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Sarah LaFleur Says Goodbye to the Original M.M. Woman

Our CEO opens up about the loss she experienced in 2020, and how it changed her outlook on family, work, and what it means to be a successful woman.

By Sarah LaFleur

I know we have all been through so much this year, and many of you were kind enough to share both the ups and downs of your lives with us. Several of you got married over Zoom or at City Hall (#inmyMM), while some of you welcomed babies amid the pandemic, including two of our M.M. team members. Many of you are healthcare workers on the front line, treating and caring for patients. Some of you lost your jobs as a result of the crisis, and some of you had no choice but to leave because it was impossible to balance both work and home. And then there were those who found new opportunities, including Ready To Run participants Kim Jackson of Georgia, who was the first known LGBTQ woman elected to that state’s Senate, and Emily Weber, who was the first known Asian-American woman elected to Missouri’s House of Representatives!

For me, 2020 was a year of both incalculable joy and sadness, and not just because of Covid. In June, I lost my beloved grandmother, Lydia, at age 93. Eight weeks later, I gave birth to my son, and seven weeks later, we flew to Minnesota, where our surrogate gave birth to our twins. Six weeks later, I came back to work. With the year coming to a close, I want to take a moment to share my grandmother, Lydia, with you—what she meant to me, my company, and the great-grandchildren she sadly did not get to meet.

Lydia was a special person. Above all, she considered herself a New Yorker. Born in New Hampshire and raised in Maine by two Lithuanian immigrants, she eloped and moved to New York City with my grandfather at the age of 22, first living in Times Square, where my grandfather worked as a super. After getting divorced at 29, she bought her one and only apartment for $3,375 in Morningside Heights, Manhattan, where she would live for the next sixty-something years. My grandmother spent her professional years as a librarian for the New York Public Library, eventually becoming the head of Young Adult Programs, working primarily with Black teenagers in Harlem. Her first love was always acting, and after she retired from the Public Library, she signed up with an agency, founded a theater group in her community and began performing. She appeared in several films, including the award-winning Poison, and showed up in multiple ads, including one for the Discovery Channel.

One of Lydia’s modeling gigs.

Wherever Lydia went, there was magic.

She was a beauty and had incredible skin, even at 93. She didn’t have many luxuries in life, but one of them was expensive face cream. Whenever anyone asked her why her skin was so good (which was often), she would reply, “Crème de la Mer, dear.” Every Sunday, my husband, Chris, and I would take her to Pisticci’s, the neighborhood Italian restaurant, where the lead singer of the resident jazz band, Pamela, would serenade us when she walked in the door. She would wave her hand and greet the entire restaurant, charming all the waiters and patrons. Pamela would usually close out the night with her rendition of “New York State of Mind” by Billy Joel. One night, Lydia got up and started dancing with a ninety-nine-year-old man named Irving, who would usually sit at the bar. Pamela started improvising, “Lydia and Irving, they’re showing us how to do it, there’s so much love and wisdom,” as the other patrons, many of whom were professional singers, joined the chorus. Wherever Lydia went, there was magic.

Lydia dancing with Irving on that magical night at Pisticci’s.

In 2016, right after Chris and I got married, we moved in with her for a year while we were between apartments. She was the original Carrie Bradshaw, using her oven as storage. I don’t think I’d ever seen her cook a day in her life, but like any New Yorker, she loved food. When Chris became a judge for Food52’s “The Piglet” and had to test multiple recipes from two cookbooks, she gamely became one of the testers, trying everything from “Mum’s Chicken Curry Recipe” to “Chocolate Croissant Bread Pudding.” She was democratic in her food taste; she loved dining at a four-star restaurant just as much as she appreciated fast food (so much so that she once wrote a restaurant review of her nearby McDondald’s). For her, there was no such thing as a guilty pleasure, a thing too small to enjoy. 

Sarah and Lydia (in the Didion).

Lydia was always perfectly coiffed: her hair bands—her signature item—always paired back to her top and her earrings. And while it probably goes without saying, she loved M.M. She owned several of the tops herself—the Didion was her go-to—and looked forward to getting the newsletters, which she would critique in various ways. When I first founded the company and named one of the first seven dresses after her, she responded “I’m so glad you named the sexiest dress after me.”

