Sophie and I arrived in Buenos Aires on January 20 at dawn. I was awake during the eight-hour flight from Miami. I held her all night as I watched her sleep, thinking that she was turning two-months old on her first airplane trip, and wishing I hadn’t been so nervous about travelling alone with her. When the plane took off, she looked at me with her blue eyes wide open, sucking energetically on her pink pacifier, as if wondering what was going on. After that, she slept for hours.
The previous weeks had not been easy. Perhaps I was used to a lifestyle where I had control over almost everything: a job I enjoyed, yoga classes 3 times a week, going to book readings, spending time with my nephews (and returning them to my sister), and taking naps whenever I felt like it, which was every weekend, as a matter of fact.
Sophie was my dream come true, my beautiful daughter with eyes as blue as the ocean on a cloudy day. Having spent so much time with my nephews, I assumed taking care of a baby would be easy. It wasn’t. Sophie cried often, like many newborns do, and after trying in vain to calm her, I felt like crying myself. I was stressed, which I’m sure she perceived, and this probably made her cry more, which in turn made me feel worse. Top it all off with a couple of hours of sleep per night. Naps were out of the question.
Six weeks after she was born, I decided to reschedule our trip to Buenos Aires. This was the time to rely on my parents, and particularly, on my mom.
During our one-month visit to Argentina, I rediscovered the beauty of Buenos Aires in the summer, the trees by the old avenues in bloom, the pace of the city unhurried, as if it too had to slow down under the January heat. Since I left the country, four years earlier, I had always visited in winter or autumn, preferring the colder weather for a change from Miami’s eternal summer.
My mom and I took long walks in our neighborhood pushing the beige and orange stroller, two proud mothers planning the activities of the days to come, checking out the summer sales at boutiques, stopping in air-conditioned coffee shops for a break from the warm weather. I had always been close to my mother, but after having Sophie, our relationship grew stronger. I had fallen in love with a divorced man with children, just like her, and just like her, my first child had been a girl.
Sophie was to me what I had been to her, and maybe that is why she loved my daughter in a way nobody else did, her patience unlimited, her belief that Sophie was special unbreakable. It was she who organized gatherings for friends and family to meet the baby, who made sure the prettiest dresses were ironed to perfection, who took dozens of pictures every day and couldn’t bring herself to delete any one of them because Sophie was beautiful in every single one.
Sophie knew, and she dedicated her first smiles to my mom. “Buen diiiiia,” my mother said every morning in the high-pitched tone she used to address her. As soon as she recognized her voice, Sophie opened her mouth and turned her head towards the side in her first attempts to communicate. “Buen diiiiia,” I sometimes said to her when my mom left the room, imitating the tone of her voice and hoping for the same reaction, which more often than not, did not follow.
One afternoon my mom took out the family baptism gown, a long, white, lacey outfit that had been used for generations. We had decided not to baptize the baby, but I agreed that it was important to keep the family tradition and that Sophie should at least wear the dress. When we took it off, after an extensive photo session, she started smiling and babbling and sucking her hand and my mom said it was her way of appreciating the beauty of the gown and the meaning of the tradition.
Early mornings were their special moment. While I slept a precious additional hour, my mom took the baby and the family dog, Lennon, to the park. The movement of the stroller on the battered sidewalks and the morning air never failed to soothe Sophie, who stared at the sky in amazement for a couple of blocks before taking her morning nap.
In the evenings, after the daily bath, my mom gave Sophie the last feeding bottle, wrapped her in a pink blanket, and placed her in her crib, wishing her a good night and reminding her that the following day they would go out together. Seeing my mother enjoy her so much drew me closer to her, aware of how blessed Sophie was to have her in her life.
The anguish I had felt over the previous weeks drifted away. Sophie still cried often and didn’t nap much, but there were more hands to hold her. My childhood friends, all married with children, welcomed me into a world I only now joined, in which long afternoons were spent over coffee, discussing how to deal with crying babies or jealous siblings. They told me to savor these first months, time flew and before I realized I’d be looking for a school for her.
A routine was quickly established. Every day, my mom and I would walk the two blocks to my grandmother’s apartment, and took Sophie for a visit. My grandmother was 98 years old and practically didn’t recognize people any more. A couple of times, though, she squeezed my hand and looked me in the eye, unable to speak, and I know she understood that the baby monopolizing the attention of the women who took care of her was her seventh great-grandchild.
