Dad was still filling out the paperwork as I arrived, umbilical cord looped twice around my neck.
“I guess she did an okay job,” Mom says, when I ask her to tell the story of my birth. She means the nurse. A nameless woman who was there at 3 a.m. and held Mom’s hand until I appeared.
What about me, I wonder. I saved myself from strangulation, by being born so quickly. Amazing, really. For a first child.
And so, the story goes, I was born. The cord was cut, the nasty part fell off and that was that. Mom was free to forget the whole thing.
This is what I got when I asked Mom to tell me about the amazing day. The special day. The day Mom was christened Mom.
Mom didn’t want to talk about it.
In the car on the way home from the latest baby shower, high on cake and punch, I would forget myself. I would ask, one more time, for Mom to remember my birth. She never missed a baby shower. Armed with her go-to gift, The Big Book of Mother Goose, Mom took me to my cousins’ showers. Then, I took her to my girlfriends’ showers. Over the years, I saw Mom play memory and guess-the-baby. Watched her drink the alcohol-free punch and taste the cake. When talk turned to epidurals and episiotomies, Mom smiled and listened. I watched her. I wondered what she was thinking.
Because Mom didn’t like details. Mom would give me the birth story summary. Followed by a frown. Followed by her position statement. “Women have been having babies since time began,” she would say. “They would squat in the fields, have the baby, strap it on and get back to work.”
I pictured women threshing wheat, or picking cotton. Then, I saw Mom, in her scarf and pant suit heading back to work at the department of social services. I was not clinging to her body, as she checked on her caseload. I was at Grandma’s. She didn’t strap me on. But she did get right back to work.
Mom thought having babies was not a big deal. And talking about it was something women did to make themselves seem important. To make the event seem more important than it was. This, Mom told me, was why she didn’t like to talk about it. She seemed angry as though she dared me to disagree. And I decided that, for Mom, childbirth was as ho-hum as taking a crap.
It took years of questioning to extract the story of the hand-holding nurse.
Throughout our lives together, Mom rose every morning an hour before she had to in order to read. I have no doubt she read child rearing books. I wondered about the advice Mom may have gotten. Did the books say, “Don’t spoil the baby?” Did the books say, “Let the baby cry?” Did the books say “Hands off?”
In my family, praise and attention were handled carefully. Like radioactive isotopes.
My sister thinks radioactive isotopes killed Mom. So, while Mom was playing outside in the coal town she grew up in, poison followed the wind from the Nevada Test Site and settled on her. Why not? We don’t know what set off the chain of events that ended with Mom lying still and small and encircled by IVs. Dying. Downwinders Syndrome? Mom was contacted by researchers. We found the letter.
I’m not convinced that forces from outside Mom killed Mom. And it doesn’t matter. She is gone. There will be no new versions of her stories, from her.
I never really wanted to know whether she had an epidural. Whether it hurt. How long she breast fed. I wanted Mom to tell me that the day I arrived was a big deal. To her. The only way I knew how to ask for that, was to pester her for details. She never did tell me the nurse’s name.
Mom’s second career was with the IRS, and she dressed up for her shifts at the taxpayer service counter. She had a scarf for every outfit. The scarves were stored, wound around toilet paper rolls, in the bottom drawer of her dresser. Hidden behind the scarves, in the very back, was a pillbox hat.
The pillbox hat and a handful of photos were all that was left of the day she stood outside St. John’s in her blue suit with Dad.
When Mom was out, my sister and I would liberate the hat from the drawer and marry pretend men.
It was blue. I wonder if someone counseled her to wear blue. She was pregnant, after all. Although I didn’t know this when I first found the hat.
Mom caught us one day with the hat in our hands. She told us it wasn’t a toy. She was angry and I could feel the sadness underneath it. She said we tore the veil.
Mom didn’t want our dirty hands on her pillbox hat. But here we were, holding the hat with our dirty hands. The hands that were born into this world, because of that veil. And the day Mom stood on the stairs of St. John’s with Dad.
Mom rarely let us see her upset. I wondered why she cared so much about some forgotten thing in a drawer. Maybe she kept the hat to help her remember a moment or a feeling; a moment or a feeling that my sister and I could ruin by touching it.
Mom and I. Doctor and nurse. No one else was there to see as I arrived. Perhaps this memory of my birth contained a joy that Mom didn’t want spoiled by retelling. She knew her mind would erase bits and add parts as she repeated the story. Ad infinitum. Changing the memory with each sharing, until the joy was gone.