Lydia and a family friend.

She had many love affairs after her divorce but chose to remain single, surrounding herself with friends. One of the things that brought us closer together was her openness, including her struggle with mental health. When I was having a particularly difficult time in my twenties, she was one of the most compassionate people and made me feel unalone. That was another magical thing about her: you could be ten years old or a hundred-and-ten years old, and she would talk to you just the same. Her curiosity saw no bounds, and at the age of eighty-nine, she asked Chris to help her start a blog. After he showed her some basic things, she started frequently writing about the ups and downs of aging in Manhattan and aptly titled the blog “Still Upright (sort of).”

The last time we saw each other was right before we went into lockdown, when we went to see Little Women together. I was several months pregnant after years of infertility, and she couldn’t have been happier for me. We joked that now she couldn’t die until she met the babies. That day, she insisted that we order a gigantic bag of popcorn (extra butter), and as she and I munched in the back row, I remember thinking that life didn’t get much sweeter. While I didn’t know that we would soon lose her, I can’t think of a better film to be our last. I think she saw herself in Jo. My grandmother became single again at the age of 29, back when being a divorced mom of two couldn’t have been the easiest thing, and she grew to be a confident and independent career woman who found so much joy in her work. “I intend to make my own way in the world.” That’s a line from the film that feels like a perfect summation of Lydia’s life. And, in many ways, that’s how I think of the M.M. woman. 

Lydia and Sarah, the night they saw Little Women.

My grandmother lived by herself until the very end. In late May, she fell, ended up in the hospital, and died very peacefully a couple of weeks later. She died because her heart gave out, not because of Covid, although I think the loneliness of not seeing anyone for several months got to her. I was wretched with guilt for some time afterward about not quarantining with her, and a part of me still is. It was the height of Covid, and it seemed at the time like maintaining distance from her was the best course of action. But I still wonder about that sometimes.

When it became clear that she would not be making a miraculous recovery, her doctor ultimately allowed my aunt to say goodbye to her in the hospital. My aunt is the bedrock of my family, and took on the difficult task of saying goodbye to her on her own, carrying all of us with her. I was desperate to go in, but they weren’t taking chances with a pregnant woman. I’m forever grateful to the ER doctor at Mount Sinai St. Luke’s, who, after seeing me completely distraught in the waiting room, FaceTimed me from her hospital bed unprompted and showed me my grandmother’s peaceful face, allowing me to have a final moment with her. They say that your hearing is the last of your senses to go when you leave this world, so I’m hoping she heard what I had to say, which is that she made my life so full.

Chris, Sarah, their three new babies, and their dog, Ruggles.

Eight weeks later, Chris and I welcomed our son Kento into the world. Seven weeks later, we welcomed our twins, Theo and Astrid, via our wonderful surrogate in Minnesota. Experiencing death and birth in such proximity seemed to have a magnifying effect on one another, and made her death even sadder knowing how much she wanted to meet them, and then made their birth feel mystical somehow, as if a part of her had made its way into them. 

Lydia was the consummate M.M. woman: independent, charming, and always stylish. What set her apart as she grew older was her insatiable curiosity and unique ability not only to find joy in the small things, but also to share it with those around her. She never grew jaded. As I see my babies start to interact with the world around them and respond with joy and a giggle to a question, a song, or even the feeling of water during bath time, I’m reminded of her. I particularly see her in our eldest, Kento, who is a total ham, charming everyone he meets. I hope that her joie de vivre—coincidentally, also an M.M. company value—has passed onto them.

Wishing you all a restful rest of 2020, and that this holiday season, you too are able to find the joy in the small things, even if it’s just from your living room sofa. One of the things I’m most looking forward to in 2021 is a chance for my parents to finally meet our three babies, and hopefully, one day, develop the kind of relationship that I was so lucky to have had with Lydia.

Sarah’s three babies.

Sarah LaFleur

Written By

Sarah LaFleur

Sarah LaFleur is the founder and CEO of professional womenswear brand MM.LaFleur . Her mission: to take the work out of dressing for work.

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