My grandmother lived with her young sister, Cota, who was only 97. Not only was her health perfect but she was one of the sharpest people I’ve known. “I’ve never seen a baby with such a perfect mouth, she looks like a kitten. I’ve always preferred little boys, but this child is special,” she repeated. Sophie’s visits became the highlight of her day, and her main topic of conversation. It was moving to realize how much she meant to her, and how a 40 minute visit gave meaning to her days. “What do you mean you’re taking her for four days?” she complained when I told her about my plan to visit some friends in Uruguay. “What am I going to do without her?” I tried to convince her that the days would fly, but there was no consolation.
My family lived two years in Uruguay when I was a child, and we were still very close with some of the friends we made there. Together with hundreds of Argentinean tourists heading for the seaside resort of Punta del Este, my mom, Sophie and I crossed the Rio de la Plata on a catamaran, a three-hour journey where we talked about everything and nothing as we enjoyed the water view from a table next to the window, that was surprisingly available. On a last minute impulse I had requested an upgrade to first class, thinking that it was worth making this special trip even more special. “Only two months and she’s travelling by boat, and visiting her third country. She’s going to be a world traveler,” my mom declared in a solemn voice.
My friend Gloria was waiting for us at the port. Gloria and I met when we were in fourth grade. We had just moved to Montevideo and overheard that she took ballet classes. “My sister wants to take lessons, who is her teacher?” I said to her. Not only did we become best friends, but so did our younger sisters who were the same age, and our mothers.
In the afternoon we headed towards La Cruz, their ranch, where I had spent many vacations, swimming for hours in the pool, playing hide and seek in the vineyards, horseback riding until our bodies ached, playing cards on rainy afternoons. On any given day, there were at least a dozen children, and we enjoyed the freedom, the ability to disappear for hours to find the ultimate hiding spot or build a fort with the logs of wood that were piled behind the kitchen door. Now, my daughter was one of the twenty children between the ages of one and 12 that were there that particular weekend, playing with the dogs, fighting over who got which horse, complaining that it was not fair that they were not allowed to go in the pool right after lunch. And I was one of the boring grown-ups that insisted on their taking a nap in the unbearable heat instead of playing barefoot in the mud puddles behind the swings.
After dinner Gloria and I went for a walk with our strollers and wide-awake children, hoping that the movement would lullaby them to sleep. Her eight month old son, Felipe, looked just like her, with his dark skin and happy brown eyes. They looked like a Benetton ad, Sophie’s paleness standing out next to Felipe’s brown skin. He babbled and tried to touch her, and we immediately blessed their union, after Gloria made it very clear that my daughter would have to move to Uruguay because her son was not leaving.
We walked under the starry sky, remembering the huge water-balloon war we organized one summer or the time we started laughing so hard while we were horseback riding that we dropped the reins and the horses ran off and we fell against a tree. Felipe complained, unable to fall asleep. Gloria took him in her arms and rocked him. “At times I have the feeling that as mothers we complain about everything. The baby cries, or doesn’t sleep enough, or sleeps but not at the right time, or eats too little . . . Enough! We don’t have a right to complain, it’s our decision to give life, our responsibility to care for them, and we should do it with a smile,” she said. My childhood friend had turned into the kind of mother I wanted to become, and her words stayed with me for a long time.
Back in Buenos Aires, a star was born… My mom has a way of bringing an element of playfulness to the little moments that make up our life. One morning, I found a newspaper clipping on the kitchen table. It was an advertisement for a ballet performance at the Colon Theatre. Toward the top of the ad, my mom’s round handwriting read: “Auditioning for foreign 2-to-4-month-old prima ballerina”. She gave me a teasing look. “I think she has a good chance,” she said. A couple of days later, more than 6,000 tourists arrived in Buenos Aires on international cruises, making the cover of most papers. “They’re here for the audition”, declared my mother. Every time Sophie kicked with her chubby legs we’d say she was practicing for the show, and if she cried we’d assure her that she would get the role, even though apparently there was an Italian candidate who had strong connections with the artistic world. One sunny afternoon we headed towards the park for a stroll. In front of the statue of Argentina’s Independence hero, General San Martin San Martin, a stage had been set up, with an impressive red carpet leading up to a podium. A military band was playing the national anthems of Argentina and Chile, in commemoration of a battle. The soldiers’ white and blue uniforms sparkled in the sun. “They found out the prima ballerina is here and they organized a ceremony for her!” said my mom. Every little thing that happened was tied into this silly game that made us laugh like teenagers.
Finally the visit came to its end. I felt stronger and ready to enjoy my daughter. In the airport, I handed our passports and boarding passes to a young woman in a blue uniform, who looked at Sophie with a big smile. Before disappearing from view, I turned around and waved good bye to my mom. As I squeezed Sophie against me in the baby carrier, I wished that one day, when she had her first child, I would be able to be there for her like my mom had been there for me.