Blessings for the new year can come from unlikely places

02 Jan 2020 | 11:45

The following piece was originally featured in Fresh Dirt, a bi-monthly e-newsletter by Becca Tucker, Editor and Publisher of Dirt magazine. To receive the newsletter, visit: www.bit.ly/fresh-dirt

The benediction

On line for Starbucks at a New Jersey Turnpike rest stop, I’ve got the baby strapped to my chest, my travel mug in my fist and my eyes on my girls, who are sitting across the food court at one of the two empty tables to be had, eating Popeyes chicken tenders. The week between Christmas and New Year’s is a zoo; my four-year-old was like a salmon swimming upstream just trying to get into the building between the masses of grown-up legs carrying drinks and not looking down. But here we are in a moment of calm, the baby cuddly now that he’s out of his scream-inducing carseat, the girls getting something approximating dinner, and me anticipating caffeine to power me through the last leg of the drive home. What is that Irish coffee cold brew on the menu?

“Que Jesús sea tu compañero.”

An old woman behind us in line is beaming at the baby, who’s hiding his face in my chest until curiosity gets the better of him and he peeps out at her, and she smiles and murmurs: “Que Jesús sea tu compañero,” and he hides his face, and... I am struck once again with the thought that very old people and very young people should hang out together like all the time.

The old woman is small, stooped and lovely, with café con leche skin and salt-and-pepper hair gathered into a neat French braid. Her grown daughter, who looks about my age, offers a rough translation. But I have a little Spanish, enough that I appreciate the old woman’s use of the subjunctive tense and am trying to focus my ears on making out her words over the rest stop hullabaloo. These five words were clearly a common refrain in the sunny place where she was born, where I imagine she raised her children.

The subjunctive tense in Spanish has always struck me as particularly elegant. At night, after years of trying out different goodnight refrains with the kids – a Jewish prayer? that dumb rhyme about the bed bugs? – I’ve settled on a similar phrase that I ripped off from a bilingual storybook: Que sueñes con los angelitos. Which means: May you dream with the little angels. Which would come off as stilted in English but sounds just right to me in Spanish, not to mention a sneaky language primer.

This abuelita's words, likewise, would not have sent shivers up my neck if I'd heard them in English. She was conveying her hope – or more like her blessing – that Jesus would be the baby's companion. I automatically turned my body as the line turned to keep the baby in her sights. Each time he peeped up, she beamed just as bright, and expressed her wish for him just as fervently, until finally as we were approaching the barista, the daughter said in Spanish, “Mamá, enough,” explaining apologetically that she had Alzheimer’s.

Not at all, not at all, I said. “I can feel the blessings passing between generations,” I said, and the daughter sighed with relief. Sometimes people get bothered, especially with children, she said, and I saw that her eyes were moist, her patience wearing thin. Suddenly instead of seeing a stranger I had the momentary sensation that I was looking in a mirror: this woman whose curly hair was also graying along her temples was, like me, shepherding a vulnerable loved one through this crush of humanity, everyone just trying to get through this industrial wasteland and home to their own bed.

Then I probably over-shared, considering I was ordering next and wanted to inquire about that Irish coffee cold brew, but there we were, adrift in two boats passing each other by just this once. I told her I’d lost my mom two years ago, and she was lucky to still have hers. She gave her mamá a squeeze and said she hoped she’d have her for many years to come.

What I did not say: that I was desperately greedy for these blessings, regardless that I happen to be a nonbelieving Jew, regardless of what her mother could or couldn't remember. That I wanted to take her mother’s tissue paper hands and press them to my cheek. That since my mom died two years and one week ago, I find myself drawn to my kids’ classmates grandparents, following them around until my very perceptive 7-year-old called me out and laughed, “You love old people!” That I know it must be harder than I can fathom to watch your mother’s mind fog up, but still, what I wouldn’t give for that opportunity. To cover my face with my own mom's soft, strong fingers; to lay my son, the grandchild she never met, next to her on her flowered comforter, looks from this vantage like an unspeakable luxury.

Say “happy new year, Ma,” said the daughter, and abuelita did, obligingly, in heavily accented English. Happy new year, I answered, but she was somewhere else, somewhere far from the New Jersey Turnpike.

I passed abuelita again on our way out, after we’d navigated the bathrooms and recovered from a tantrum that resulted in an entire chicken tender landing on the rest stop floor, where the five second rule really is limited to about five seconds. But this time she was with a different daughter. I flashed her a smile but she didn't recognize me.

But she’d already given us her benediction, and along with my coffee, we’d take it for the road.