I sit in the final days of December counting my breath before my small Christmas tree, and as I bow in completion, I look up to the dried pine green to see illuminated between the branches my Big Ben ornament, hanging by a golden thread, its towering face reading 3:21 pm. My sanctuary is filled with candlelight, glowing amongst the chilly evening outside, and a small bottle of gifted effervescence awaits its release by the blue lotus flower at the base of my tree.
Half encased in textured foil, the bottle reads:
Standing upright to its left is a tall wide wine glass, with a giant appliquéd heart. Silver and asymmetrical, the playful shape encompasses swirls, stars, sequins, pearls, and a single butterfly. The glass has a theme written on its underside:
Bottle and glass, a pair beneath the lights, appropriately shine upon my British history. I gaze upon an old photograph I brought from my parent’s photo album, of a young blond girl, eyes closed in glee and love, nose to nose, held by her nanny. Her nanny, Ann.
My father was a fighter pilot in the Air Force. We moved around a lot, and many years of my childhood were spent in Europe. I learned my first words in Wheatley, right outside of Oxford, England, when my father was stationed at Upper Heyford flying F1-11s.
My parents were looking for a babysitter and were referred to a 16 year old local named Ann. Ann quickly became a member of our family, looking after my brother and I, and cultivating a strong friendship with my parents. After my father’s tour was over in England, we moved to Clovis, New Mexico, and Ann visited every summer, loving the hot American sun, and watching over us as we played in our sandbox and ran through the backyard sprinklers.
As my brother and I grew, and our family moved around, she was there for all the mile markers, and taught me the basics of makeup, boys, Aqua Net, and fashion. She was a second mother and an older sister all tied up in one.
She hugged me on my graduation, laughed and partied at my wedding, made me a gorgeous cake for my 30th birthday, and clapped in the audience when I kicked my legs as a Rockette for the first time.
Our correspondence went from lengthy sheets of folded paper within sparkling cards to emails to Facebook messages and FaceTime chats.
My mother had extensive hand surgery in the later days of 2011, and the two of them came to visit my married home for the last time in January of 2012. Ann was helping my mother in recovery, massaging her scar tissue and offering jokes and support. It was a cold beginning of the year, and my mother was wrapped to her eyeballs in scarf and hat to ease the NYC wind, while Ann smiled ear to ear with rosy cheeks from her long black furry coat. Mom and I may have been shivering, but Ann grabbed my cold hands, transferring her natural warmth to my fingers, colored white and numb.
I didn’t see Ann through the heartbreak and rebuilding of my life. She received much of the story through the lens of my mother, and random long email messages from my account. Ann was in her own pain at the time, seeing countless doctors for searing pain that was cutting off her mobility, and causing havoc down her spine and legs. She went to countless doctors, swallowed endless amounts of medications, and the pain only increased, as did her frustration.
Finally a chiropractor diagnosed Ann with a dislocated hip, and surgery was scheduled for holiday 2013.
We Facetimed with Ann on Christmas Day, and witnessed her fear and relief. The surgery had been scary, but the family that she nannied for had taken her in, and given her a room to convalesce and heal as she began to walk without pain for the first time in two years.
As I saw her tears, I recognized the fear and loneliness. I was coping with my first Christmas post divorce and longed to hug her across the screen and to be held at the same time.
Over 2014, there were many more FaceTime chats, and we began to see more of Genevieve, the little blond three year old Ann took care of. Once Genevieve saw pictures of me dancing, she wanted to twirl on camera and be a ballerina too. Watching her spin and whirl her arms, I saw a familiar little girl leaping throughout my childhood living room.
Ann saw it too.
So did my mom.
This Christmas Ann was able to come stateside and in her deep hug, I felt all the memories return of lifesavers candy, matching outfits, and laughing until our sides hurt. Although now, we both had scars to share.
While home over the holidays, I opened the closet in my parent’s living room, pulling out the thick brown photo albums from my youth. As the plastic crinkled and cracked with each page turn, I gazed upon the rounded Kodak edges of my family. I saw a photo of me curled up at the foot of my bed, with Ann asleep diagonally. I had forgotten about this, and when I showed this to Ann, she smiled and remarked,
“You always slept with me.”
As I turned each page, I saw Ann there not only with me and my brother, but also by my mother’s side. I began to hear my mother’s memories, and their long phone conversations over the years. The bond existed on many levels, not just from my childhood candied hands.
Though she never shared our last name, there was no doubt her place within our lives. Ann always used to say I was “such a lucky girl”, but I believe the luck was having her warm hand around my cold fingers, forming a community of love and support as I grew.
Triangular pink and green hats sit festively upon our three heads, noise makers sitting to the side, awaiting the final countdown of a year gone by. We raise our glasses, clinking and setting bubbles to the surface. Music pours from the TV, and the joyous celebration of Times Square inspires me to my feet, pulling Ann up from her seat. My mother starts taking a video, and Ann and I twist our hips, holding hands, laughing, and singing:
Shake it off
As “auld lang syne” fills the room, I pour the sparkling gold into the silver lining glass, and toast to my mother and Ann. Our glasses meet for a moment, then tilt back in unison, quenching our New Year thirst.