Remembering the Beginnings
Last spring in a Chinese restaurant, I watched, transfixed, as a young couple passed their baby back and forth and shared his delicious compactness with their friends at their table. Six months, maybe? Nine? We were like that, I mused. But it’s like looking through the wrong end of binoculars, the portrait of us from that era is far away.
We forget so much. It’s impossible to remember every moment; huge swaths of motherhood seemed to have passed without my awareness. I was there, of course, baking dinosaur shaped chicken nuggets on cookie sheets, stirring pastina, schlepping to birthday parties and Mommy and Me classes, reading to the girls, to our son born much later in darkened bedrooms, with tissue paper shaded nightlights circling round and round, blue and green fish glowing as they swam. But there are days when it seems I was only just expecting them, hands resting on my huge belly. Now, they are mostly grown—it’s as if I arrived at the grocery store parking lot without any memory of driving there. I was so grateful to finally be a mother, so wildly anxious about whether or not the child was picking up Cheerios on schedule with a thumb and pointer finger that I forgot to pay attention and it has all wooshed by. What is it they say: the nights are long and the years are fast? How is it that I have forgotten so much?
Photographs prompt a waterfall of memories. In a booklet of our first daughter’s birth photos, I lie on the hospital bed, weary, triumphant, aching from the C-section, drugged, I suspect. I am very pale, my hospital-gown an unflattering grey against the doughy hue of my skin. My manicured nails are dark red, like little drops of blood against the sheet. I hear my sister through the phone cord: “God, you must look awful. Mom poured a drink as soon as she got home. She said you look like death warmed over.”
Mom’s hospital visit: a major event I do remember vividly. Fearing NYC traffic, she hired a driver to bring her from Philadelphia to New York Hospital to inspect this new granddaughter, her fifth grandchild, our first, long-awaited baby. She arrived in stockings and pumps, wearing a wool suit that she probably purchased during the Kennedy administration. Down the hall, she stood next to Jacqueline Onassis, whose daughter Caroline had had Jack the same day I had Miranda—two doting grandmothers admiring babies in isolettes. One impossibly chic; one fashion-averse. After twenty minutes, she declared it was time to leave.
“You just got here,” I implored. “Stay. Just a few more minutes. Please.” Being a mother felt so new, so peculiar. I missed the swimming of the baby inside of me. My stitches ached; my breasts hurt. I wanted my mom to be with me, to know what to do. She must know, I reasoned. She had done this three times. Formal, angular, she perched on the chair for a little longer, then gathered up her pocketbook, kissed my forehead and disappeared. She was out of her element. Months later, at home in her own space, she relaxed, enjoyed the baby, but that day, I think her fear that she could have lost me in my efforts to bring our baby into the world rendered her mute, humorless. She had to flee. She was afraid. A few years ago, when our second daughter was in a horrific car accident, I finally understood: the idea of losing them, no matter how old they are, turns us to stone. My mother had already lost my brother when he was eighteen—the idea of losing me, too, of acknowledging what a close call we’d had with an emergency C-section and blood transfusion—terrified her. She was more scared than I was, I, having been unconscious during all the drama. I remember listening to Maya Angelou herald a new President on the television, remember leaving the hospital thinking someone ought to have asked me more questions about my competence to mother this tiny new being.
Of their babyhood, I recall the scents and textures: dark damp shampooed hair, glossy when dry, the sour milk smell of throw up, the medicinal comforting smells of Balmex and Vicks. I recall the physics of jumping a giggling toddler into her thick patterned tights.. I recall a Hanna Anderson snow suit or a Laura Ashley jumper or, for our son, a shirt with a raccoon appliqued that we bought in several sizes because he loved it so. Specificity blends with vague recollections. That chapter of early motherhood seems an Impressionist painting, viewed most clearly from a little farther away when I am not trying too hard to recall its precise contours.
If I could do it all over again, I think I’d jettison the books about sleeping. Our first daughter slept on her tummy, clocking six hours like a champ at six weeks. The later two, forced to sleep on their backs because we knew tummies were unsafe, never once fell asleep without long rocking, singing, and cuddling rituals. When we attempted to Ferberize Cordelia, she cried so hard and so long that she vomited. The second night of the failed experiment, her older sister lifted her over the baby gate to send her toddling to her incompetent parents.
More photos—some framed, some from memory: Miranda in a blue bathing suit, tiny tummy rounded out, ruffles across the butt. We are at the beach in Eagles Mere—the place we go each summer. She is toddling into the water, unafraid. I see her a few weeks before her sister was born, coming into the living room where her father had made a dollhouse for her in a bookshelf.
“For me?” she breathed, her blue eyes huge, her little self in soft footie pajamas festooned with pink bows.
“For you,” we smiled. Such moments we carry with us forever.
There are our little girls in their Halloween costumes. Baby Cordelia is dressed as a pumpkin—a repeat of her sister’s first costume—while Miranda sports a tiny witch ensemble complete with striped tights. The next year, Cordelia as Dorothy and Miranda costumed as a pink princess. Cordelia wore those red ruby slippers for years. We were forever trekking to Target to acquire the next size up. How we loved making those costumes, excitement mounting. And Atticus? Fewer framed photos, for when he was born we captured his grins on a cell phone. We should go back now, add his little self to our gallery so we forget less.
There I am, too, unphotographed, the weight of a baby on my shoulder, standing in the living room of our Manhattan apartment after everyone else slept. I am gazing into the lit windows of the lit apartments across the street, taking comfort in the fact that there were people still awake in the world. There they were, these people I had never met, drinking tea as I tried to lull the baby into a deep enough sleep that I would not wake her when I laid her in the crib. I imagined their conversation, watched their choreography as they moved from room to room, felt comforted that they were in the world with me. I am in my own memories—a younger mother, so much still to learn, so thrilled and tired to be a mother at all.
Ann Klotz is a mother, writer, teacher and the head of an all girls’ school in Shaker Heights, OH. Her essays have appeared in Mothers Always Write, Literary Mama, Mutha, the Feminine Collective, Under the Gum Tree, Thread, and on the Brevity Blog. Her website: www.annvklotz.com has a complete list of her published essays and her own blog.