A Losing Game

Suddenly, Gay Haubner turned into a loser of things, her stuff vanishing mysteriously as if snagged by a klepto poltergeist.

A man in a toy soldier costume salutes in front of a F.A.O Schwarz store
(pio3 / Shutterstock)

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Read more of Gay’s essays, including her series, North Country Girl.

I was oddly comforted when I heard that the celebrated cellist Yo-Yo Ma forgot his $2.5 million Montagnana in a taxi. It was like the pleasure/pain of squeezing your finger after it’s been slammed in a door to make sure nothing’s broken. I imagine Mr. Ma getting out of the cab, taking a few steps down the sidewalk, and going “Uh-oh.” He stumbles back into the busy Manhattan street, scanning the sea of yellow cabs, like there was a chance he could identify the one bearing his beloved instrument away.

I allowed myself to enjoy this bit of schadenfreude because by the time the article ran in the New York Times, the cello had been found. Mr. Ma, unlike the rest of us, held on to his taxi receipt. The Monty turned up unscathed in a garage in Queens and somehow Yo-Yo Ma was able to put the almost-catastrophe behind him and play a well-received concert at Carnegie Hall that same night.

There is another story of loss I’m obsessed with, one that does not have a happy ending. On a French train in 1922, Ernest Hemmingway’s first wife, Elizabeth Hadley Richardson, lost a suitcase containing the manuscript of his novel-in-progress. The images I conjure up are like ice picks to my brain: Elizabeth looks about thinking “Where’s the suitcase?” then frantically searches the train compartment for it, as if luggage could wedge itself under a seat or duck behind the window drapes. She dashes out to the passageway, finds a porter and loses the French word for “suitcase” as thoroughly as she lost the suitcase itself, and is rewarded with a Gallic shrug from (in my mind’s eye) a blue-uniformed homme who is a dead ringer for Charles de Gaulle, right down to the jaunty cap.

Elizabeth must have wept on that journey to Lausanne; I hope that for a few minutes at least, the train rocked her into the sweet oblivion of sleep. Ernest Hemmingway is waiting for her on the platform. Elizabeth probably looks a fright, unable to hide from him for even a second what she has done. Hemmingway manages to not be too upset at the loss; he reassures her that there is a carbon copy of his new novel as well as extensive hand-written notes.

Elizabeth confesses that she had packed manuscripts, carbon copy, and every note Hemmingway ever scrawled into that vanished suitcase.

This is where I draw the curtain over the scene.

Like the cello in the cab and the suitcase on the train, items like to go missing when we’re in transit. My own traumatic loss happened when I was eight, traveling with my family to a dental convention in San Diego. My grandparents had given me a $20 bill, a fantastic sum, which I carefully folded up and placed all by itself in my pink plastic Barbie purse. Once on the plane, I tucked my bag into the seat pocket in front of me; the perfect place to stash it for the five-hour flight.

I not only lost the money, I lost all the treasures that twenty bucks could have bought: dainty animals of blown glass, a pencil topped with an orange-haired troll doll, a sack of sea shells, three Mexican jumping beans in a wooden box, a rubber-tipped spear, a loud-clicking ball point pen of clear plastic with the fairies from Disney’s Sleeping Beauty bobbing inside. Why did we visit so many souvenir shops when my parents believed that a trip to California was enough of a treat, never buying us girls so much as a postcard? I fondled a 99¢ bag of fool’s gold with regret and returned it to the shelf. To this day I don’t put as much as a paperback book in the seat pocket of a plane.

I was scarred from that childhood loss of my double sawbuck; ever since I have guarded my possessions like Argus. I lost my wallet once, though I suspect a quick-fingered woman sitting next to me on the subway, disguised in an innocent-looking navy suit and floppy-tie blouse, lifted it. I have never lost a phone. If anyone were keeping score, I would bet I found more things than I had lost.

