At the very tip of northern Manhattan is one of the greatest neighborhoods in the city called Inwood. I spent my very early 20's in that neighborhood, and it was there that I met the self-proclaimed, and well-celebrated Carrot Cake Queen of New York, Renee Mancino. She was one of the most endearing and infectiously amazing people I have ever spent time with in my life. She always made me feel like I was a daughter to her, like many of the young women in the neighborhood. We all seemed to flock to her smile, laughter, straight up-ness. Renee's ambition was not as apparent as her authentic hard working everyday grind to keep her businesses afloat, and feeding the carrot cake and coffee hungry neighborhood that loved her so. She was the pied-piper of pastries and progress for me, a young newly-single mother living in upper Manhattan without a real life role model for figuring stuff out when things get hard. She'd also raised her daughter for some of her young life alone, and it's the love for her daughter and that instinct to survive is what drove her to start selling cakes out of her car to make ends meet.
I never got the sense that being a black woman who runs a business like hers was easy, but I never felt like she didn't love it. She was a very smart woman, who spent most of her life working and the rest of it taking care of her family, especially her first grandson.
Because of Renee, another lifelong friend came into my life, who worked at her shop as a teenager, and who is just as entrepreneurial as Renee, in every way. It was she who called me on a chilly day in November to let me know that she had passed away. My heart dipped into a state of disbelief as she described the circumstances. I'd just contacted Renee days earlier about a massive order of muffins my mother inquired about for her Manhattan office. I was devastated. Makeba and I have a special bond, brought together by a woman who we both considered invincible.
The fact is that we are all vulnerable, we are all susceptible to unexpected change, pain, and circumstances that blindside our lives. I remember Renee's surprise birthday party several years ago, and she was in the midst of training for the New York Marathon, and was on top of the world. I remember leaving the party, hugging her goodbye while she was on the dance floor and on our way to the car, I heard her raspy voice calling my name down the busy noise of Broadway and 168th street. I turned around and stopped, and she asked, are you happy? You look so great, she said. I knew deep inside I wasn't, but I knew how much she wanted me to be, so I said yes. I'll always remember that night, because she later ran the marathon and crossed the finish line. And I remember thinking that I could only hope to be just a little like Renee one day..and I am.
I think that Sting said it best...
"Lest we forget how fragile we are."- Gordon Sumner