If you ever want to teach your kids a lesson about how much they need you, just take them somewhere they have never been for a few days, preferably somewhere extra terrifying like a big city, then almost lose one of them.
I picked New York City — because cities really don’t get bigger or more terrifying — for a little bonding time with my daughters, who at 14 and 17 have been too cool to cling to me for some time.
That is nothing a few days battling crowds of a million won’t fix, because you quickly learn that if you are not holding hands one of you will be swept away in the sea of bodies, lost forever. I’m just saying, all that teenage coolness melts away pretty quick when the choice is hold your mom’s hand or navigate the streets of New York by yourself.
I know, forever sounds a little melodramatic, especially since we all have cell phones. Well guess what I learned? Cell phones don’t work on the subway.
But I’ll get back to that.
So there we were, walking and talking and bonding our way through the quintessential New York City Experience. We sampled gelato in Little Italy and browsed secret purse rooms in China Town, looked for our ancestors’ names at Ellis Island and misted up together at Phantom of the Opera. We rode a rickshaw through Central Park, pondered the life of John Lennon at Strawberry Fields and people-watched to our heart’s content in Times Square. It was storybook perfect, and we three were having the time of our lives.
Okay, that’s not quite true. The storybook part, I mean.
In a storybook people just effortlessly flit from one fantastic place to the next; they aren’t standing slack-jawed in front of a subway map for a half an hour before they finally get on a train, the wrong train, and then repeat the scene all over again at the next stop.
You practically need a physics degree to understand the tangled subway route map and the difference between the BD trains and the ACE ones and where they do and don’t stop, and when the 23 line stops being the 1239 line and how they overlap with the QNRW trains and when that turns into just the R train... yeah. I felt like an idiot, and I wasn’t afraid to show it.
Each of our final destinations started out the same way: Me standing in front of a subway map with scribbled notes and a dumb stare. After a few forays onto the wrong trains I threw that seasoned tourist persona to the wind and started asking people, any people, for help. My daughters were at first mortified — because it turns out they actually do think I know everything. But they couldn’t deny that asking for help was getting us where we needed to be, and the subway actually became a little more laid back experience once we weren’t constantly terrified by it. Almost enjoyable even. Okay, that’s pushing it. But at least we weren’t clinging together in a wide-eyed huddle frantically scouring a map and the stations signs at every stop.
Our fear gave way to iPods and people-watching, but not cell phones, because there are few signals that can make it underground through that many tons of metal, concrete and rebar. Subway cars are about the only place left in America that are eerily devoid of the cell phone chatter that has become a way of life elsewhere, and guess what folks – that quiet is actually kind of…peaceful.
But relaxing when you’re taking the New York City subway isn’t always a good thing. In fact it almost lost me a daughter. And an arm.
On one of our jaunts my 14-year-old was lounging in a seat near the door as we approached our stop, confident she could just hop up and hop out when we got there.
As the doors opened my eldest stepped off the train and I followed, turning to make sure my youngest was behind me. In that instant she looked back and saw her iPod lying on the seat she’d just vacated, and like any 14-year-old would, she turned back to grab it.
But the New York City subway waits for no one, and to my horror I watched the doors start to close in front of me, with my youngest child still on the train and about to be swept away to God only knows where.
She looked at me with fear in her eyes, and it is a fear I know well. Years ago when I was on a vacation in Europe, I was in her shoes exactly after I stepped onto a subway car and the doors shut behind me, leaving my then-husband standing on the platform as I was whisked away. I was in a strange city on a subway I didn’t understand with no cell phone and no money – my husband had everything – and I’ll never forget futilely pressing my palm to the window as I watched him disappear. Panicked, I spun around to the curious stares of the people who just watched the display. A few nodded knowingly. I stared back in horror. I handled the situation the way we are taught to when we are children: I got off at the next stop and sat down on a bench until he found me. Yes, it took a while, and yes, I was scared out of my mind, and no, I didn’t want that to happen to my daughter.
So there in the New York subway, the spectacle that followed became one of those legendary, albeit kind of embarrassing, defining moments between children and parents, when my daughter, and all the people on the train, realized that the train would leave with my daughter on it only over my dead body, or at least my arms, which I had stuck in between the now almost closed doors.
These subway doors are nothing like the elevator doors that give you a polite bump before opening back up to give you more time. No, these doors wanted to close, and I found myself wrestling them with suddenly Herculean strength. I totally understand now how mothers can pick cars up off their babies in moments of overpowering basic instinct. This was my car, and that was my baby standing inside, and I was going to get her off or get my arms ripped off trying. My daughter, and everyone on the subway car, was staring at me with wide eyes as I wedged my body between the doors and forced them just a tiny bit farther apart. Like one of those possessed characters in a movie my mouth opened and “GEETTT OFFFFF!” boomed out in a strange voice, at which she hastily scrambled past me onto the platform.
As the train sped off I turned to my daughters, straightening my clothes and smoothing my hair in an attempt at composure. My other daughter was standing with her mouth hanging open. The youngest’s eyes were still big. I tried to sound normal and pleasant. “Let’s go get some ice cream, girls,” and off we went, hand in hand in hand.
But I had to know. “What would you have done?” I asked my daughter, praying for the right answer. “I would have called you,” she said. “No you wouldn’t have because there’s no service,” I reminded her. “Well in that case I would have gotten off at the next stop and walked to the hotel,” she shrugged. “Nooooooo!” That was definitely the wrong answer. “You get off, call me from the street, stand in one spot and wait for me,” I said, needing to feel like the scene moments ago at least produced a learning moment should it ever happen again.
But the truth is that it was never going to happen again, because my daughters, clinging tightly to me, had learned the most important thing of all: That holding mom’s hand is by far the best way to navigate New York City whether other people think it’s cool or not.