The night I was born, I imagine Dad lingering over the intake forms. Saving Mom and Dad from facing each other as they took in the truth of the situation. The truth was, they were helpless. Powerless, as the completely ordinary scene of my birth was unfolding.
Neither of them could have stopped me as I muscled my way past the final road block: Mom’s body.
Through her, I launched myself. The morning I was born, I was in control of two nervous systems. I was the boss. Of Mom. Maybe she didn’t want to remember that.
Mom kept things she didn’t want to share in the bottom drawer of her dresser.
Her mom kept private things in the back of a closet.
I didn’t find what was hidden there, in the sewing room, until Grandma died.
Mom and I were removing Grandma’s things from her house when I found a hosiery box full of clippings. There were yellowed maps of the Pacific Theater of war, photos of the Dionne quintuplets. And newspaper columns composed by a psychic.
I took these out. I read them.
Before the hosiery box, I knew Mom was the final child, the only daughter. She arrived as all three of her brothers shipped out to the Pacific to fight during World War II. Mom told me the barest story of Grandma and Grandpa and her birth. Cousins and aunts added ribs and finger bones to the skeleton. This was not enough for me. There was no love, no fear, no uncertainty in the stories I was told. Only facts.
Someone, I don’t know who, mentioned Grandpa liked to say he had “three in the service,” during the war. I decided that Grandma resented this bragging. Felt wounded by it. In my version of the story, Grandma was anxious. She understood that she might never see any of her children ever again. Her plan, borne of fear and desperation, was to get pregnant. Have another child. Someone else to take care of and love. This happened, Mom told me, when Grandma was 42 years old.
Mom arrived. Walking at nine months, showing talent for dance and piano, Mom exceeded all expectations, according to aunts and cousins. And she was the girl Grandma had pined for. She was essentially, an only child. Her parents were decades older than the parents of her playmates. Mom told me this embarrassed her.
This was the story of little Mom. Until the hosiery box.
“What are these?” I asked, holding out the columns.
“Oh,” Mom said. “Grandma sent her a letter during the war to find out if she’d have a girl. If she got pregnant.”
As I stared at Mom, I felt a shift in my consciousness, my world view, my understanding of Grandma. My grandma consulted psychics? “And . . .” I said.
“She told Grandma she’d have a girl.”
Implications churned. My face flushed. My scalp tingled and in the moment before thought stopped, I understood: no fortune teller, no Mom. No Mom, no me. What if the psychic had said “don’t bother?” I had to sit down.
On the one hand, I was here in Grandma’s house, sorting with Mom. On the other hand, I might have never been born. Because I was here I had trouble imagining my absence. I was alive. For the first time, this felt tenuous. Like something that was barely true.
How long did Mom know about the psychic? Her whole life.
Why wouldn’t you broadcast the news that a psychic had predicted your birth? I wouldn’t have been able to keep my mouth shut. If it had been me who was the promised baby daughter. Mom wasn’t planning on telling me. Then, I found the clippings. I decided her silence was important. I just didn’t know why.
I was in junior high the time my cousin, also in junior high, spent the weekend. We were flipping through a photo album. I chose the album. The one with my baby pictures. There are Mom and Dad on the steps of St. John’s. There’s Mom in her blue suit and pillbox hat. Here’s Dad opening the car door for Mom. He’s dressed in a brown suit with pencil pants, still with the white-blond hair of his childhood.
The honeymoon in Victoria BC, the modest, pregnant Mom shots. Yes, here I am, in the sink. It’s bath time. Dad looks bewildered. Look how cute I am. As I admired my sink shots, a cousin started counting on her fingers.
“You were born in March,” she said. “Your parents got married in September…”
“Yeah,” I said. “So?”
“Your mom was pregnant when she got married.” My cousin gawped at me. Then, she started laughing. I flushed red. Then, I tried to recover. Pretend I knew. I didn’t. It was too late.
“My Mom was pregnant, too,” she said, as her giggling died. “That’s what happens when you use prayer for birth control.”
As far as I know, my parents didn’t pray. They didn’t teach me to pray. There was no ban on premarital pregnancy. No shunning or shaming. The year I decided to appear I was welcomed. In fact, another cousin, then nine, was part of the shopping expedition that produced the blue pillbox hat and veil. She knew Mom was pregnant. Everyone knew.
