My daughter was born on a Thursday. We'd gone to the hospital with still plenty of Wednesday left, but, on that day, complications arrived instead of a child. As the sun sank into the distant horizon and night sifted down onto the city, my wife endured unimaginable things associated with a difficult childbirth. The pregnancy had been a breeze, so we, as first-time parents, figured the delivery would be the same. The sudden uncertainty was overwhelming. We were displaced and unprepared. My wife was heroic but seriously shaken. I was a helpless wreck. It was our first lesson about the vulnerability of parenting, and we weren't technically even parents yet. Finally, after too many hours to report, a C-section was scheduled. At some point in that blurry evening or gauzy morning, a baby was born. I helped give her a bath in a tiny tub. She had brown hair, brown eyes and chubby little thighs. I'd never seen anything so beautiful. As my daughter and wife slept like they deserved, I went down to where some family had settled into the waiting room of St. Vincent's Hospital.
Winnie was there. She's the sister of my mother-in-law and the beloved aunt of my wife. She is beloved by many people. Her name is Winifred, but no one calls her that, expect my father-in-law, kind of, who loves her lots and calls her Fred. To everyone else she is Winnie. To everyone else that matters to her -- her dear sister, her two nieces, her two nephews-in-law, her four great-nieces/nephews and a select group of others she claims she can count on one hand (though she is lying because there are many others) -- she is a figure of unconditional love. She is tall and fair of skin and hair. She has maintained her formidable figure into her 60′s and carries herself with casual elegance. Both urbane and small town, she wears designer black during the week and college sweatshirts on the weekend. Winnie never married, and her intimate life is a mystery to most. She's a self-made woman of eager independence who lives in Manhattan, but her home is by the beach. She's an unwritten character in a Truman Capote novel or the grand benefactor in a work of Dickens. Most importantly to us, she is an enormously important figure in the life of our daughter.
We'd been home four days from the hospital when the phone rang. "Hello!" an ebullient voice sang through the receiver. "It's Winnie calling to wish Sophia a happy second Thursday!" My wife needed to hear from her. The C-section recovery had been painful, and we'd been housebound in Brooklyn in the dead of winter. Our apartment was dark and the baby didn't sleep. We had visitors but very little help. We were staggering into parenthood, unable to even delegate. Winnie's voice was a balm. No advice or judgment, just an open ear and endless faith. "Well, you both are perfect, so you will be perfect parents, too." Not true, we knew, but still nice to hear. We were vulnerable, and Winnie's way made us feel less so. We were glad she called. Then a week later, she called again, "Hello! It's Winnie calling to wish Sophia a happy third Thursday!"
A ritual had begun. Winnie would call to wish Sophia a happy Thursday, every Thursday. She kept count of the week and kept the same cheer in her voice. We figured she'd give up at some point, be out of town or sufficiently distracted, but the calls kept coming. "Ha-wo," Sophia would say into the phone when she began to dabble with words. "Winnieeee," she'd coo. Appropriately, her great aunt's name was easy to say. At 18 months (or 72 Thursdays in Winnie time), we moved to Italy for a year. This had to be the end of the Thursday streak. No chance. Winnie decided e-mail counts, and who were we to argue? She got through by phone on occasion, as well, and visited personally on what we unofficially believe was Thursday #92. When we returned to the States, the phone calls did, too, right in time. And then, on occasions like birthdays and Thursdays marking hundreds, Winnie came over. We drank special drinks and ate mountains of lamb chops, which had officially become the favorite meal of Winnie and Sophia. A glorious routine had been established in our lives. Word spread. The legend of Winnie was born amongst our family and friends, many of whom she'd never met.
On a Thursday of no particular distinction, not long ago, the phone rang:
"Hello! It's Winnie calling to wish Sophia a happy Thursday!"
"Winnie!" Sophia cried. "How are you?"
"I'm fine," she answered. "How are you?"
"Are you busy?"
"Well, then," Winnie said. "Look outside your window."
And there Winnie was, standing on our stoop, still talking into her phone and waiving at the window. Sophia flipped. She ran downstairs to let Winnie in for an impromptu party. No reason. Only Winnie. Winnie had surprised a child, given her a thrill by showing up at her door unannounced. Sophia will never forget that. I know of no one who has such a person in his or her life. Someone who makes you feel special in such original and extraordinary ways. In the modern world, such acts of random beauty are rare. Even more so when the set-up was hundreds and hundreds of weekly phone calls.
Of course, Winnie is more than just Thursdays in our life and of those she loves. Our children, and my wife's sister's children, have grown up at her condo by the beach. They've learned to swim in her pool and braved her ocean. Inside, there are always toys waiting for them, in hidden places. And Winnie isn't just a giver of gifts: she plops down on the floor with the kids and plays for hours. When they swim, she swims. When they play in the waves, she stands guard at the edge of the ocean. And after she's entertained our kids all day, she declares cocktail hour for the adults. We're hard working people of modest income. Our lives are busy and demanding. We need Winnie's hospitality and her special kind of love. Our family is at our best when we are gathered in her home. She is one of the brightest lights in all of our lives.
Her relationship with our daughter is the most important. In our era's new form of over-connectivity that can lack in substance what it provides in ease, their bond is unique and timeless, expressed in a regular act of extraordinary devotion: a message of love that began on the day a child was born and continues, without fail, for every such day of her life.
Soon, we will celebrate Sophia's 600th Thursday. Guess who's coming to dinner?