For a couple of months last winter, at a raffish coffee shop in Florida, I had a barista who reminded me of Rachel. Lively eyes, froth of curls, fearless way with denim, lace and purple tights that revealed an adventuresome spirit if not a fully formed sense of style.
When she told me her name, which was challenging to spell and pronounce, I mentioned that I’d gone all through school wishing I could be a Susan instead of the only Rona, forever called Rhoda and Rhonda. “I love my name,” said the woman who could have been Rachel. “It’s a gift from my mother.”
Rachel is the name I hoped to give my daughter, the second child I never got around to having. The first time I felt a yearning for her, I was 33 years old and had flown home from my father’s funeral just in time to go through the motions of celebrating Christmas. I didn’t miss my father, a tormented alcoholic, but I missed the dependable parent he had never been, and it seemed I could replace him with an eager little girl who would share my passion for Swan Lake and The Little Mermaid. On Christmas night, I lay awake beside my husband, nestled under his arm and said, “I’ve been thinking now might be a good time to get pregnant.”
Some husbands would have answered, “Great! Let’s make a baby!” Mine, never one to rush into things, said, “Why don’t we wait six months and see if the feeling lasts?” It didn’t. I was finding my feet in a new freelance writing career; Rachel would slow me down. Our 10-year-old son would be hitting adolescence during Rachel’s terrible twos. Now was not the time for Rachel—who might, in any case, be Cameron or Joshua instead. I’d been down that road before: Miranda, my first fantasy daughter, turned out to be Ben, a Lego whiz with no use for ballet.
I was reaching the age, somewhere around the mid-30s, when the limitless possibilities of youth start to migrate from “someday” to “probably not” and then—horrors!—“never.” I’d already closed the door on working in New York; we were too deeply rooted in Toronto. Letting go of Rachel was harder. As one of two daughters born to one of two daughters, I couldn’t imagine any family of mine would be daughterless. Besides, if I was through with babies, then I must be getting older than I cared to admit.
So it was not until about age 38—my writing career on a roll, our son just a few years away from university—that I had a dismaying thought. It still wasn’t too late to have Rachel. But go back to diapers and colic? Give up my sleep for a squalling baby? Hell, no! My husband and I were on track to be empty nesters in a few years. Bring on the trip to Tuscany! I booked myself into day surgery and signed a consent form that seemed to natter on forever. Yes, I understood. No reversing this procedure. Rachel was not to be.
That evening, a twentysomething friend appeared at my door, her arms full of tiger lilies. I was so touched, I forgot my post-surgical pain. She was the first of many younger women who’ve filled the place I once assumed would be Rachel’s. Some I mentored in my last corporate job and now applaud with delight when they surpass themselves. Others catch my attention at the gym or an improv class, or maybe it’s the other way around. I enjoy them for the women they are, without expecting they should be like me or share my views. And I never had to monitor their curfews.
The day we left Florida, I went to the coffee shop for a goodbye latte. There she stood, my favourite barista, sporting a sharp new haircut and a vaguely French outfit, form-fitting and black, that showed off her curves. Someone must have taken her in hand (bet it wasn’t mom). “Fabulous look!” I exclaimed. She glowed, then admitted to second thoughts about the hair. Had she gone too short? Telling her the truth was the highlight of my day. “Absolutely not! You look perfect.”