Sometimes when I’m feeling kind of emotionally jumbled and a little bit out of sorts inside, I log on to YouTube and I watch footage of the baby gorilla that was born last year at the San Diego Zoo. Just watching that sweet monkey baby causes my thoughts to settle instead of scatter – and it reminds me that anybody who doesn’t buy into the theory of evolution is someone who is probably not fully evolved himself.
The gorilla had to be delivered by a C-section, a rare procedure in the monkey world. In the video that I like to watch, this furry baby-being is swaddled in a pink blanket and eating ravenously from a bottle held by a human, and I’ve seen some pictures where she is clutching a gorilla stuffed animal in one tiny but strong-looking fist. At the end of the video she is reunited with her mother, a gigantic gorilla now branded with a scar across her abdomen that somehow manages to look less horrible than the one Britney Spears flashed to the cameras during those psychotic-breakdown days when she couldn’t remember to take her meds or toss on a thong. This mommy gorilla comes into the space where the doctors have left her baby upon a pile of soft-looking hay and she leans down and she smells it and then she instantly gathers her baby into her arms and happily nurses her for the rest of the day.
Watching that footage always makes me really peaceful and content. I’m glad that the gorilla survived and I’m pleased that the mother gorilla instinctively became a caregiver to her child. Plus, I’ve just always liked animals in general – the fluffier the better. I was that kid in elementary school who asked to take the class hamster home over Christmas vacation. I was also the kid who woke her mother up in the dead of night to wail that the hamster – which I’d decided somewhere around 3:18 am wasn’t even that furry or cute – ran on its fucking wheel all night long and kept me up with its incessant nocturnal cardio. But hamster hate aside, I do have quite the soft spot for most of the animal kingdom.
I am the kind of girl who will simply like you more if you have a dog. If that dog continually and obviously shows that he adores you, I’m willing to guess that there must be something wonderful about you to adore. Animals know these things intuitively; it becomes a human being’s job to piece it all together.
Wookie, my Maltese, is perhaps my favorite animal of all time, but I’m not sure she has any idea that she’s an animal. I think I confuse things for her; I’ve sent her some mixed messages over the years. I allow her to sleep in my bed and she lies languidly across my couch and I try to explain things to her patiently, as though she can understand the things that I’m saying, but I do think she understands some of it. After all, she had the decency to look somewhat guilty on the day that she got in a lot of trouble for tearing one of my garbages to absolute shreds just so she could locate that bit of rotisserie chicken at the bottom of the bag. In my sternest voice, I looked straight into her eyes and barked, “Wookie! Stop behaving like an animal!” And she slunk away, her gaze fixed in embarrassment on the floor.
I have shown her that I am dominant, I thought triumphantly to myself as I scrubbed the kitchen tile so it wouldn’t smell like chicken.
I’m just gonna wait this moment out by looking sheepish until she forgets that she’s annoyed with me and starts to find me adorable again when I yawn and my tongue curls in the way that she likes,thought Wookie, already sprawled on her fur throw in the living room. I could see her happily settle into a heap as I turned my head to avoid breathing in the cleanser I was scrubbing at with a sponge.
Okay, fine – Wookie is manipulative. But aren’t we all?
I look at her as she sleeps beside me and as she trots behind me, following me everywhere I go, and I wonder sometimes if she would still recognize the scent of her canine mommy and if it ever feels weird for her that she lives in a house and is dressed in a hoodie because of the weather.
I wonder if she sometimes hates her name like I hate my own and if she wishes I’d just named her Snowball.
Parenting is so hard, some of my friends tell me, and I look over at my dog as she is dividing her kibble into piles based on color and shape on the floor of the kitchen and I think about how she howled when I got out of the car the other day to pump gas and I think to myself, Tell me about it.
So maybe what I love about that gorilla footage is that the bond between the mommy and the baby was not just adorable, but also organic and pure. The mother gorilla looked like she might still be in a good amount of post-surgery pain. That scar across her lower belly looked red and raw, but she still worked through the discomfort to care for her infant and something about the decency of it all settles my head when I feel like I’m spinning inside. That said, I’d like to publically call for a movement to change the baby gorilla’s name. She was named Joanne, in honor of a woman who was the first chairwoman of the Foundation of San Diego Zoo Global, and look, I’m all for honoring any woman who makes great strides, but c’mon. This sweet gorilla looks far more like a Milly, and incidentally, if we all agree to call her that, she can be named after my grandmother, Mildred, the first woman to swear that on the night that my father was born, all of the stars in the sky rushed together to form a giant MD.
