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.