Mother’s Day: In praise of benign neglect

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Mother

My mother breathed for me until I could breathe on my own, though apparently after I reluctantly squeezed through the channel into the outside world, I needed a slap on the bottom to start doing things on my own. This was to be a recurring pattern in my childhood.

 

 

Forcing me to breathe on my own was the first of mother’s insistence that I take responsibility for myself; she had her own life to live. Her job was to carry me through babyhood into childhood, where I could fend for myself.

 

She did her best: training me to sleep through the night by adding a bit of coffee to my bottle to keep me awake during the day, having me inoculated for the diseases she could and nursing me through the ones she couldn’t, teaching me to eat solid foods, introducing me to boxed cereal, dressing and shoeing me until I could make bizarre clothing choices on my own, and drilling in the necessity to shut the door when I went outside.

 

The trauma of getting me through my early years and up to the door-closing phase caused mother to forget the circumstances surrounding my birth, so the door drill was always accompanied by the question, “Were you born in a barn?” For all I knew or remembered I was, so if she couldn’t remember for me, how was I to know?

 

By the time I was four or five, I was free to leave home. I knew where the sugar-coated cereal was, and I knew that one coat was never enough; so after making sure the cereal was adequately dressed, I would eat my fill, find a mismatched pair of shorts and top, and go outside.

 

Childhood, I learned, took place outside. When adults were awake and in the house, we were told to go outside and play. Mother’s interest in what went on outside the house was limited to injuries involving a lot of blood, my own or others (if I were the cause of the blood-letting.) Other than that, I was free to roam around, engage in rock fights, create plays with my sister in the backyard, ride my bike around the neighborhood, experiment with smoking, set fires, and reassign the neighbors’ mail by taking it from one person’s mailbox and putting it in another’s.

 

For my major crimes, I was caught and punished, which kept me from careers in smoking, arson, and mail fraud. For the rest, I lived a life of my own choosing, a life largely unknown to my mother, as hers was to me.

 

Mother never felt the need to entertain me, hover over me, or know what I was up to. I discovered most of the world on my own – learned how to make and break alliances, how to climb a tree and watch the world, where to hide when I didn’t want to be found, how far I could go without losing my way, and when to come home.

 

Like so many mothers of that era, mother left me on my own for much of the time. I think of it as benign neglect, but it was really the freedom to find my way. I’m still doing that – finding my way, still making mistakes, and still watching the world.

 

Next month will be ten years since mother last breathed. Had I been able to breathe for her and keep her longer, I would have gladly done so. But that is something only the mother can do for the child.

 

Today, on Mother’s Day, I want to breathe life back into her memory and thank her for telling me to get out of the house, shut the door behind me, and go outside so I could discover the world on my own.

Slices of my heart: In the year I died

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We rent a third-floor apartment and drink coffee from mismatched cups. The coffee pot costs  fifteen dollars. It is temporary. We must make do; we are temporary too.

 

I sleep on a mattress on the floor. I am alone for now. The man I share my bed with is away. He will be back. Someday. We don’t have furniture in the bedroom. We are waiting.

 

She comes into my room at night after I’ve gotten to sleep and kneels by my bed. Sorrow takes her breath away, leaving her speechless. She tries to form words, but they sound as if they are wrapped in cotton, so none of the sharp edges of the consonants can be heard. All I can hear are vowels stretched out like a dirge.

 

The sobs begin softly, but soon come louder and quicker. Tears flow down her face and onto my shoulder as I put my arms around her to comfort her.

 

“I hate … ,” she says.  Him or it, I think she is trying to say. “I hate him,” I hear at last. “He took everything.”

 

We are stranded in this unfamiliar room, empty of all but us and the bed, a raft carrying us into an unknown future. I rub her back and say, “I know.”

 

“I hate him,” she says again and again, doubling over and putting her face down on the ground.

 

I hug her and hold her, but she cannot stop crying. We cry together and I tell her how sorry I am that it happened. If only I could go back and change things for her, but the past is permanent. Only the now is temporary.

 

I fumble with words hoping to say something of comfort. I pray for her and whisper my love.

 

“I’ll never be the same.”

 

I know and yet I cannot tell her what I know. Death changes everything it touches, but not every death is fatal.

 

I ask her if she would like to lie down and try to sleep. I get pillows from her bed to make her comfortable.