I’m also terrified of losing people. My earliest emotional memory is of watching my parents depart for an evening out, engulfed in a dread certainty I’d never see them again: they would be killed in a car crash or walk off the earth a la my favorite TV show, Twilight Zone. This insanity lasted until I was 16, when indeed, one night my father did go out for a pack of cigarettes.

It’s surprising I didn’t do a better job keeping track of my children. I first lost a kid at FAO Schwarz, and if you’re going to misplace a kid, the elephantine three-story toy emporium flogging doll mansions, electric kid-sized Jeeps, and grillion-dollar plush animals is the place to do it. Every mom of a kid capable of doing a fast waddle should take her child to FAO Schwarz, give the kid a shove, and dash away, as a practice run.

FAO Schwarz must have 3,235 lost kids a day. If I had gone there as a girl, I would have squirreled myself away amid the magenta pink Barbie department, hoping never to be found.

On a rainy afternoon, faced with the prospect of being stuck in a small apartment with two boys under four who violently reject the idea of curling up with a nice book, I hustle Tito and Willie onto the F subway line (they ride free!) up to Fifth Avenue to the Tara of toys, the Mecca of Mattel, the legendary land of Legos. This was a no-cost amusement, as I had cheerfully lied to my kids that FAO Schwarz was not a store, but a toy museum.

Once inside the revolving doors, I bend over Willie to wipe his nose and extract a penny from his pursed lips (how long has that been there?), and presto chango, I am down a kid.

I call out “Tito? Tito?” in rapidly escalating volume and hysteria, grab Willie’s wrist in the Mom Grip of Steel, and whirl about like a dervish. I fall upon the first person I see wearing a nametag, and insist that they put the place on DefCon Lock-Down before my tow-headed angel is spirited away down the mean streets of Midtown Manhattan.

A preternaturally calm saleswoman (what is wrong with her?) asks me what color hair Tito has and what he is wearing, then picks up the phone, sending the BOLO message to the toy soldier doormen of FAO Schwarz. “Your son is in the store,” she assures me. “They always are.” I can barely make out what she is saying: Willie is crying piteously while twisting my arm off in an attempt to escape to the alluring display of Matchbox cars and choking on his own snot. He is also suffering from a bout of eczema so awful his skin looks like I took a Brillo pad to it. Miss Schwarz, while not totally convinced that I deserve to have kids at all, follows script: “Is there a special section your son — Tito? Tito? — likes? He’s probably there.”

He was.

My four-year-old, who could not tie his own shoes or wipe his own butt, had gone full Sacajawea, traveling one flight up and across the block-long store to the Brio train exhibit, where I found him blissfully pushing a $24.99 wooden engine along the $9.99-a-section track (bridge $15.99) and making a “Vroom! Vroom!” sound, unaware that he was in danger of being shanghaied to the basement of a Washington D.C. pizza parlor.

But it was younger brother Willie who turned out to be the infant escape artist. Willie went walkabout in Prospect Park, a sprawling 526 acres, criss-crossed, for some Robert Moses-based reason, by busy streets. Willie also wandered off in the frenzied Caracas airport, disappearing among the frantic tourists and Venezuelans trying to escape Hugo Chavez’s doomed first coup. I heard the crackling intercom paging “Señora Gay Haubner” and was gobsmacked that Willie knew I had a name other than Mom. And on a winter night in Randazzo, Italy, Willie took a solo flight down a cobblestone street and ambled about in the dark until his brother used sibling ESP to locate him, after which I had Willie surgically attached to my leg.

Thankfully, my kids had reached 30 and 31, too big to misplace, when my mom died and I suddenly turned into a loser. Stuff started to vanish mysteriously, as if snagged by a klepto poltergeist. My favorite wooden spoon, the handle smoothed by thirty years of soups and stews. The perfect traveling dress, a comfy paisley print that camouflaged spills. My sole pair of boots. A bottle of Moroccan Hair Oil I was talked into buying that I always forgot to use, until the day I remembered and then where the hell did that go to?

