My mother claimed, not a boast mind you, a claim, that I was independent before I was born. She may have also used the words ‘stubborn,’ ‘brat,’ or ‘bold,’ but mostly she referred to me as independent. Surely it was no surprise when at 21 I went west. It was always a surprise that I didn’t come back. There was never a conversation between us, right up until the last, on the Mother’s Day before she died, when she didn’t ask, “When are you coming home?”
Do parents identify the destiny of their children with such claims, or invoke it? Did my mother say I was independent, and therefore I am? Or was I, as she says, showing signs of independence in utero. I was her seventh baby. She knew babies. I was her eighth pregnancy. Like I said, the woman knew babies. I was different, she said. Feisty. Restless. Ready to arrive. Are parents, especially moms, clairvoyant? Wise? Logical?
Did I claim identity for my daughters previous to their births? Have my words stamped them, and led them to where they are now in their lives, who they are in the world?
I have often joked that each of them sounded like they were speaking a foreign language when they first started baby babbling. One of them in French, one in Chinese. One’s babbles were soft, tongue-rolling sounds. The other’s harder, more nasally and pointed. It’s a better story when you hear me imitate the sounds. So just imagine. I forgot who spoke which language as I have told the story so many times and ways.
But Riana speaks French now. Bridget, Spanish. No successful forecasting there, not really.
The girls went to a wonderful daycare center when they were babies. At that center, the caretakers had a routine for naptime which will forever stay with me, perhaps in its own poignancy, perhaps in how the girls adopted the ritual.
Each day, when it was naptime, the baby room staff dimmed the lights, put on soft lullaby music, set out as many mats as there were babies or toddlers that day, placing them in a grid like a checker board, and then the women put the babies on the mats, on their bellies. For the next hour, they traveled about the baby grid, moving from child to child, kneeling beside the baby, and rubbing its back, soothing and cooing, then on to the next one, and the next, until all babies were asleep.
I sometimes arrived to pick the girls up as this was in process. I walked in on this scene, and I must say it was like walking into how I imagine heaven. The most calm and beautiful sight to behold. All these lovely, quiet, snoozing little ones.
Their fragility, and powerlessness, so clear. Their futures, perhaps, spelled out on the mat. How they napped–spread out, tight in a ball, sucking a thumb, line up like an arrow–told a lot. Metaphor? Prediction? Or just a fortuitous moment?
One or two them were often awake, usually Riana was one of them, her mind absorbing and calculating everything, ready for next, eyes open, thinking, but calm.
Bridget, on the other hand, so deeply and wonderfully asleep you’d think she had melted into the mat. The only child I know of, to this day, who asked, “Momma, can I please take a nap?” A mother’s dream.
The girls would re-create this naptime scenario at home. Using my scarves–which I have obsessively collected since high school, and still have most or many, anyway–the girls would lay out the baby mats. Of course, there was not room in our small house on Armijo St., for them to create a full grid as they did at daycare. They spread the scarves about the entire house, each room, the hallway. Upon every ‘mat’ they set one of the many fake-fur-covered animals, creatures, pillows or other dolls and toys, whatever appeared to them from their toy chest, that represented a baby.
Then the girls moved from one of the scarves and its ‘child’ to the next. Rubbing their backs. Singing to them. This sight, not unlike the vision of naptime at the daycare center, was angelic. While taking on the caretaker roll, powerful in charge, they seemed so short. Vocabularies of hundreds. Body weight of under 40. But in charge.
One time, around this era of our lives, when the girls were quite little, we visited my mother, who, by that time, was cured of her cancer, but still suffering immensely. I don’t remember if she was on oxygen by then, or if she was being belly fed by my father. But needless to say, she was not herself, not comfortable, and her day to day life was toilsome. For the most part, my experience was that she was still my mom. Sweet and funny, insightful, but tired. So, so tired.
Frail was a difficult word to attach to my mother. While athletic or academic strengths were not hers, she was one tough cookie. In the face of 10 sarcastic and relentless teasers, she held her own. Yet, frail was not foreign to her, and when it overcame her, in those early days of my daughters’ lives, there was a grace with which she wore this cloak. She was weak, and certain only of the proximity of something nameless.
My girls made her a bit anxious, understandably so. She was definitely accustomed to grandkids visiting her, and often. She always so loved babies and children. But having them actually live in her house, present in her space, 24/7, for the two weeks we visited, after several years of empty nest, yes, it probably wore on her. A lot.
As it would anyone who was ill, and, she had limited patience for the daily ins and outs of kids. The noise. All the attention they require.
She required her own by then, attention, and was a bit needy. So uncomfortable with the powerlessness of dying. But, I would say, for the most part, she and the girls got along. Boundaries were mostly set. I did a bit of refereeing, and a lot of shhhhhhing.