 

She lies next to me and says, ”After this, I’m not going to have any strength.”

 

“I will give you strength; God will give you strength; strength will come.” I speak the words aloud and then repeat them to myself, arranging them like furniture in my empty heart.

 

We are silent, floating, carried out to the sea by grief, hoping to drown ourselves in sleep.

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Mismatched memories

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The house we do most of our living in sits across from the smartest block in our city. The north side of the smarty-pants block hosts an elementary school, the northwest corner lends its land to a charter school, and the south side carries a middle school on its back. Mornings and afternoons cars line up outside the schools, disgorge or engorge students, and slowly drive off into whatever comes next. Some children, however, still walk to school.

 

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The other day as I was driving past the middle school, I saw a girl wearing one white sock and one black sock. Suddenly those socks were to me, what that madeleine was to Proust. The only difference between our experiences is that I didn’t have to eat the socks to invoke my involuntary memory and Proust did. He ate, of course, a madeleine, not a pair of socks, which if he or I had done would have merely invoked an involuntary gag reflex. Oddly, that is my exact response when I remember junior high and its humiliations.

 

 

My memories of that time center on the betrayal of my body. As a young child my body took care of me, balancing me on bicycles and roller skates, walking me to school and back, and carrying me through those early years without asking much in return. A band-aid for a skinned knee, a dreamsicle on a hot summer’s day, and whatever clothes I could find, mismatched or not, satisfied it.

 

 

Then the change came. In health class I watched the educational films about the wonderful changes waiting for me when I arrived on puberty’s shore. I would turn in my child’s body for that of a beautiful young woman, except I didn’t. I had the same body, only pimply, hairy, and lumpy in all the wrong places. Worst of all, I could not go back to my pirate days or run wild through the neighborhood seeking adventure.

 

 

 

Now I had an awkward body to shower, with legs and underarms that needed shaving, and parts that needed straps and hooks to harness in (the special underwear of the initiated). Everyday I had to present this new body to the world to be judged by its impossible standards of beauty. My body elicited comments, mostly from boys but also from girls, about its lack of conformity to the beautiful women who lived in our TVs, danced across our movie screens, and permanently resided in our minds. I had never been a stranger to self-consciousness or public embarrassment as a child, but most of the time I was free from of it. When the changes came, I picked up that terrible burden and carried it with me everywhere I went.

 

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Sadly I never had such a large bow nest in my hair.

My hairstyle of choice during junior high was a bird’s nest. My top hair, cut short, was first permed, and then rolled into obedience each night. On good hair days, with teasing and hairspray, the bangs poofed down and the top poofed up creating an ideal place for a large velvet bow to perch. The rest of my hair was left long. By lathering it in Dippity-Do and sleeping on rollers, I could flip the ends upward and outward like bird wings. It’s what all the bird-brained girls did.

 

 

The worst class of junior high was PE because we were required to take showers, and the teacher stood near the open showers to make sure we all went through. Each day I faced the task of deciding how I would humiliate myself.  I was allowed only one small towel, so I could either cover my body as I ran through or cover my hair to protect my hair. I was younger than most of the other girls because I started school earlier, so while their bodies looked more and more like women’s, my looked like it had started to develop and then changed its mind. Sometimes I opted for that first mortification, covering my hair; other times I opted for the second. In those cases, I could cover my body, but all or part of my hair got wet. I never knew if I would emerge with all of the long part straightened or look in the mirror to find one side still flipping up while the other side hung down like a broken wing. Almost always, the little nest on top turned into a soggy, frizzy mop.

 


Why did those mismatched socks I saw the other day uncover these memories?  One popular style at my school was a pleated skirt, a pullover sweater, knee socks, and tennis shoes. If you wore a white skirt with a black sweater, it was considered high fashion to wear one white sock with a black tennis shoe and one black sock with a white tennis shoe. The velvet bow in your bird’s nest could be either black or white. I could never decide which was better; both went well with the red face of humiliation I usually wore.

Whispers of Jimmy and Darla: part 3

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When mother whispered her secrets to me as a child or spoke them aloud when I was grown, she told the stories plain. This is path I went down, she said, and after that, I went this way. She never flinched or offered excuses; I never heard her say it wasn’t her fault. And she never cried when she told the stories.

