When our first son, Zachary, was born, as his doting, proud, “look-what-we-made” parents, he seemed perfect to us in every way. He slept through the night by eight weeks of age, rarely cried, and was the firstborn grandson on both sides. Prior to his arrival, my mother-in-law borrowed an antique cradle to sit at the foot of our bed. With its sky-blue hue that matched his eyes and gold-leaf trim that complemented his hair, it looked like something made for a Medici.
Fast-forward 18 months to Thursday, May 19, 1994, as our second son got ready to enter the world. My contractions started during one of the best Seinfeld episodes of all time—the one in which George Costanza feigns being a marine biologist to impress a date, and as he and his date stroll the sands, as luck would have it, there’s a whale in distress and a concerned onlooker yells out, “Is anyone here a marine biologist?” I recall feeling terribly inconvenienced by the contractions at the time. Didn’t my unborn baby know that during the hallowed half hour when Seinfeld was on, I didn’t take phone calls from my own mother?
After the credits rolled, we headed to Pennsylvania Hospital, where hours later, just before sunrise, Alexander Jacob Marion came into the world at 6 lbs., 9 oz. He had my red hair. Right on cue, as he took his first breath of air, he let out a piercing wail, and all was forgiven and forgotten. But three months later, when the crying continued, I was ready to break up with my baby.
From the beginning, there were big differences between our boys. While Zachary rested in blissful slumber, Alex was a sensitive sleeper. Within his first six weeks of life, I’d lost all 30 pounds of my baby weight because there was no time to eat—and even less time for sleep. In our growing household, Alex’s makeshift nursery was an open loft space just off our bedroom where my husband’s office had once been. And the minute I went up or down our long set of creaky stairs, he’d hear me and start sobbing.
Within weeks, I caved and took up residence on the futon in his room and let him sleep marsupial-style against my skin. But as the months wore on, I begged my husband to consider a minor renovation project that would entail closing up the loft space with a wall and a door. He was adamant that it was unnecessary. But as Alex persisted, so did I. On March 3, my 30th birthday, a contractor arrived at our small Philadelphia townhome. Up went the wall, and in went the door to separate mother from son.
But a wall and a door hardly solved all of my issues. As Alex got older, he developed a list of what I jokingly called his greatest hits—and some of them were literal. There was the time, at age 3, when he opened the door to my moving minivan on the Florida Turnpike. On the same trip, he removed his light-up Stride Rite from his oversized toddler foot and tossed it toward my head, where it almost knocked me out from behind the wheel of the car. Then there was the incident when he accidentally slammed my index finger in his dresser drawer. Later, over a large cocktail, I joked to my husband that if I was dead when he came home, “Alex did it.”
Perhaps Alex’s most infamous episode—other than getting lost at The Florida Mall in Orlando—was what we now refer to as the Great Easter Egg Hunt of 2004, when I found a Mary Sue Easter Egg wrapper floating in the powder room toilet. Just an hour before, at 7:30 a.m., Alex had asked me if he could eat one of his chocolate Easter eggs, and I’d said, “No,” in my most disapproving mommy-as-monster voice. Now, here was the foil wrapper of the very same egg floating in our toilet—and Alex was denying it. “Okay,” said my husband sternly to the kids. “Until one of you confesses, you’re all punished.” About 12 hours later, he fessed up, bewildered by our sleuthing skills, and while we laughed it off, we did have our concerns, not only about Alex, but our plumbing. I distinctly remember thinking, “Woe to this kid’s future wife.”
“For whatever credit I can take, I’ve spent all these years making him perfect for someone else.”
And yet, as the years wore on, Alex seemed to soften and sweeten. We were almost too busy to notice. At three-and-a-half, he became a middle child when his sister, Sophia, was born. While his newborn sister demanded my attention, he rose to the role of being in the middle. Seemingly overnight, he grew into a caring brother, a devoted friend, and a model citizen. By age 11, he convinced us to get a pair of puppies because he wanted something to have and to hold. (“Get a girlfriend,” I said, half-jokingly.)
Alex was also pretty entertaining to be around. He was a yo-yo expert and a master practical joker with a fake dog doo and vomit collection. But, for all of his silly boy-ness, he was humble, compassionate, and kind—even to his mom as he approached adolescence. I loved his company and relished the time we spent together, which, as he entered his teens, suddenly felt precious and fleeting.
In the car, while driving him to school, I’d often reach back (at red lights) and offer my hand. “Paw,” I would say. “Paw,” he would say back, reaching for mine. And then, once we’d reach our destination, we’d walk into school holding hands. “Will you still hold my hand in sixth grade?” I asked at the beginning of fifth. “Yes,” he said. The next year, I’d ask, “Will you still hold my hand in seventh grade?” “Yes,” he reassured me, and his answer—and actions—never wavered through 12th grade. While I never gave it much thought, because I was the woman who was most central to his world, or so I thought, our son had become quite the “catch,” and girls were taking notice. “Whoever eventually gets him will be a lucky woman,” I’d think to myself.
