The Pine Barrens are green again. For many years, I passed that large patch of forestry west of Exit 63 on my drive back and forth from Manhattan to our summer home in Quogue. Like dancers frozen in a pose, the trees remained charred from a series of brush fires that took place during the late summer of 1995. I remember that summer well. It was my summer with Irina.
Irina was the Russian babysitter I had hired in 1995 to help with my children, Anna and David who were six and one at the time. Irina: 50ish, auburn hair, tight black leggings, and kitten heels. Not your typical Russian babushka, unless your babushka resembles Ann-Margret. She had two adult daughters so I thought of her more like a sexy grandma than a babysitter for David.
She would bring Anna, “Little Debbie” cookies and teach her a few words in Russian, but she spent most of her time clip clopping after David. She sang him songs in Russian, pureed carrots and apples in the blender when he was an infant, and swaddled him like a tightly rolled blintz.
The day of the fires Irina was putting some plates away as I played with David on the kitchen floor.
“Mama,” David said and reached his arms around my neck to get at the piece of hair he liked to twirl between his thumb and forefinger.
“He call me mama too.” Irina said.
My head whipped around to see her laughing. I felt like I had been smacked in the face. If David had called her Mama, why would she tell me? Did she intentionally want to hurt me? Next, would she be telling me that my husband called her honey? Or did her comment sting because she sometimes acted like his mama?
When David was six-months-old I found her holding him over the toilet.
“Dis is how ve do it in my country, no more diapers.”
“We’re not in your country,” I said and grabbed David away.
Or was her comment hurtful because she had consistently questioned my judgment?
“That movie eees nut fur hur,” she said when I let Anna watch Dirty Dancing. Then she shook her head and chuckled. That chuckle hurt me more than the fact that she was right.
Didn’t she know how hard I was trying? I had left a job on Wall Street to stay home with my children. Forgive me Sheryl Sandberg, I had leaned out. But that didn’t mean I wasn’t competitive. I needed to get an A in mothering just like I needed to get 100 on every test in high school. But Anna was the first infant I had ever held. The first week home with her I inadvertently knocked her head against the door while carrying her, cut a small piece of skin off of her pinky when I attempted to trim her nail, and fed her milk for months before I figured out she was lactose intolerant.
Five years later when David was born, I was determined to get it right. I wanted to nurse David for as long as possible. I loved the closeness of his skin, the way his blue eyes twinkled when they met mine, and the oxytocin “high” that I got while I nursed. At ten months he was ready to stop. I wasn’t. I pinched my nipples every night for months to make sure I still had milk, just in case he changed his mind. He didn’t. He had moved on: dropped me for the Russian Ann-Margret!
And why not? Sometimes she knew him better than I did. When David was nine- months-old, she insisted he was getting sick. “He’s fine,” I told her.
That night I held cool compresses on his hot skin as his fever spiked to 104 degrees. I ignored her “I told you so looks” the next day, while I tried to swallow the big wad of jealousy stuck in my throat.
I was still smarting from Irina’s comment as I waited with Anna for her camp bus. I reminded Anna that we would be going to Westhampton for the weekly concert that evening. It was the highlight of our week. We would spread our fuzzy blue blanket on the grass and listen to jazz, samba, pop and the screams of children chasing each other. By the end of the night the blanket would be covered in fried chicken crumbs, deflated Capri Sun pouches, and half-eaten mini black and whites from the Westhampton Beach Bakery. Sometimes I would bring Irina, but not tonight. I wanted David all to myself.
Now, I watched Anna find a seat on the small yellow bus then headed back into the house. I picked out a pair of denim overall shorts for David to match the ones I was already wearing. If I could have written “Mama” on mine I would have. “See you later,” I said to Irina as David and I walked towards the car. Her mouth sagged.
I drove to Quogue and parked in front of The Inn Spot, an old fashioned luncheonette where we often sat and drank homemade lemonade and ate warm chocolate chip cookies. Today David toddled passed the luncheonette and turned down the first corner onto a quiet residential street that was shaded by one long canopy of arched oak trees. He spotted a large branch that had fallen from a tree and dragged it back and forth along the sidewalk. The scrapping noise made him giggle.
I plopped down on the lawn in front of an old white house with brown shingles. I watched David play with the branch and wondered if he had called Irina Mama? I pulled him towards me and pressed my cheek against his. I inhaled his warm breath; it smelled familiar, like my own. It was proof that he was mine.
When we returned home my neighbor Liz called.
“Lesley, there’s a big brush fire in the Pine Barrens and it jumped over Sunrise Highway, near Exit 63. Can’t you hear the helicopters?”
My throat went dry as I pictured Anna’s bus surrounded by flames. I paced the front step making all kinds of promises to God, if he or she would just get Anna home safely.
It was only when I saw the bit of yellow through the trees, that my heart stopped pounding in my ears. Now, the smell of smoke was in the air. I scooped Anna up before her sneakers hit the last step and squeezed her tight. She was red faced and sweaty, her brown hair smelled of chlorine.
Once we got back into the house, I called the Quogue police department to ask them what we should do.
“If it were my family, I would leave,” the officer said.
I hung up the kitchen phone and turned to Irina who was standing next to me.
“Irina we have to leave. There’s a big fire, a few miles away,” I said. She stared at me for a minute.
“I pack,” she said and headed towards her room.
“I’m sorry Irina; you don’t have time to take anything.”
I picked up David, took Anna’s hand and headed to the car. As I pulled out, Anna said:
“Mommy, what about the concert?”
“No concert tonight honey. We’re all having a sleepover at your friend Brianna’s in East Hampton,” I said as cheerfully as possible.
The next day we were able to return to Quogue. Irina was in the passenger seat as I drove home.
“Eat wos a fake emergency,” she said, then laughed.
Maybe so, I thought, but I was the mama that day.