Picked a Winner By Jeff Greenberg (Arts ’88)

My unlikely adventure with a special “flaunter” began about nine years after I graduated from Cornell’s College of Arts & Sciences.  I knocked around for a few years before deciding to head back to school to become a doctor.  Well… as an English major there were a few pre-requisites I seemed to be missing so that took a little time… but eventually I landed in medical school in Philadelphia.  Being somewhat older than most of my peers at that point, I tended to bond with others closer to my age.  One in particular was a single mother of three, working her way through med school.  Vicky and I hung out often and I frequently studied at her home, getting to know her kids well.  For her, childcare was always a challenge and she solved it by employing au pairs from abroad.

As the annual contract for her current au pair ended, it was time for Vicky to consider a new group of applicants provided by an agency.  It was around that time that I had done her a solid – setting her up successfully with a very decent guy.  In a gesture of appreciation she asked if there was anything she could do for me in return.  Now, I thought her offer was unusual for two reasons – the first is that Vicky would know I would never ask her for anything in return for a favor like that.  And second, she knew me well enough to know that I rarely give a serious response to anything that isn’t life or death. But she persisted nonetheless and as I perused her dining room I noted the stack of au pair files.  “Okay, here’s the deal. I’d like to pick the new au pair.”  She replied without hesitation, “As long as I like them on the phone interview, that’ll work.”  I was in full kidding-mode but took the dare.  I studied the files with her kids in mind – and selected the application of a gorgeous Swedish woman who had written earnest and sweet comments in her bio that moved me.  Full disclosure – I’m not sure I was thinking only about the kids’ best interests at that point in my single life.  But it was a joke, after all.   Or so I thought.   Vicky did indeed interview my Swedish crush and hired her.   A few months later Terese arrived.

When Vicky invited me by to meet the new au pair, I was pretty instantly entranced.  She was cleaning up in the kitchen and it was then I noticed her physical difference.  One of her hands was missing fingers.  She had a thumb but the other fingers were missing just above the knuckles.  I was both surprised and a bit curious.  It’s my nature to ask questions – sometimes pushing people’s boundaries, I’ll admit – but this time I held back.  I hoped to get to know her and patience was the word.  She was quiet, self-possessed and definitely unselfconscious.   Later I asked Vicky about Terese’s hand and she replied only that she knew Terese was born that way.

Some weeks later, Vicky decided she was tired of my staring at Terese so she concocted an excuse for me to drive her on an errand or two.   Over time, Terese started to reciprocate my interest and I finally got the nerve up to invite her to hear the band I was playing in at a fundraiser for pediatric AIDS.  We started dating that evening.  When I did finally ask Terese about her hand, she related that it was due to amniotic banding (a string or band in the uterus interferes with the development of fingers or some other extremity).  Doctors in Sweden tried to get her to wear prosthesis when she was a kid, but she insisted it wasn’t for her and she never wore it.

When I reflect on why I took my time before asking her out, I know the age difference played a role.  But I also had to ask myself if there was something about her physical difference that gave me any pause? I ran though my mind the list of why I was so attracted to her: the physical, true, but also her quiet strength, her unselfconsciousness, the fact that she had family and a comfort zone in rural Sweden and yet picked up and moved to another country knowing no one.  Confidence is attractive. And the negatives?  I couldn’t figure any.  I had already gotten past the superficial first impression and gotten to know her.  I was now looking at the person, not the difference.
Fast forward twenty years.  Terese and I have two sons now who, taking our lead, don’t think twice about their mother’s physical difference.  They’re only reminded of it if a friend asks about it. And their replies are nonchalant, as are mine.  The truth is, I’m proud of my wife for not letting anything impede her in life.  And while I’m at it, I’m proud of myself for having the chutzpah to pick Vicky’s au pair.

Jeff Greenberg (Arts ’88) is a neurologist in Princeton, NJ.  He and his wife, Terese, have two children.

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