something was wrong until she woke up screaming. We’ve been in the E.R. for the last three hours.”
“Mitchell, I can’t do this anymore. I miss you. I miss us. I never should have let you go to Miami without us. I’m going in on Monday and giving notice.”
“Honey…you can’t do that.”
“I can. I really can Mitch. This…this isn’t working. You, me, and Penny — that works. I can find a job anywhere or I can just stay home for a while and take care of you two.”
“I appreciate hearing that babe. That you’d be willing to…you and Lucky seemed to be doing just fine without me. But nope it’s not going to work.”
“Because I already gave notice to Jason. The staff threw me a party tonight. I’ll be back in New York in two weeks.”
“Wha…but that’s your dream Mitchell. Your dream job.”
“Dreams change. You and Lucky? You two have been my dream for a while.”
“Happy Valentine’s Day honey.”
“Brenda honey, you gotta stop crying baby.”
Letter No. 224
April 27, 2005
Tell the truth, did you see Daddy follow you to school? I told him he was too brawny to hide behind trees, but he didn’t pay any attention and counted to ten after you walked out the door and followed you anyway. Silly man, I think he must have hid behind the cars.
Fifth grade is almost over, and next year you’ll be in a new school in a new town. I have to say, Pen, you’re taking it all a lot better than I thought you would or better than I could at your age. Maybe it’s the excitement of finally being close to your cousins, or maybe you’re just as thrilled as I am to have us all together again.
Uncle Marcus has scoped out a couple of places Daddy could put his new restaurant and Aunt Sharon has been doing some preliminary house hunting. When school ends next month, we’ll all go down to pick out our new home. Won’t that be fun?
Daddy says he’s just happy to have his girls close again. I think he’s also happy to have Uncle M so close. Although now, you’ll have both of them “looking out for you”. Ha! I always knew the teen years would be fun.
Love you baby,
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