 

She recited her secrets like confessions. Her penance: the bitter truth on her tongue.Tears would have only diluted the bitterness, would have made it seem as if she had had no choice. She knew better.

 

Mother chose to return to Alabama: a one-way trip down a dead-end road.

 

Grady found work in Mobile and paid the rent on a three-room house for several months before he decided he would rather spend his money elsewhere. Mother worked as a waitress and brought some money in but not enough for rent and food. Then, she got pregnant again. Grady spent his evenings in bars, drinking and chasing women. Some nights he would bring one of his girlfriends home, shake mother awake, and demand she make them something to eat. If she didn’t move fast enough, he would hit her. While she could still work, Grady demanded she turn over her tips to him. The one time she held money back, he found out and knocked out several of her teeth.

 

The landlord kicked them out of the house after Grady refused to pay any more rent, so they moved into one of the old barracks on Blakely Island, built during World War II for the war workers who had flooded into Mobile. Mother had the baby in late October at a charity hospital, out in the hall because the delivery room was for patients who could pay. Women on charity had to earn food by folding clothes or carrying trays, but mother had lacked food and care during most of the pregnancy, so she was too weak to do the chores.

 

Grady never came to the hospital; he denied the child was his. Only Connie, the oldest child, came. At twelve, she was still young enough to go trick-or-treating, and she brought her bag of Halloween treats to give to mother.

 

Mother had no clothes for the baby, other than part of old sheet one of the hospital workers gave her. Mother swaddled the baby and with Connie walked back to the barracks. Grady was gone. He found work on a ship and sailed away, leaving the other children on their own. He left no money or forwarding address.

 

Homeless and penniless, mother and the children slept in a park. Mother didn’t have enough nourishment to make any milk for the baby, so she sought help from the Red Cross and the Salvation Army. They offered to take the boys, Clyde and Jimmy, to a shelter. No facilities for women were available.

 

The baby cried constantly and when her cries became weaker, mother took the children and walked the streets asking passersby to take the baby so she wouldn’t die.

 

Most people looked the other way, averting their eyes from the disheveled woman, missing half her teeth and begging on the street with her five children. Finally, a man with paper-white skin, silvery hair and pale eyes stopped. He was nicely dressed and said his wife would be happy to feed and care for the child but only if they could adopt her.

 

None of us know what lies at the end of the paths we choose. When mother said yes to Grady and returned to the place she had once escaped, she couldn’t have known that this stranger would be waiting for her when her narrow path suddenly disappeared into a trackless wilderness. Mother was hopelessly lost, and the well-dressed man pointed in the only way forward.

 

He took mother to a stranger’s house where she and the children stayed until the papers could be signed. Once that child, the one she named Jeannine, was safe, mother called my grandmother in New Mexico and asked once more if she could come home.

 

Grandmother sent what she could, enough bus money to get Mother, Connie, and Clyde out of Mobile. But not Jimmy and Darla. Mother took them to Grady’s mother, their grandmother, and left them there until she could get settled and send for them.

 

She never did.

 

Mother chose other roads, each one leading her farther and farther away from Jimmy and Darla and from what might have been. (You can go here to read about what happened after she left Mobile that second time.) One of those roads led to my daddy and finally to me.

 

After my daddy died, my mother, sister Kathy, and I flew to Mobile to visit Jimmy and Darla. I was eight years old, and I remember the plane ride because I threw up. I don’t have a single memory of the time in Alabama, but I know I was there because my older sister said I was. I could try to fill in the blank spaces, but I won’t; I’ve learned to live with my gap-toothed memories.

 

Connie and her family drove to Mobile to meet us. We returned in her car – two adults and six children. All I remember from that 1200-mile trip is the policeman who pulled Connie over for going 100 mph. He looked at the children piled up in the back, told her she needed to slow down, and walked away without giving her a ticket.

 

Darla returned to Texas with us and stayed a few weeks. She traveled with mother, Kathy, and me to Disneyland, a trip financed by daddy’s insurance money. When Darla went back to Alabama, she never wrote, or if she did, I never knew of it.

 

When I was small, I kept mother’s secrets the best I could. I learned to listen at the telling, hold my tongue, and let the hard words fall without asking any questions. She bared her secrets, each one like a bruise that would not heal, and I could not touch them, for fear of causing her more pain.

