Sometimes you just get lucky. When I was pregnant with my first child, during my radiation oncology residency, we had a guy living in the apartment over our garage, which we liked to refer to as “the carriage house.” He was a dog trainer by trade, and in his spare time he played softball in a local adult league. When we told him he had to move out, because we wanted the apartment for a live in childcare provider, he had a different idea. He wanted us to hire a woman he knew—the mother of one of his softball teammates. He told us about this woman in detail—that she was the mother of six children and that she had also raised her nieces and nephews when their parents were killed in a car crash, and that she was currently doing foster care for the state but had grown tired of that and disillusioned with “the system. “ He pronounced, without a shadow of doubt, “She will be PERFECT for you.”


Nina came to interview on a hot summer day, and she never left. At least not until we left HER to move to San Diego almost nine years later. We never checked another reference and we never interviewed another person. There was just something about her that seemed so, well, “motherly. “ That was it. She was uneducated, grew up in a poor family in Newfoundland Canada, and we only learned later that she could barely spell when she began to write down phone messages while we were at work during the day, after my maternity leave was over. It mattered not a whit. My only hesitation in hiring her was that she was fifty-six years old at the time. Since I was only thirty, I thought that was old. I think differently now.


About a month into Nina’s tenure with our family, my father called to ask how things were going with our new babysitter. I told him, “She’s fine, but she has one annoying habit. She shows up at work early every day. It cuts into my bonding time with my baby.” Really, I said that. My father, having relied on my mother to raise HIS three children, retorted, “And this is a PROBLEM? Do you realize how LUCKY you are?” That may have been the smartest thing my father ever said to me.


A year after we left Boston, Nina suffered a massive heart attack while watching the Boston Marathon. She was rushed to Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and had emergency bypass surgery and survived. A few years after that, she was diagnosed with inoperable esophageal cancer, and underwent chemotherapy and radiation therapy and again, she survived. Last year, she lost Charlie, her beloved husband of more than sixty years, and still, she survived. And two months ago she fell, hit her head and had a subdural hematoma. At eighty-five years old, she is the definition of “survivor.”


On our way to Boston, my daughter said, “I think we should go see Nina on Sunday.” The last time she saw Nina was nearly ten years ago, when she was in college. So Sunday we drove out to Framingham, where her old babysitter lives in a senior housing project, attended to by her daughters who live close by. On the way there, we passed the Sunshine Dairy, where Nina used to take her for ice cream as a child. Alex said, “We have to get some for Nina. She loves their maple walnut. “ She was right. We were greeted at the door by Nina, a very diminished and frail Nina wearing a single strand of pearls I bought her for her sixtieth birthday. She smiled at us, and congratulated my daughter on her medical school graduation. I burst into tears. This woman more than anyone else, had made it all possible.


Young woman doctors—residents, fellows and medical students—sometimes ask me how to choose a “nanny”, as they are called now. I have no idea. Mine seemed to fall into my lap and stayed forever in my heart. I hope fervently for these young mothers that they get as lucky as I was.

Trot Trot to Boston

“Trot trot to Boston

Trot trot to Lynn

Watch out Baby

So you don’t FALL IN!”

Nursery Rhyme

My road trip expectations always exceed their reality.   Last Wednesday evening, after a frantic day of packing which included a trip to the tailor to pick up her favorite dress being repaired for a ripped hemline, my daughter and I set out in her aged Subaru for Boston, MA where she will begin her residency in Internal Medicine in a few weeks.   The last time I did this particular road trip was 1979, when I myself set out in my bright red Camaro—armed with a six foot five male friend and apartment neighbor whose airfare home was paid by my parents in return for his perceived protection.  My daughter had to settle for a Taser.   Last time we barreled through Montgomery AL, Atlanta GA and Washington DC where the unfortunate Camaro had its side bashed in by a group of inebriated sailors returning from a night on the town.  We drove all day and most of the night, my friend Ed’s CB radio alerting us to lurking highway patrol cars ahead.  I didn’t see much of the countryside but I did learn my fare share of trucker lingo, including a meaning for the word “beaver” that in my naivete, I had never even considered.


This time was going to be different.  I polled patients and friends alike regarding the best, most scenic route to take.  One of my patients, a former long distance trucker, voted for a drive through the eastern part of Tennessee and the western half of Virginia, declaring definitively that the truck stops there had both the best restrooms and the best souvenirs.  My dog showing friends, who regularly hit the road with Hyundais full of hounds concurred.  I imagined myself lazily browsing for antiques along the back roads of Knoxville, and scanning the craft shops of Gatlinburg for handmade brooms, the better to sweep up the ever present dog hair collecting behind the furniture at home.  I dispatched my daughter’s cat to the boarding kennel and bought her a cheap ticket to go retrieve him once she had settled in, since several days in a car with the perfume of kitty litter was not my idea of a vacation, no matter how well behaved or adorable the cat.


Despite a first evening arrival in New Orleans at nearly 1 am, and spending the night without either the food or beverages the city is known for, my back road dreams were still intact when we reached Knoxville late on day 2.  It was the morning of the third day, when two locals laughed across the aisle at the Cracker Barrel at my mispronunciation of Sevierville (it’s SEVERE-ville, not SEAVER-ville, for the uninitiated) before they revealed that Gatlinburg, and the entrance to the Great Smokey Mountain National Park were at least a 45 minute drive each way from the highway, when it finally dawned on me that one does not drive nearly 2,000 miles in 3 days and sightsee along the way.   No trips down the off ramps to sample the fare at local diners, no sweeping vistas to photograph at 80 miles an hour, no local yellow dogs rolling over to have their white bellies scratched.   It was Boston or bust, and we coasted into Beantown on Saturday night of the holiday weekend, having taken  nearly 5 hours to drive in pouring rain around the city of New York.


One of these years, I will climb in my old Suburban “Big Red”, 200,000 miles and counting, and really drive across this great country of ours and I will stop along the way, whenever I want for as long as I want.  I will buy Cajun hot sauce, brooms made of fresh straw and local honey along the way. But for now—mission accomplished—in good time, with good company!  Tomorrow, back to work with my back road daydreams.