I made peace with some losses: the Karl Lagerfeld clutch marked down to $14.99 at TJ Maxx (Karl would have choked on his horsemeat at the idea of something with his name on it jumbled up in a clearance bin) dematerialized before I even got the tags off. My first thought “I don’t really need this” turned out to be true.

The loss I couldn’t get over was the jewelry bag holding the few pieces I had taken from my mom’s world-class junk jewelry collection. It was as if Sarah Coventry had barfed all over her bedroom. Not only did my mom have a separate dresser devoted to jewelry, there were dozens of clip earrings, in pairs and stag, strewn across mirrored trays, rings stacked in ring holders, necklaces draped on lamps and waiting in end table drawers to be detangled. From this Pirates of the Caribbean booty, I selected a heavy gold-plated bracelet, a coral necklace, a silver bangle, and a pair of Navajo turquoise earrings, even though they hurt my ears.

And promptly lost all of it.

I knew the jewelry was somewhere in the house. But I didn’t trust the house, since our homes conspire to hide things from us, which just seems mean. Socks vanish from dryers, keys abscond off tabletops, the reading glasses that WERE JUST RIGHT HERE take a powder. Even in my tiny casita, every waking hour rings with my husband asking, “Have you seen the money that was on the counter?” “Do you know where I put my phone?” “Where are the good scissors?” (As opposed to the five bad scissors —dulled by being used to hack up rope, pry open can lids, and saw through cardboard — that languish in the junk drawer).

Now it was my turn to ask: “Have you seen a bag of jewelry?” Jeff had. But the bead doesn’t drop far from the necklace. My own magpie acquisitiveness meant that yup, Jeff had spotted several bags of my jewelry, none of which had the least bit of sentiment inside. “Nope, not that one.” “A smaller bag.” “No, not that small.”

I would have gladly traded all my junk jewelry and my few bits of real sparkle for what had touched my mother’s skin.

I felt like a huge disappointment to my mom. Not only had I spurned 99.99 percent of her stockpile of bling, I couldn’t even keep tabs on my meager takings.

I lay awake nights, dwelling on when I had last seen that bag. I crawled under the bed for the fiftieth time. I had unkind thoughts about Idalia, who’s cleaned my house for seven years. I prayed to St. Jude. It had gotten so nutso that I was considering a psychic, remembering how a storefront fortuneteller correctly divined that my grandmother’s missing Black Hills Gold bracelet was in the handbag grandma clutched in her lap.

Unhappy weeks went by until one day I pulled out a box of crackers from the broken microwave that serves as a breadbox and saw something weird tucked in the back.

I haven’t felt such joyous relief since that mother and child reunion in Sicily, followed by the grim realization that I had absolutely no memory of putting a bag of jewelry into the broken microwave. Great, I found the jewelry but I’m obviously losing my mind, one more thing for life to take away.

Then by purest chance (and the fact that I am a copious reader), I came across this:

Sigmund Freud believed that children who’d been abruptly separated from a parent — by death or a call to war — were more likely to lose things than were children who’d had time for a “meaningful leave-taking.” Siggy speculated that when we are grieving, we feel abandoned and so we end up abandoning in turn our own belongings.

Huh, I thought. A meaningful leave-taking. Nope, that didn’t happen. There was one day in the hospital I thought I was getting my mother back, and then she was gone, in spirit if not in soul.

How can anyone have a “meaningful leave-taking” in a hospital, the unflattering lighting, the beeping machines, the kind people waiting about, like the royal attendants of death.

(For my mom, a meaningful leave-taking would have been if she shucked off her mortal coil mid-cheeseburger at Red Robin.)

There’s nothing she could have said to me: I know she loved me, I know that she suffered deep regrets at her failings as a mother (don’t we all?), failings that I had forgotten or forgiven long ago.

And the list of what I could have said to her is endless, if mom had deigned to put in her hearing aids for her last day on earth (“They don’t work!” she claimed, although the real reason was she thought they made her look old).

So it’s turned into the long goodbye, a goodbye that is just two words, words that cannot be said enough, ever: “Thank you.”  I repeat this like a mantra or a prayer, hoping that gratitude can wing its way into the hereafter.