 

I carried mother’s secrets in my heart for years, told them to myself at night, hearing her voice speaking the words, crying the tears she never could. The sharp edges have grown smooth; time and telling have worn away the layers of secrecy, revealing the veins and patterns of the stories. I carry them still, small stones of remembrance, gathered from the roads my mother walked once upon a time.

Whispers of Jimmy and Darla: part 2

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Mother holding a puppy next to her sister, Peg.

 

Before Darla’s birth, mother had been unable to contribute any money to Aunt Peg’s household, so after the birth, mother joined grandmother cleaning offices at night. Both women handed over their paychecks to help with expenses and pitched in to cook and to care for the now seven children. But neither the house nor Aunt Peg’s marriage was built to handle that many people. Aunt Peg’s husband endured it as long as he could. Then he asked them to leave.

 

Grandmother wrote her sister, Vern, who lived in Ann Arbor, Michigan to ask if she had room for six more people. Vern and her husband, Ray, had never had children of their own, but they welcomed the four children and two women into their home. Vern helped mother and grandmother get jobs serving tables in a supper club.

 

Mother never lacked for tips. She knew how to smile at a man and wear clothes that showed off her curves, while being friendly and attentive to any women who happened to be at the table. Eventually she was making enough in tips that grandmother didn’t have to work and could stay home to care for the children. Mother rented a small house from the owner of the supper club so the six of them could move into their own place.

 

It wasn’t easy, but it could have worked. It didn’t though, because Grady had mother’s number.

 

Grady, the new man, the changed man, the man of promises, the man who was now going to be a good husband and father, called her up and sweet-talked mother into letting him come up to Michigan to live with them.

 

This part of the story is full of maybes. Maybe she believed him. Maybe she forgot he had denied fathering Jimmy, had drunk what little money they had when they lived in Alabama, and had beat her up. Maybe she was tired of trying to make it on her own. Maybe she needed a man, and any man was better than no man.

 

So when the past knocked on her door, mother mistook it for the future and welcomed it in.

 

Grady found work right away, and mother thought her financial struggles were over. They weren’t. Payday after payday, less and less of Grady’s money made it home. He never contributed much in the way of cash, but he did contribute in another way. He got mother pregnant again.

 

Michigan never suited Grady. From the beginning, he wanted to move back to Alabama to be near his family. As bad as the previous time there had been, mother considered it. But when she found out she was pregnant, she knew she couldn’t, especially if they had five children to take care of. Someone need to work, and not just work, but bring home a paycheck. On her next day off, after Grady left for work, she asked her mother to take the children to a movie.

 

Mother never considered trying to find a doctor to help her with this “female problem.” She knew about birth and its dangers; had watched her mother, acting as a midwife, deliver babies; and had given birth to Darla by herself. And she had learned what other desperate women did when they carried a fourth or fifth or sixth child that they couldn’t feed or provide for. She used a coat hanger dipped in alcohol and prayed she would survive.

 

After the movie, her mother found her, covered in blood and lying unconscious on the bathroom floor. Grandmother sent the children outside and called the doctor. He performed a D&C and told mother that if she ever did that again he would report her for breaking the law. Had she had serious complications or faced death, he would have had to report her in order to exonerate himself and make it clear that he did not perform the abortion.

 

Grady resented mother and grandmother for acting behind his back. Since he took to drink, his successes in life were few, and getting mother pregnant was one of them. He couldn’t believe she would do that to him. After the abortion, he pressed mother even harder to move to Mobile and insisted until she relented. Mother wanted her mother to come as well, but grandmother had heard and seen enough; she wanted nothing more to do with Grady. Vern and her husband had moved to New Mexico to open a restaurant, and when they offered grandmother a job, she packed her things and headed west.

 

Mother turned her face toward the South. Although she believed that going to Alabama the first time had been a mistake, she felt that things would be different this time. She was right. Before she left, she couldn’t imagine that anything could be worse than sleeping on someone’s dirty floor with four children and a drunk, abusive husband. Within a year, she couldn’t imagine anything better.

 

 

Next: Part 3

Whispers of Jimmy and Darla: part 1

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Whispers

 

Jimmy and Darla were one of the stories mother told when my father was not at home. I don’t remember when she first told me about them. Like fairy tales, mother’s secrets happened once upon a time, far, far away, in a world where someone was always lost. In mother’s stories, she was the one who got lost, always  in a place full of impossible loss and danger that she escaped by running away. Jimmy and Darla appeared together in the same tale, like Hansel and Gretel; but in their story, their mother, my mother, fled to the forest without any breadcrumbs and never found her way back.