The fact of it was right there in the photo album, waiting to be discovered. And still, I felt embarrassed by the news that Mom was pregnant. I was caught off guard by my cousin. I was mad at Mom because this was part of our story. And she didn’t offer to share it with me.
I could have said something, but I preferred to wonder. It felt safer. I wondered whether Mom married, because she was pregnant. Women, Mom might have said, have been getting pregnant for millennia. You get pregnant; then, you do what is required. Did Mom want kids?
I imagined Mom was waiting for the day I would approach her and ask: “Was I a mistake?” The day never came. Long before Mom died I had stopped asking for stories. I had already decided I was a mistake.
Mom got pregnant in 1966. Right after college.
Her college-era girlfriends are still living. Mutual curiosity has kept us in touch. Slowly, over the years I have plied them with questions. On one occasion I treated one of these women, J, to lunch. Over Indian food she gave me an image: Mom and her girlfriends sitting on the floor of their apartment. Drinking wine. Talking. Up until that moment, they had felt lucky. Their boyfriends had draft exemptions. Now, they don’t. College kids are getting drafted to fight in Vietnam.
I can see Mom on the floor, her legs stretched out to the side. Drinking her wine out of a water glass like a bohemian. All of the girlfriends are dressed in pencil skirts and cardigans they knit themselves. They are drinking. And smoking. I suspect that J edited the smoking out.
Mom was already dating Dad on the night of wine and smoking and worry. She had been for a while. Mom removed a cigarette from her purse the night she met Dad. “I told her I didn’t like smoking,” Dad said. He never saw another cigarette.
I like to think that Mom continued smoking, behind Dad’s back. Perhaps she set down her water glass and shook one out of the pack. She needs a cigarette. They are talking about the student body president. He was drafted. They have just learned he was killed in Vietnam.
“The war terrified us,” J said, interrupting my imagining. “It’s difficult to convey.”
Dad, like the student body president, only had a student exemption. He could be called up to serve at any time. According to J, I was not an accident. I was planned.
From the time my zygote was formed, I had a purpose. To save a life. Mom would marry Dad and I would be born. In an instant Dad would have three-layer force field to protect him from draft; three exemptions.
I imagine Mom told her girlfriends, as they drank and smoked, that she would get pregnant and marry my dad. With or without his consent. This seems too bold. It doesn’t sound like Mom. Mom, who shared stories slowly, begrudgingly. Unlike J.
She sensed my skepticism.
“Do you think your dad could have survived getting sent to Vietnam?” she asked.
I take a moment to picture Dad. In his chair, reading. In the garage, working. Almost always, alone. I tried to imagine him under fire. Taking orders. Cooperating with people.
“No,” I said.
J took a spoonful of curry and placed it on her dish. The conversation returned to Indian food.
Although I tried to introduce this topic at other times on future visits, J was silent. Perhaps she felt she’d said too much.
Mom saved Dad from Vietnam, by getting pregnant. This was her contribution to the protest movement. An example of what women did to oppose the war. I wanted to hear more about that. For a while I imagined that I was part of a baby army that saved scores of men from serving in Vietnam. We were the unsung heroes of the anti-war movement. We had purpose. We were important.
I added this gem to the collection. Stories about me and Mom. Stories Mom never told. I started making up my own stories about what it might have meant to Mom, to Dad, that I was thought of and given a life by them. I wondered how Mom felt about her choice once I arrived and she was locked into being wife and mom.
Mom was wanted. She was so intently hoped for that Grandma called in the psychics. Mustering forces of the unknown, Grandma leveraged control and certainty. She received a sign from beyond that things would not end badly as her sons left for Fort Lewis and from there, an un-picturable expanse of ocean.
Mom was not a mistake.
That was what the story of the psychic meant to me. Mom was wanted in a way that I never felt wanted. Grandma had shared the story of the psychic with her daughter. Mom knew what Grandma did to make sure that she would arrive as ordered. Mom was ordered. And from the time she was first thought of, she had a job.
Her job was to comfort Grandma. Mom knew that, too.
Grandma was worried her sons would die in the Pacific. That she would be alone, without children to love. Mom was worried that Dad would be drafted and die in Vietnam. Mom never told me about her plan to save Dad by making a baby. I didn’t know that I came into this world with a job. I didn’t know it was up to me to comfort Mom or save Dad from certain death. Mom wanted me to decide for myself what my job in life would be. She wanted me to be my own person.
It was up to me to figure out that I wasn’t a mistake.