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September 11th and Sandy: A Mother-Daughter Story

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Back in 2001, September 11th triggered my household's flight from our East Village apartment. My husband, my five-week-old daughter and I took the train to Long Beach, a beachy barrier island that seemed like the ultimate haven from the tragic haze of Manhattan. Beckoned by my mother, we stayed in her apartment on the first floor of a stately 1920s home that faced other stately homes. She didn't have a guest bedroom, so we slept on her fold-out couch, the baby between us. The breeze sometimes carried the aroma of Gino's Pizza, which was right around the corner, or the ocean, which was a few blocks in the other direction.

Most days, I walked with my baby towards the sea, along the boardwalk, onto the sand and towards the ocean, its fierceness like a barking dog you fear but know is tied up. On the way home, I gently pushed my infant in a baby swing at Magnolia Park. My old life was completely gone, but this one, so undefined and shock-stilled, felt almost cosseting. We stayed with my mom for six weeks, then moved into an apartment next door. A year later, we relocated to Santa Fe for financial (and other) reasons.

Ten years after that, Hurricane Sandy hit Long Beach. In between those ferocious brackets, my mother married, divorced and remarried. I had another child, divorced my husband and married again. Through it all, my mother moved out of and then back into Long Beach, and I stayed in Santa Fe, relaxing more deeply into New Mexico than I ever did back in my home state of New York, which seemed like a broken egg shell that I'd clawed and pecked my way out of. Yet I loved it with wistfulness, wonder and licks of adrenaline -- the way parts of my soul seemed to remain with people I'd loved and lost.

I wrote about that time in Chapter 20 of my new memoir, Licking the Spoon: A Memoir of Food, Family, and Identity (Seal Press, 11/12). "My mother was busy and hard to pin down. I'd thought she'd be around more, to help me with the baby and even just keep me company." Although she did help by doing our laundry (we didn't have a washer and dryer) and loaning us her car, I bridled at her comments about my post-baby weight and many other things. It was easier to get grumpy about the small stuff than to address old wounds. Losing my temper and yelling at her didn't make me feel good, but keeping my mouth shut was unimaginable.

When I was little, we were so close. We baked together, took walks to a luncheonette with red gingham curtains and danced in the living room to Anne Murray and Judy Collins records.

As a new mom, I felt alternately surly and huffy as a teenager and bereft as a preschooler around my own mother. When I was a teenager, she and I locked horns the way mothers and daughters do. But instead of coming out the other side, that transition was disrupted when her husband at the time violently attacked me. I left my mother's house for good at age 17, feeling betrayed that she didn't stand up for me. I kept growing, but my dynamic with my mother didn't. It was like a bone that broke and set incorrectly, jarringly painful to witness or use.

After we moved to New Mexico, it was a relief to have a fresh start in an entirely new kind of America. Stunning vistas dwarfed our petty concerns. Each sunset seemed, with its chromatic brio, hell-bent on showing the previous one up. Sadly, though, there was no good pizza. That was okay. It would have reminded me too much of the world I left behind. My move delivered me from dealing. It was easier to feel close to my mom from a distance.

But Sandy changed all that. Before the hurricane hit, my mother and her husband decided not to evacuate, and their cozy apartment was transformed into a disaster area, with waterlogged floors, no heat, gas, electric, water or plumbing. "Get here," I ordered when they called. "Get on a plane and come stay with me. Now." I apologized to my wife for not asking her first, but the reality of these two sixty-something people shivering in a foul-smelling, swamped dystopia that used to be home was unbearable. Long Beach, once my safe haven, was now their paradise lost.

I had 24 hours to prepare our house for my mom. I've never cleaned out a fridge so fast in my life. My wife Laura and I denuded my 8-year-old son's room of Lego flotsam and laundry jetsam and then transformed it into a welcoming, tidy guest bedroom, swapping out my son's single bed for my daughter's double, adding magazines to the bedside table. I noticed that as I worked, my chest swelled full of a kind of passionate excitement. I had learned over time when something felt right "in my gut," but this felt right in my heart, so right it was beaming.

They arrived disheveled, wide-eyed, carrying a few changes of clothes and important paperwork. Although I had to work late that evening, I felt driven to cook them a real meal after their days of eating dry cereal and beans from a can, and so I made them chicken with roasted cherry tomatoes and mozzarella. We sat around the table, smiling, exhausted, incredulous.

I couldn't believe the neatness of the symmetry: My mother had urged us into her home after 9/11, and I had done the same for her and her husband. My kids were thrilled, I was relieved, and my mother and Lenny were warm, clean and fed. But I wondered when the other shoe would drop. As I cleaned, I had promised myself that I wouldn't lose my temper at my mother, carp and snap.

In the following days, I felt like life had served up another opportunity for us to get it right. Just like me back in Long Beach, they'd decided to move to Santa Fe, and quickly found an apartment a few miles from us.

A decade of motherhood and big life changes had pummeled me into a more tenderized version of my younger self, although I'd never lose my smart-aleck edge. It was sheathed but sharp as ever.

I needed to hold my boundaries. But at the same time, I also need to let certain things go.

It didn't take too long for me to be put to the test. Two days later, I met my mother and Lenny in town on my lunch break. She was wearing my most treasured, special, expensive-shirt-got-on-sale during an early romantic trip Laura and I took to New York. "I borrowed your shirt. I'm sorry, I just didn't want to embarrass you by looking too casual in front of your coworkers. I'll wash it and iron it, I promise." She did just escape from a natural disaster with hardly any clothing. How could I begrudge her?

The next morning, I woke up and checked on the shirt. It was hanging up, but smelled of her perfume. She hadn't washed it, and I felt both exasperated and furious. She was asleep, so I had to sit with my unhappiness.

That was a good thing. I realized that I had the option to share my feelings without being a jerk.

When my mother woke up, I said in a hale, cheerful manner, "Mom, I understand that you might need to borrow clothing, and that's fine, but please call or text me so that I can be in on the decision."

"Sure, hon, and I was going to wash your shirt but I wasn't sure if you wanted it dry cleaned, so I hung it up until I could ask you."

Shirtgate was one thing, but I realized that I had a doozy ahead: watching the presidential election returns. My mother who would surely be rooting for Romney, as she had voted for conservatives for as long as I could remember. Laura and I supported Obama for many reasons, but the most fundamental reason would be that he supported the validity of our same-sex marriage. Having my own family members deride that with their political objectives -- in our living room! -- would be harsh.

"I guess we can't vote," Lenny said, walking into the kitchen.

"I'm not too upset about that, since you'd be voting for Romney," I said, then instantly regretted it.

"What?" my mother asked. "I'm not voting for that guy." Lenny shook his head in agreement.

"Really? You'd both be voting for Obama?"

"Yes!"

If they'd been rooting for the president's opponent, Laura and I would have just gone out to watch the election unfold at our local microbrewery. It's not like we couldn't have thought up that Plan B.

But on Election Night, my mother and I were not only in the same state, and the same room, but both of us were in the same state of celebration: dancing ecstatically to George Michael's "Freedom," as the television flashed on victorious scenes of Obama supporters waving their flags and dancing too, albeit much more sedately. Laura and Lenny looked on, partners in bemusement. An uncannily good imitation of New York pizza sat on the counter from the new joint down the street, mostly eaten, yet another surprising improvement churned out of the previous decade. All around me was evidence of positive change. Could I be the change I wanted to see in my family?

Sandy washed my mother back into my life. And although I still catch myself wanting to harrumph and roll my eyes now and then, I like myself better when I let the urge pass.