 

Mother trained my sister, Kathy, and me to carry her secrets carefully. Don’t tell your father, she said, when we visited our oldest sister who lived a married life on the other side of town. Do not lie, but do not speak the truth. Just place one foot in front of the other, balance, shift your weight slowly, and do not look down. Whatever you do, do not look down: there isn’t any net.

 

Mother whispered her stories to us one by one. Jimmy and Darla lived in one of the stories that happened years ago, never to be seen or heard of again.

 

That is, until my father died.

 

Before Jimmy

When mother married her first husband, Ketz, she was 16 and the mother of a six-month-old girl. Older by six years, Ketz was not only notoriously forgetful but also impossible to divorce. When he got her pregnant just a few months after she turned 15, he  forgot that the age of consent in Pennsylvania was 16. Then he forgot to divorce his first wife before he married mother, which explains why he took her across the state line to West Virginia for the ceremony. His memory lapses proved contagious: mother forgot she was 16 and listed her age on the marriage certificate as 21. After the birth of their second child, mother left him. What little money he made working in the coal mines, he spent on gambling and other women. Mother went back home, neither married nor divorced.

 

The United States economy had been slogging through the Great Depression since 1929, looking for higher ground, and in 1937, the year mother’s second child was born, it stumbled into another recession, leaving almost 20% of workers without jobs. Mother tried to find work in Barnesboro, Pennsylvania where her mother and father lived, but few jobs were available. Eventually she left the children, Connie and Clyde, in care of her mother and moved to New York to find work. She spent her days waiting tables and her nights waiting at tables in clubs with a drink in her hand, hoping a good-looking man would ask her to dance. For the first time since she was 15, she had the freedom to do whatever she pleased. So she did. Somewhere along the eastern seaboard, she met Grady, a dark-haired officer in the Merchant Marines.

 

Mother often told me she could get pregnant if a man just looked at her in a certain way. Well, Grady looked at her that way and she got pregnant with Jimmy.

 

Jimmy enters the story

 

When mother told Grady she was pregnant, he laughed, denied that it was his baby, and then told her he was shipping out. In Europe, the Allies were bombing Hitler’s dreams into rubble; in the Pacific, Generals MacArthur and Nimitiz were securing island after island, nearing Okinawa and moving the war closer to the Japanese mainland. American soldiers needed the troops and supplies the Merchant Marines carried; mother would have to fend for herself.

 

She worked until almost full-term, then for the second time, returned home, pregnant and almost penniless. Soon after Jimmy’s birth, her father died from black lung disease, leaving mother, grandmother, and the three children on their own.

Grandmother cared for the three children, Connie, Clyde, and Jimmy, while mother moved to Chester, Pennsylvania to find work. Once mother got an apartment, grandmother and the children joined her. Although Grady denied Jimmy as his, he kept in touch with mother and showed up at the beginning of 1945, a few months before World War II ended in Europe. The resemblance must have been undeniable because Grady accepted Jimmy as his own and convinced mother to marry him. And not just marry him but move to Mobile, Alabama.

 

Grady’s family may have forgiven mother for having children out of wedlock, but they never forgave her for being a Yankee. Mother, Grady, and the three children stayed at Grady’s sister’s house, sleeping on the floor, until she asked the five of them to leave. They moved in with Grady’s mother, Virgie, whose house, little more than a cabin, lacked indoor plumbing. The only floor covering was a carpet of Alabama dirt that seeped through the gaping floorboards. The garbage tossed out the back door provided the neighborhood rats plenty to eat, and even with the door closed, they squeezed through the floorboards to explore the house. Mother refused to let Jimmy play on the floor at all.

 

Grady looked for work and after failing to find any, employed himself by drinking, gambling, and slapping mother around. She couldn’t contribute much because Grady looked at her that way again and she got pregnant.

 

 

Darla enters the story

 

When mother grew tired of living like poor, white trash and getting beat up by Grady, she wrote her mother and asked for the third time to come home. By then her mother had no home of her own and was living  with one of her other daughters, Peg. Like mother, Peg married at 16 ; by 19 she had three children. Although Peg’s husband had allowed his mother-in-law to move in, he wanted nothing to do with a pregnant sister-in-law and her three children. Aunt Peg did, so mother and her brood moved in, filling up every room in the house.