The first time I met Marley, she and Alex were two weeks into their relationship, which was sparked on Tinder. It was his sophomore year at the University of Maryland, and the three of us had made a lunch date. Marley wanted to meet me, he said, and, as I drove up to the dorm, I saw them together for the first time. He had mentioned that she was a model, but I was in no way prepared for the 5’9”, raven-haired, wasp-waisted beauty before me. Over lunch, she was engaging and interesting and eager to learn about me and our family. Clearly, she was also smitten with our son. From the start, there was an immediate ease between them—they just looked like a couple. Alex, who had come off a bad breakup and whose first year of college had been rocky, looked happy in a way I hadn’t seen in some time.
Now, six years later, I still see it in his face—and in hers. It’s the look that occurs when two people are the perfect fit and have, inexplicably, out of the many billions on the planet, found their way to each other. So, I’ve stepped aside and tried to remain only in their peripheral vision. I’ve tried to make space, even though, deep down, I want to hold on, literally, for dear life. And though I make frequent jokes about joining them on their Hawaiian honeymoon, the hand he now holds is hers. He has found someone to love him as much as I do, though I’m not going to lie: I’m crying on the inside. And some days, on the outside, too.
The news of the engagement (a cave in Iceland, an heirloom diamond, down on one knee, while shivering in the snow) made my heart swell and my eyes well. But the real bawling began at the wedding tasting a few months prior to the wedding. As we debated the merits of various butlered hors d’oeuvres—lamb flatbread, short ribs with yucca—and argued the virtues of a donut wall vs. Philly pretzels—the reality hit me hard. My baby was a big boy now.
Things really got emotional when my husband and I took Alex to our favorite clothing store, Boyds Philadelphia, for his own wedding suit. It was the same place that had sold my husband his Bar Mitzvah suit and the tuxedo for our wedding. Here we were again, marking another milestone. As Alex tried on suits made in Italy and a salesman named Joe assisted with ties, I told him that he looked like a movie star. Later, as my husband held an iridescent red and blue silk tie up to his neck, I was melting. “I’m swooning,” I said, at which point my husband banished me to the women’s department to find my own ensemble, which I did.
Now, as I wear my blue dress and gold heels, and I walk Alex down the aisle at 25, once again, we’re paw in paw, but this time it’s different. I hold his hand just a little more tightly and squeeze it a few times, as if to say this is the end of something. On some level, my work is done. It’s a natural law I finally understand. For whatever credit I can take, I’ve spent all these years making him perfect for someone else.
My Alex, whom I alternately refer to as Ali, Boo, Bear, and Boo Bear, is about to be a married man, and it will be for the best if I retire those terms of endearment for him, though I hope that the one he’s given me will stick: Alex calls me Hazel’s Amazing Mother, inspired by a Rosemary Wells book of the same name. Hazel is the badger protagonist who gets lost in the woods. And just as a bunch of bullies rough up her doll, Hazel’s mother intuits that her daughter is in danger and rushes to the rescue without Hazel ever saying a word. “How did you do it?” asks Hazel in astonishment as her mother appears, picnic basket filled with Hazel’s favorite foods in tow. “It must have been the power of love,” responds her mother.
For all of his years, when Alex needed a car ride, a hot meal, a hug, a shoulder to cry on—in other words, a mother—I showed up hour by hour, day by day, with the full force of my love. From the moment of his birth, this was a given. In turn, he always allowed me to love him, never once pushing me away, even when it would have been perfectly appropriate as he forged his own path and identity. He allowed me to come to the rescue—even when he didn’t need saving. This was his way of showing me love.
And now, as I watch Alex and Marley stand under the chuppah—framed by a spray of tulips, heather, lilacs, anemones, and roses—I am grateful for this beautiful boy, for this gorgeous girl, for this passage.
Much as I want to continue to clutch Alex’s hand, I cannot. As my mascara drips down my carefully made-up face, and sniffles threaten to stain my satin dress, I am hardly the picture of poise, but I do feel enlightened. I know now that my husband was right, the wall was a waste of money. In time, it goes up—even without a call to the contractor.
Between the ceremony and the cocktail reception, mascara and lipstick get reapplied; hair is smoothed; I center myself in my gold lace pumps and try not to look back. I don’t wonder where time has gone or focus on the fact that this union has made me feel ancient and ancillary. Instead, against the backdrop of “Moon River,” I take a deep breath and join my son on the dance floor for one more whirl—I need to let go. I can do this, I tell myself. I am, after all, Marley’s Amazing Mother-in-Law.
Jane Marion is the food and dining editor for Baltimore.