One morning, the girls wanted to play their naptime game. My mother wasn’t up yet, and I was in the kitchen. The girls ran in and out; they seemed occupied and quiet enough. I didn’t realize they were going to the kitchen linen drawer. As there were no mats or mom’s scarves available, they had taken every single dish towel, dish rag, and pot holder they could find.
My mother’s front room was over-populated with stuffed animals. As she had been sick, by this time, for eight or more years; and as she’d had several hospital visits; and as she had some 70 nieces and nephews (yes, I am one of some 70 first cousins); and as she was one of nine or ten living siblings; and as everyone knew she loved these toys . . . well, there was quite the collection displayed in the living room. On the couch, along the shelves, all spaces were occupied by every color, shape, and species of animal imaginable.
To my girls, the place was simply stock full of, well, babies. And each of them was getting assigned to their very own dishrag or a pot holder.
When my mother came into the kitchen after having woken up and witnessed this ‘scene’ in the living room and dining room, she looked duly perturbed. 1) She hadn’t had her coffee; and 2) ‘What are those girls doing with all my linens?’
I rose from the table, approached her, and gently steered her back toward the living room. We stood in the doorway. “Just watch, Mom,” I assured her. “It’s okay.”
We watched as the girls went from one baby to the next, rubbing their backs, singing to them, or assuring them that they were okay, and to “just go to sleep, now.”
My mom whispered to me, “What are they saying?”
“They’re telling them to say their prayers and go to sleep. It’s how they do it at daycare.”
“They’re putting them to sleep?” she whispered. Her pre-coffee demeanor softened, and her grandmother heart warmed. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Needless to say, from that point forward during our visit, my girls had full reign of my mother’s precious collection of stuffed bears and bunnies and puppies and angels. And, unlike any child previously, they also could do as they wished with the kitchen linens.
And again, inaccurate forecasting on my part. My daughters have no inclination, it appears, to be parents, not any time soon.
I’ll give myself a bit of credit, however. I had Riana pegged for a Supreme Court Justice, maybe not in utero but certainly by the time she could walk. And I am sure I said as much, and probably as often as my mother told me I was independent. And while Riana isn’t quite there yet, her career will definitely take her to a place of policy analysis and decision making, if not one of the most supreme voices in the land. The certainty and surety of what she knows, and knows to be right, was definitely evident in her infancy. And, FYI, one of her cats is named, “Ruth Bader Ginsberg.”
And Bridget? Definitely had her pegged for a movie star or comedian. And I wasn’t so far off with her, either. Her career in children’s media is sprouting and growing and destined for very funny story telling to ever bigger audiences. In the earliest of baby days, when Ri and I would be having moments–with my independence, and her knowing everything, we had many moments–Bridget would stop us dead in our tension, and make us laugh. Her ability to cheer and understand, intuit, really, was, yes, evident both in utero, and infancy.
Sometimes, I need a nap. If my mother taught me anything, in utero and beyond, it was the importance of napping. I fondly remember curling up at the end of the couch where she snoozed, her penny loafers still on, the smell of the leather, the shine of the penny. Ready for anything. Both of us.
Naps are determinedly something not to be interrupted, never. Don’t ever interrupt a person’s nap. Especially a mother’s. Unless the house is on fire. To this day, I nap easily, but not often enough.
When the girls were little, and not ready for a nap, but I was, I had a naptime game. “Let’s play beauty parlor!”
So the girls approached the couch, where I stretched out, oh so ready for just . . . . five . . . . minutes. One toddler toting a hair brush, one running with a warm washcloth. One brushed my hair, one rubbed my feet. Ahhhhh. Just . . . . five . . . . minutes.
My independence kept me from my mom, as she predicted and feared it would. I was the only one of the nine of us not at her bedside when she died. Her stories keep me close to her, even after her death.
The girls’ independence makes me proud, their lives surprise and soothe me. Without knowing it, they still play naptime, each time they call me. They rub my back with their stories, sing me to sleep with their song.
I wore your slippers, sweaters,
jewelry, your rings, daily
after you died I wanted to try
you on, keep you moving, cuddle
on rainy afternoons, but nothing
really fit, and I broke an emerald
ring, your favorite, the most fragile
of all gems, perfect for a woman
who wasn’t athletic
and didn’t drive.
I wear you daily still, not clothing,
but laughter, how I move my hands,
wipe my nose, or these eyes. And I
relish how often you are here,
right here, and angry that you didn’t fight
harder so you could live longer so I could
keep knowing you from a distance,
and you could get to know my girls.
They knew you as ‘grandma doesn’t feel good.’
You knew them as far away.
image by jens johnsson on Unsplash.com
via Daily Prompt: Creature
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