Mother was alone in the house with Connie, her oldest child, when Darla struggled into the world. Connie called the doctor, hollered, “Momma’s having the baby,” and slammed down the receiver. The doctor figured out who it was but arrived too late. Mother delivered Darla by herself, breaking the bed in the process.

 

In this hopeful part of the story, mother escaped her life of abuse and rat-infested poverty and kept all four children together. Of course, it didn’t stay hopeful for long, mother’s stories rarely did. The past came in fast pursuit and hunted her down, rattling its chains.

 

 

Next: Part 2

 

 

 

 

A shared childhood

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A shared childhood is a hidden language made up of gestures, glances, raised eyebrows, isolated words and uncalled-for laughter and tears; spoken only by those initiated into the years when memory draws every event in primary colors outlined with thick, black lines. It is a language that can never be translated into another tongue or life; it is time enfleshed in the child.

 

“How many brothers and sisters do you have?” may seem like an easy question to most people, but for me it is complicated and difficult. Mother had eight living children over a span of 25 years. I grew up knowing the oldest; she was 15 years older than me. I lived for a while with the youngest, my brother who is 10 years younger than me. And I shared my childhood with my sister, K, who is 18 months older.

 

 

 

She was the golden child, tall, pretty, and smart, who charmed the aunts and uncles. I was not.

 

We played together, sometimes peaceably. She carries small scars from times I scratched her; I suffer with writer’s limp because she broke my arm. She’ll deny it and say the earth broke my arm; she merely sent me aloft in a childish game of push-up. She has always had a problem with reasonableness.

 

When our father died, K was ten and I was eight. She left childhood then, although I didn’t know it at the time. K took responsibility for me while mother dealt with her grief. And once the grief passed, mother began barhopping in search of another man. All those years, I thought my sister was just being bossy, still pushing me, not up, but around.

 

We spent our growing years together parsing the world, trying to understand its meaning. And because our mother played the central role, our childhood is our mother tongue.

 

Just as we inflect words, or modify them, to express a change in tense or number, the stories we now tell are inflected with memories that signal to the hearer a change in mood or meaning, but only to those who learned the language with us.

 

The story of my broken arm is one I love to tell, but only if my sister is there to hear it or read it. In some other language of childhood, it could be parsed as blame, but in my own mother tongue, it is part of the grammar of love.

 

Happy Birthday, sister.

 

 

Missing Mother Days

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I left Mother twice.

 

 

First, I left her cloistered womb. I didn’t want to go, but it was my birthday; and she insisted. I never would have left if she hadn’t pushed me out the door. It ended in tears for both of us.

 

 

Mother took me to a house with empty spaces. We lived alone and together. One by one the years came, filling all the rooms, crowding me until I had to leave. I opened the door by myself and left without a tear.

 

 

I kissed Mother once, the day she left her house. She locked the door and left without her gloves, though her hands were cold. I cried that day; she didn’t say a word.

 

 

I wore Mother’s gloves to fill the empty spaces. They helped me face the cold, and finally grasp what she did.

 

 

I missed Mother the day I lost her glove on my way home. The right one disappeared; I only have the left.

 

 

I missed Mother more that day than all the days before.

 

 

 

If you took a bath today, thank a pig

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Seriously. If you took a bath today (and we all hope you did), thank a pig. Actually, you should thank a pig farmer. Sort of.

 

Okay, not a pig, and not a pig farmer. You should thank the state of Wisconsin and its city Sheboygan, and the foundry it once had that was bought by John Michael Kohler and his partner Charles Silberzahn in 1873, who founded a company called Kohler & Silberzahn, which made farm equipment, including big tubs used as watering troughs and hog scalders.

 

 

I guess we also have to be thankful for the fire that burned down that original foundry seven years later because Kohler added an enameling shop when he rebuilt. Now he could cover his cast-iron troughs with a protective coat of enamel.

 

Three years later in 1883, Kohler came up with the idea of selling an enameled hog scalder as a bathtub. In exchange, he supposedly received a cow and 14 chickens. I’m curious about what gave Kohler the idea. He must have been on farms and seen hogs immersed in those tubs. Did one of the hogs remind him of someone he knew? History would be a lot more interesting if we had the answers to questions like that.