Thanks for teaching me, “Everything you do to your face, do to your neck.” “Shred lettuce, don’t cut it.”  “Lick your lips and pop your eyes, it makes a good photo.” “Men love deviled eggs.” Thanks for giving me life. Thanks for the jewelry, which I now have permanently attached to wrist and ears. Thanks for being the best mom a 20-year-old beauty queen from Aberdeen, South Dakota, who dreamt of being a movie star, could be.

Now where is that damn wooden spoon?

Featured image: pio3 / Shutterstock

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  1. After these days of unnerving rapid-paced changes, this was just what I needed to smile with and then start the tears that I’ve been holding back. I have to go now, 90 year old mom is upstairs and I need to give her a hug. Thank you as always, please keep writing!

  2. So glad to have read this! It quickly took me out of my present day reality and sent me into another time and place – like this author’s writing always does!

  3. I really liked the theme of this, Gay. There’s no worse feeling than when you think you’ve lost your child. I lost my then 3 year-old son at a video store which wasn’t located in the greatest of neighborhoods of Minneapolis (it was the closest and had the largest selection), and after a terrifying 5 minutes of panic and a clerk’s help we found him hiding and snickering behind a large standee in one the store’s bay windows. Another time, I left my computer/camera backpack (essentially my whole life) at a baggage carousel in the Denver airport and didn’t realize it until we were on the shuttle to the off-site car rental.While my brother and our spouses got the car, I took the shuttle back to the terminal and found my bag surrounded by TSA agents and a sniffing German shepherd. Luckily, unattended bags at airports nowadays tend to remain that way, at least by other travelers.

  4. Gay,
    Sometime in the late 70’s, I visited you in NYC and managed to lose my most cherished
    possession…a ring my parents had given me for graduation. Eleven years later the ring re-appeared in the furthest backest tiniest I didn’t even know it was there zippered pocket in a carry-on. Is there a sell by date on klepto poltergeists?
    Thanks for the memory‍♀️

  5. Love Gay’s writing and wit! As the mother of a perpetually, purposely lost child, this was very meaningful!!

  6. Gay, it’s ALWAYS great when I see a new personal essay by you! Jana and Janet express many of my thoughts and feelings here. I love what you say, and how you say it. Uniquely Gay Haubner.

    Many of the frustrations you’re experiencing are due to losing your Mom barely a year ago. It gravitates between getting better and worse. It’s been worse lately even though it was 6 years ago in December.

    She was the one person who knew just what to say to make everything okay. My sister never had that bond with her. A lot of times girls have a stronger bond with their fathers, and boys with their mothers.

    I’m glad you found your Mom’s jewelry. I have some pieces of my Mom’s jewelry, her last driver’s license and a few other things that have sentimental value, in a small box. I wish I could see/visit with her now, even if it was for just 5 minutes.

  7. I laughed and i cried. The humor and brutal honesty touched more than one of my own memories as a mom and a daughter. Thank you Gay for another great read. Keep ’em coming please!!

  8. This essay is simply brilliant. I so appreciate when someone can put thoughts and words together on a page in a way that moves me. And this wonderful essay was that.

  9. It is so strange how we age and completely change what we deem meaningful. My list of lost items is endless but my fear of losing a child when they were little doesn’t compare with anything. I dressed them in matching outfits when we traveled so I could say to the imagined hero cop, he/she is dressed just like this, assuming I didn’t lose all of them at once. I lost my dad’s little thing that was on his keychain forever…when I spinned it, you could see the word “merde” but it look like alien writing when not spun. I have looked everywhere. I will now check the bread box. XXX

  10. I clutch on to my mom’s mahjong change purse with her name written on it in her handwriting like it’s worth a million dollars. Although the ink is fading after 12 years in my purse, I still feel her presence. I would be destroyed if i ever lost it. So happy you found your treasured, meaningful jewelry memories of your mom, Gay. Keeps her love alive. ❤️


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