I suppose you have to give my grandmother a break – my father ended up being over 6’4” tall, so I can only imagine what it must have been like giving birth to him. She was probably dehydrated when she saw the intergalactic hallucination. Plus, she was all of a shocking sudden a Jewish mother. Imagining your son will become a doctor is as natural a belief for a Jewish mother as it is to genuinely believe think that all of life’s ailments can be solved with chicken soup, that sleepaway camp is clearly the place your child will spend her prepubescent summers, and that if you arrive at somebody’s home empty-handed, the people who live there have grounds to shoot you.
I’ve been thinking of my grandmother a lot these days. I’m not sure she would appreciate that it was the act of watching footage of cavorting gorillas that made her rise to the forefront of my mind, but then again, she’s not here to complain and I think she’d like that I think about her as often as I do, no matter what makes my memories of her spring forth.
She was kind of a remarkable woman, that Mildred – especially for her time. She went to college and she became the principal of a middle school in Brooklyn and she raised two children, both of whom would go on to become writers and professors. She was a really good grandmother, too. I don’t remember too much of the time when she lived in Brooklyn – all I can visualize is this high stool with a back on it and a vinyl cushion that I think might have swiveled that was in her kitchen – but I spent a lot of time with her during the years she lived in Florida.
We would fly down there, my sister and me, and at the airport, behind a glass partition that separated the flyers from the pick-them-uppers, stood all of the grandparents. It was a sea of bluish grey hair and gleeful expressions and frenzied waves. My sister called that walled off area The Grandparents Zoo. Soon both my sister and I would be wrapped in a hug that smelled like grandma – a floral scent mixed with baby powder – her arms embracing us tightly, showing that somewhere inside she still had a strength the rest of her body didn’t much have anymore.
The first place we would go was “marketing,” and that meant we were about to push a cart down the aisles of Publix, the Florida supermarket, and we would eventually plant ourselves right in front of the display of waffle cones and colored sprinkles and all of the ice cream accessories.
“Mommy says we have to eat Magic Shell,” we would tell our Nana with a serious expression. “And she says not to worry about whatever chemicals are in it that makes it freeze the moment it hits the ice cream because our lives are stressful already and we have enough to worry about.”
And my grandmother, new to navigating how to treat my mother after the recent divorce from her son, bought us what our mother “insisted” we should eat.
But listen: my grandmother was a remarkably smart woman and she knew that her granddaughters were perfectly capable of manipulation. Hell, she was probably proud that we had some slyness within and I’m sure she knew it might serve us well at some point in the future. Plus, she knew my mother would never have served us that garbage, but I think maybe she just wanted to make us happy during those vacations to Florida, the only real break we got from our regular lives.
Pulling back into the complex where she lived, she would never just drive straight to her home. Instead she would drive a lap around the place, checking things out, making sure that all of the decrees she had made as President of Phase Three at Margate Gardens were being followed. I think those orders involved not running near the pool or showing up barefoot in the Clubhouse – you know, life-altering commandments – but those rules were followed to the letter.
Nobody fucked with Mildred. She was tough. And as someone who was once rather powerful and had grown accustomed to being perceived as powerful by others, it could not have been easy to retire into a life where she no longer had a ton of real authority.
She worked with what she had.
During those slow laps around the complex, she would roll down the window of her large white car as she veered to the curb and she would stop suddenly, almost mowing an elderly friend of hers down in the process. She would then lean over and point at my sister and me and introduce us to her friend.
“This is Leigh Cathryn,” she would say, motioning to my sister. “And this is Nell Sara.”
I remember that she always said my name second, but it didn’t bother me. Leigh was born first and it all struck me as fair.
I remember that she always included our middle names when she introduced us, something nobody else did, and it made us roll our eyes then and it makes tears spring to my eyes thinking about it now.
When is the last time anyone even mentioned my middle name?
I remember that she looked so proud when she introduced us to the people she knew and I wish I had shown her that I knew, even then, that she was simply magnificent. I began to show more appreciation to her as I got older, calling her frequently from my room in my sorority house. We would have long and probing talks and I liked to let her know when I’d done well on one of my Film papers. Once I even wrote a paper about her for a course called Hollywood and the 1950s. Stand and Deliver: The Mildred Rosenberg Kalter Story told of her refusal to follow the gender conventions of the fifties and she laughed her deep huh-huh-huh laugh when I read it to her over the phone early one night before I went out.
I have that paper still.
There is a calmness that comes to me in a rush when I think of those faraway days with my grandmother, and when I remember her, I can almost smell a light swish of baby powder in the air. Those memories bring to me that stillness that I sometimes crave. I rarely think about the tumultuous moments of those days – that I visited her after the permanent divide in my family or that money was tight then or that my father could only tuck me into bed every other weekend. I just remember the good times, just as I think the mommy gorilla ignored the tenderness of the scar on her stomach and chose to embrace and to celebrate her joy.