 

 

From that point on, Kohler focused on enameled bathroom fixtures. In 1911 the company introduced a built-in, one-piece tub, and the rest of us have been awash in their products since then.

 

I had no intention of writing about bathtubs today. Although I manage to get in hot water on a regular basis, I hardly ever take a bath. I prefer showers.

 

I started out today planning to write something about the word “bubbler,” Wisconsin talk for drinking fountain. It seems that Kohler is responsible for that, too; he put the capital “B” in the word when he trademarked it in 1889. Now it’s used generically, mostly in Wisconsin but also in Rhode Island, eastern Connecticut, southeastern Massachusetts, and Australia. In my experience, I’ve never heard anyone pronounce it with the capital, but then I’ve never been to Sheboygan.

 

In spite of its usage in both the U.S. and Australia, neither the Oxford English Dictionary nor the Cambridge Dictionary Online has an entry for “bubbler.” Merriam Webster Online and the Random House Dictionary (dictionary.com) give one of its meanings as “a drinking fountain that spouts water.”

 

 

If you go to Kohler’s website, you’ll find at least 53 different bathtubs: rectangular, circular, key-hole shaped, kidney-shaped, free-standing, sunken, and jet-streamed. They still make the Bubbler, too. Americans love their tubs and drinking fountain; go to Facebook and you’ll find that bathtub and Bubbler have their own Facebook pages. I also discovered that Pig scalder is on Facebook. In one of instances that proves that history sometimes moves backwards, it mentions that in New Zealand some farmers use their old cast-iron bathtubs for hog scalding.

 

 

Posters courtesy of http://blog.kohler.com/2011/05/18/the-one-piece-bath-turns-100/

Motherhood

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For my mother and two older sisters, moving into motherhood was like moving into a new neighborhood. They picked out houses they liked, ones that came with a husband and children, set up the furniture, and settled down to get to know the neighbors. All three of them moved into that neighborhood before they turned 20.

I thought that one day I would move in there, too. Whenever I wanted to. Every woman I knew did; and there seemed to be a house for everyone.

One month before I turned 30, I finally said, “I do.” For the first year of my married life, I used a form of birth control because I thought I was in control of having babies.

Yesterday I wrote about the shame I felt because I couldn’t get pregnant. I felt like a failure. My husband tried to talk me out of both of those emotions; so did a counselor. It didn’t make sense to be so overwrought. My mind grasped that, but my emotions had their own reasons; on the surface, they seemed illogical, but they weren’t.

Underneath the shame and sense of failure, I had a deeper wound. One I couldn’t talk about or explain because I didn’t have words for it. I rummaged around in my heart and found something I couldn’t identify. I didn’t have enough light to see properly and when I tried to drag it out. I couldn’t: it was too big and all the edges seemed too sharp for me to grasp.

In the third year of my struggles, my husband and I went to visit my oldest sister and her family in Georgia. Mother lived with them at the time. I have no recollection of what we did or said that first day. We were never close the way some mothers and daughters are. I found fault with almost everything she did and had little patience with her. She, on the other hand, was always kind and did her best to please me. I found that especially irritating. I knew nothing of her pain, nor cared to know, but that day I must have seen truth flicker for just a moment in her glance or in her words. It was just the amount of light I needed.

That second day I told my mother I wanted to talk to her alone. We went into her bedroom and sat on the bed. I didn’t know yet what I would say because I still couldn’t articulate what I felt. When I opened my mouth, these words came out, “You never wanted me, did you?”

She gasped for air and broke down crying. We held each other for several minutes before she could speak.

“You were such a hard baby,” she said. “I didn’t want to get pregnant again so quickly, but your father was thrilled that were going to have another child. Of all my children, you were the smallest, but I had the hardest time with you. It was like you didn’t want to be born. And then you cried all the time, and I never felt like I could comfort you. Even though I loved you, it seemed like you didn’t want me.”

I don’t remember how long we cried; somehow the words and tears washed away years of hurt. It sounds impossible, even to me, but it’s true. From that day, our relationship radically changed.

Our lives are full of mystery. My mother carried shame and grief for a child she had; I carried mine for the child I never had. She needed me to say the words that could not tell herself; I needed to say the words so I could heal myself. My hard words released both of us that day. Sometimes words can do that.