It Takes a Village

Thirty-one years ago the Head of the Pediatrics Department at St. Peter’s recommended a pediatrician in Clifton Park to take care of my new-born daughter. She was the best, he said, and he was sure I would like her. I did. My daughter did and so did her little brother. So much so that they both balked when they turned 18 and had to find a “grown-up” doctor.
On Friday morning, shopping done and looking for a short-cut to the check-out counter, I turned down the frozen food aisle at Price Chopper. Usually oblivious in the market, for some reason I glanced up and down the aisle. That is when I saw her. A small African-American woman with thinning grey hair and practical shoes, thick glasses and a wide gentle smile. Dr. Glasgow.
“Dr. Glasgow? Hello, I’m Deborah Sabin.” I called out to her as I approached and offered my hand. She clasped my warm hand in her two, smaller, cool hands.
“Oh my, yes, how are you? And how are your children? A girl and a boy, yes?”
“Yes, Leah and Benjamin. They’re fine. They are doing really well.”
She smiled. “Yes, I remember them. And you. What are they up to?”
I related the recent developments in their lives, telling her that Leah was completing her internship in Clinical Psychology by working with traumatized adolescent girls at a facility in Massachusetts, before she came home to finish the revisions to her doctoral dissertation.
“Oh, I can see how she would be wonderful with girls that age. And a psychologist? Wonderful!”
Ben, I told her, had graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in Political Science but had no desire to attend law school. She chuckled at that, as if she had always known he would not want to be a lawyer, despite his parents’ profession. He had joined AmeriCorps to work in rural New Hampshire as a domestic violence liaison. I related to her, he had then departed for Seattle on a fellowship with President Obama’s re-election campaign. Upon completion of the assignment, he decided to stay in Seattle and was now in client services with an online insurance consulting and referral firm. And he had a girlfriend.
“Oh, that is wonderful. Good for him. And how are you?”
“I’m retired, doing some arbitrations, teaching Sunday school and writing romance novels and essays about Mitch.”
A shadow passed over her face as I said Mitch’s name.
“Yes, I remember as though it was yesterday.”
We stood under the fluorescent lights, in the chill air of the ice cream aisle, looking into each other’s eyes, lost in a moment of shared grief.
“He was the best father I ever met.” She told me the words, just as she had said them to me on a hot August day in 1988. I could see her trudging up my driveway in the middle of the afternoon to pay a shiva call. We sat together in the family room and she related just how marvelous he was with our children. It was not right that such a good man was gone and that my children had lost their daddy. She patted my hand then and told me that if there was anything she could do to help me, she would.
And she did. For the next 15 years, until my daughter was in college and my son turned 18, she was there whenever I needed her. Through asthma and broken bones. Through camp, sports and college physicals. Through growing pains and adolescence, she was there. Appointments were given when I needed them, prescription refills called in to save me time, special weekend visits to fit my schedule and my children’s needs, she and her associates were there. Firm yet kind, practical and professional; she helped me raise my children, both as a new mom and a new widow.
“You know, there were some days when I did not think they would be fine, but you helped me through.” I took her hands in mine over a cart brimming with chicken and yogurt and lettuce. “My children are fine and I could not have done it without you. Thank you, thank you so much.”
“You are a good mother. You did a good job. They were always special. I’ve thought about them over the years, wondered how they were and wished them well. You did it.”
“I did it with your help. They say it takes a village and it does. You were there for us and I don’t think I ever thanked you properly. So, thank you.”
We both had tears in our eyes when I hugged her. She has doctored thousands of children in the over 40 years she has been practicing. Yet, she had remembered mine and spared a thought for them while tending the infants and toddlers and teenagers that had followed them through the doors of her office.
We made our good-byes with heartfelt good wishes for the future. As I turned from her, I felt a lightness in my step and in my heart. As I often did when leaving her office, a worry about my children left in her capable hands, trusting her assurance that “I will see to it, actually. It will be fine.”

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Incognito

I can fade into nothingness. I practiced my craft during the middle years of my widowhood. My face had lost the stricken look that often caused passers-by to ask, “Are you all right?” And I did not have small children tugging on me or hanging from my arms or hips, making noise and drawing unwanted attention. No, in those years from 40 to 49, with no makeup and nondescript reddish brown hair, too many extra pounds to count, hidden under my matronly professional suits or cute embroidered leaves or hearts adorned frumpy denim jumpers, I was invisible to most. Just another middle-aged woman alone in the market, the doctor’s office, the school auditorium. One of many. The benefit was that while people were not noticing me, I could observe them. I could stare and they never saw me looking.
I watched moms in those unguarded, automatic moments of wiping schmutz off a child’s face with fingers moistened with their own spit, handing an apple or several grapes from the produce display to a fussy child in a shopping cart, pulling a child’s pants down to tuck a shirt back in, then pulling them up and zipping and buttoning them as if they had not just exposed a flower or dump-truck under-weared tush for all to see. I heard the whispered warnings hissed so low that most never noticed: “Wait till I get you home.” Or “If you do that again, I will kill you.” Or “I don’t love you anymore.”
I saw men watching bosoms and bottoms of way too-young women out of the corner of their eyes while holding their kids’ hands in the ticket line at the movies. Or staring down the v-neckline of a waitress while their wife sat next to them rattling off an order for “Caesar salad, with chicken and extra dressing on the side.”
I saw children pinching younger siblings, snatching the last chicken nugget, and sticking gum under tables.
I concentrated on these human foibles so I did not have to watch a husband reaching for his wife’s hand as she walked next to him, an older gentleman holding the door for his equally frail wife or a couple my age sitting down for wine, obviously on a “first date, starting over” encounter.
Seeing signs of life and love were frustrating and painful. But they kept slipping in until I, too, decided to “start over.” Soon, I was holding hands, touching wineglasses in a toast, waiting for my chair to be pulled out. Mascaraed eyes, glossy lips, blond spiky hair, I was intent on being noticed, envied, desired. Shorter skirts, higher heels, louder laugh, my camouflage had been shed. I was no longer incognito. I was no longer unnoticed.
Or was I? Was that flamboyant creature really me or was I just hiding in plain sight? Was I being the woman I thought I was, the woman men wanted me to be, the woman who was no longer alone. The woman who was part of the crowd, the posse, the couple. Even then, I observed. In bars, at cocktail parties, at out-of-the-way restaurants. I watched women watching other women, comparing, contrasting, rating. I gazed at men under my eyelashes, over my shoulder, above the salted-rim of my margarita glass. Men sizing up other men, the guy next to them in line or the baseball player on the sports bar television. Couples were my favorites, the ones who belonged together and the ones who were just biding their time looking for the next best thing. Like me.
Now, a few years past my thinnest, blondest self, I travel alone again. Still blonde. No embroidered butterflies anywhere on me, flats traded in for spikes, I can once again blend into the background and observe. I do it by sitting quiet and motionless, slightly apart from my group, my friends, my family. I still watch. And I still turn away from the wife whose hand rests on her husband’s thigh, silently shouting “Mine” to the over-solicitous waitress and her over-enthusiastic husband. I give a blank stare to the couple walking on the beach, the man doing the bending to pick up shells for the woman’s inspection, a cane in one of her hands and a yellow beach pail in the other, a smile flickering at each damaged treasure he presents. I sigh at the sound of laughter from the grand-parents balancing a baby on each lap as their children dig in over-stuffed tote bags for the latest in bottles or pacifiers or blankies.
I am invisible again. Incognito in a world that I will only watch.

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