Friday, November 14, 2008
Tales From The Old Country and Beyond, Part 29
My mother was a naturally positive and optimistic woman. She certainly did have her edgy side, but central to her being was a joy for living. It was almost always present. Some things, though, elevated her happiness to atmospheric levels. Two items in particular come to mind, one quite simple and one potentially quite complex: good food - especially good fresh fruit - and babies. My mother was always baby crazy.
Whenever my mother held a baby in her arms, she would have an indescribable glow and exuberant smile on her face. It was as if every ounce of her being was excited into a rapturous state by the presence of that child. It didn't have to be a relative. It could be anyone's baby. My mother would have been a great politician in one area and probably only one area: she would be able to kiss babies on the campaign trail with complete abandon.
She wanted a lot of children. So did my father. It wasn't meant to be. They had their first child quickly, but the second didn't come nearly so easily. First there was a delay because of finances. My father was chafing under the rules of the carpenter's union. Here's my dad's union payment book from 1953. If you click on it, you can see a big fat 50 dollar fine, about one week's worth of wages, for working a non-union job on the weekend.
My dad never liked to follow rules. Working for the union wasn't going to last. He had dreams of running his own construction crew and building his own homes, but to do that he needed cash. Future babies were put on hold for a few years until he could start his own business.
They saved little by little. They lived very modestly. In a few years, my father had saved up a remarkable amount of money, several thousand dollars, enough to begin looking for a lot to build his first home. They started to try to have more children. It took a awhile. I was finally born, premature and five years after the birth of my brother. My mother almost died giving birth. I never got the gist of just why, but there were vague statements of incompatibility between my mother and father's blood type. After I was born, the doctor informed my mother that for her own health, she should never get pregnant again.
Everyone has regrets and major disappointments. My mother actually had very few and to the best of my knowledge only two that stayed with her always. One was about losing her childhood and way of life in Poland, a life she remembered with great fondness. Another was that her family was far smaller than she desired. She wanted at least one more child, a daughter certainly. If god was willing, she wanted five or six children total. There were at least twenty times that I heard her state this lament. Her inability to have more children was a very hard blow.
I have a funny theory about parenthood. It's that everyone who is a responsible parent has a peak period when their temperament and parenting style perfectly matches the age and degree of development of their children. They may be good parents during other ages, but they are especially good over this peak time. I won't say what I think my peak period is, but for my mother it was definitely between the ages of zero and three. She was nurturing, patient and loving to every infant I ever saw her with.
Once when I was five years old, I asked my mother the big question. How are babies born? We were in our kitchen when I asked. She gave me a dismissive look at first. It wasn't a question she wanted to answer. But then she got up the courage and literally blurted out, "They come from me."
I looked at my mom, surprised. "From you?"
"Yeah, from inside me."
I wanted to know more. "Every child comes from inside you?" Now that was definitely not a question she wanted to answer. She paused. Then she nodded her head. "Every one," she said.
I went outside shortly after that to play with my neighborhood friends. Wow, I thought. Every one of them comes from my mom. My mom was one special woman. But then I started to think about it further. OK, I have five friends on this block and none of them look a thing like my mom. Plus, why would she give them up in the first place? And then there were other blocks with other kids, lots of kids. It just didn't make sense. All of those kids couldn't possibly come from inside my mom.
I never told her that I dismissed her claim of being the mother of all children within an hour of our conversation. But I do know that whenever I see a statue of a fertility goddess from another culture, all of those breasts, the fecund belly, I think of that day when I asked that question. For a brief time, my mother was, in my eyes, a fertility goddess, the mother of all babies. It's not so far from the truth, though, in terms of spirit and mood. There was nothing that brought her more joy than children.