Nina Gage knew what she was doing.
It showed in the dusty barn. The 16-year-old swiftly prepared Charlotte, her rescued racehorse, for an afternoon ride — a tugged strap here, an adjustment there, her efficiency the product of having ridden most of her life.
Nearby stood Mary Gage, watching her capable granddaughter.
Long ago, Gage could have felt just as saddled.
But she instead embraced a second motherhood.
On this Mother’s Day, at 74, she can celebrate another year shared with a surprise gift. After two children of her own, she raised Nina for her daughter, who’s mentally ill and lives in a Lock Haven personal care home.
In her late 50s, Gage honored her daughter’s wishes and plunged back into the highs and lows of parenting, into the world of diapers, child care and homework but also of wonder and discoveries.
As her peers looked to retirement and relaxation, a little girl infused her life.
“Nina made really nice friends always, and their parents were terrific people,” Gage said. “And they would sometimes make me even forget that I was old enough to be their mothers. They would seem quite happy to include me in, which I’ve always been grateful for.
“So it was nice. A lot of people my age are waiting around to die. It turned into an unexpected blessing.”
When Ulicia Gage became pregnant in her early 30s, and the father promptly disappeared, she came to live with her mother in State College.
Mary Gage thought her daughter might be able to care for her baby. But once Nina arrived, it proved too difficult.
Gage’s siblings and other family members urged her to put Nina up for adoption. She had paid her dues, they argued. Why go through the odyssey again?
Gage knew why.
“For me, there was just no choice,” she said. “I felt that she was my family and that I had to look after her.”
She had help starting out.
Her second husband, Penn State physics professor Stan Shepherd, had lost his grown daughter to a blood clot. He fell in love with Nina.
“He was very happy and devoted to her,” Gage said.
She saw that coming home after finishing work at Penn State, where she led the undergraduate fellowship office, and picking up Nina at her day nursery.
“He would come rushing out and I would think, ‘Oh good, he’s coming to see me,’ but he was coming to see Nina,” Gage said.
Shepherd died in 2003, two years after retiring, moving to South Florida and enjoying a climate closer to his native Jamaica.
By that time, Gage already had committed to being a full-time mother.
When Nina was about 2, Gage decided to stay at home as she did for her children during their preschool years. She loved her work at the university, where she also had taught as a film, theater and journalism professor, but it was just a job for a writer at heart. She could leave it.
Nina needed her more.
“I thought it was terrible to leave her in daycare,” Gage said. “I had to leave her on my way to the office and then pick her up on the way back. She was actually at the office longer than I was.”
The nursery was excellent, but that wasn’t the point.
“I just felt it wasn’t right somehow. I wanted to bring her up myself. Rather than looking after all these bright kids at Penn State, other people’s children, I should look after my own first.”
After her husband’s death, Gage and Nina moved to Sydney, Australia, her former home and where her son and other grandchildren live.
But eventually, she returned to State College, thinking it would be an ideal place for her granddaughter to thrive.
It also kept Nina close to her biological mother.
Throughout the years, Ulicia Gage visited her daughter from time to time.
“They got on very well, but it’s not like a mother-daughter thing,” Mary Gage said. “It’s more like siblings.”
Her daughter also played the indulgent, gift-bearing grandmother role. Gage missed out on that. Someone had to set the rules.
“It’s a very different relationship,” she said. “In some ways, it’s a shame. I’ve got to be the one that says, ‘No, not until you tidy up your room.’ ”
Nina considers her mother as her “mom.” Her grandmother, she sees as a close friend.
“I think we sort of both help each other around the house,” Nina said. “We have a good relationship, but it’s more like a friendship. But she does look out for me as a mom.”
And for that, for the 16th birthday trip to the Bahamas, for everything, Nina is grateful.
“I have a really nice life, and we have traveled a lot, and I’ve seen a lot of places with her,” she said.
“Because she’s older, she has a lot of experience and wisdom that I think I feed off of. I think she’s made me really cultured.”
There’s another reason Nina feels lucky. Her grandmother, while supportive and encouraging, taught her to be confident and independent.
Gage wanted that for Nina.
In England, she had a strict upbringing. In the alternative spirit of the 1960s and 1970s, she raised her children with more freedom.
On her second go at parenting, she tried to strike a balance.
“I think I’m wiser but weaker,” she said.
The baby she held in her arms, who slept on her husband’s chest, is almost a grown woman. Soon, she’ll head off to follow her own path.
Gage trusts she gave her a good start.
“All you can do is your best.”