The unexpected lesson

Mothering’s all-embracing mindscape and landscape

It was a critical-theory course while I was at UC Davis, and I was expecting it to be a session like all the others, with a group of men I had come to think of as The Jackals, a vicious pack of predatory intellectuals, commandeering the class while the women exchanged looks among themselves.

This day, though, the curmudgeonly professor didn’t launch into his lesson right away but sat quietly for a few minutes before speaking. Without preamble, the professor, rumored to have been a WW II pilot, began to tell a story from the months immediately following the war. He and other GIs had toured a European orphanage for Jewish children salvaged from a Nazi experiment in which they had been deprived of attention and affection. He described watching them stare blankly out of the windows, unmindful of everyone in the room—there, and yet lost forever.

As he spoke, the classroom was silent except for the sound of his voice, and he finished his story with uncharacteristic passion, exhorting us: “Love your children. If you do nothing else, take good care of them.” He shook his head and looked down at the floor.

Years later, I recognize this unguarded moment in a classroom as the only meaningful event from my time in graduate school. I still recall the tilt of the professor’s head as he fetched up that memory of so long ago, the topography of his hands as they lay folded in front of him on the seminar table, the ridgeline of his knuckles softened by the extra weight the years bring.

The years since that day have given me a better idea of what may have prompted his mood. I’ve experienced all the usual sadnesses and fallen through enough holes in my life to learn that it’s not possible to avoid them. Now I pack light: in my purse, a laminated picture, my favorite photo of my children; last year’s student ID card with my son’s signature on it, the letters big and babyish and labored over; notes from my daughter left on my worktable after our fights, earnest missives I keep in my wallet. All these things are my most telling forms of identification.

But they are luxuries, really. What I see in my mind’s eye is my daughter at age 3, coming to sit next to me while I nurse her baby brother, she wordlessly lifting up her shirt to nurse a doll, the two of us flank to flank on the couch in the pleasant quiet of a late afternoon.

When my father died several years ago, I spent the flight, the rosary and the funeral searching for one happy memory of the two of us. I conjured one, finally, during the burial. I knew I didn’t want my own children as stymied at my funeral. I divorced soon after my father died, cobbling together part-time, freelance, on-call jobs with hours that gave me time with my children after school and during their vacations.

There are always trade-offs in life; I accept this. I accept that my choice has meant earning a marginal living, sans benefits. There is no IRA, no pension, no college fund. Only just recently, five years post-divorce, has there been any child support. For those five years, Visa and Mastercard paid for clothes and Catholic school, food and doctor visits. I’ll be wedded to First USA Bank and MBNA America for the rest of my life.

It’s a life circumscribed in a way I couldn’t imagine a dozen years ago when I became a parent. I never suspected how transformative mothering would be. It commands the bulk of my time and energy—commands that I forfeit sleep, even, as I lie awake regretting every impatient word, as I lie awake listening for the creak of a stair and its robber, rapist, murderer. Mothering dictates my loves and fears, controls the way I view the world. It is mindscape and landscape.

My immediate world is a small town, the only hospital a half-dozen blocks away, a tiny pioneers cemetery three blocks over. Sometimes, settling into the darkness at night, my book beside me in bed, I travel the route to the hospital in my mind. Perhaps at that same moment someone new is joining the world, and as I stretch out in my bed I think of the dizzying, frank holiness around that other bed as a baby is being born in it.

In the cemetery close by, the death dates go back to the 1850s on tombstones that include names like “Baby Nan,” “Little Nellie,” “Our Baby.” On the headstones of the children, the ages are tallied to the day—an exact accounting of every brief moment. Having visited the cemetery a number of times, I know the spot where several young siblings are buried all in a row. Their parents lost three children in three years. I try to imagine how the father, a doctor, must have felt when he told his wife the diagnosis—each time.

I have no way of knowing how long I will have with my children. They could die. Viruses don’t discriminate; drunk drivers are oblivious; terrorists blow up even babies. Or I could die. I have friends left motherless as kids, acquaintances years younger than me who’ve died and left behind small children. Dying before I’ve finished raising my children is my biggest fear—no, my only one, really.

I am the only mother my children will ever have. I know the contents of their hearts—hearts I watched beat on ultrasound screens. When my son fell on the playground this summer and hurt his arm and the orthopedist held up the X-rays to explain to me, in austere medical terms, why he suspected a hairline fracture, I could see only the bones I had made and shiver with the magic of it.

I have saved locks of hair; baby teeth; the furry, blue coat my daughter fell in love with as a 2-year-old shopping with me at the Salvation Army; the donkey costume I made for my son to wear in last year’s Christmas play. I know all the ways my children need me, the afternoons of Etruscans and algebra, plaster-of-Paris volcanoes and Styrofoam planets.

When I stand under the mobile of the solar system in my daughter’s room, I think of the two weeks we spent building it. We probably could have finished sooner. Could have. The cotton balls orbiting Jupiter are too few now, astronomers having adjusted the number of moons twice in the past year, deep space as enigmatic as the human heart.

Yes, I know all the ways my children need me, and I also know cancer or a car accident or a co-worker with a heart full of vengeance and a trunk full of guns could take me away from them.

Last Valentine’s Day, not quite dawn, I heard my 8-year-old son walking toward my room, crying, and then he was standing beside my bed, sobbing so hard he couldn’t catch his breath. Molded against me under the blankets, he wailed that he didn’t want me to die. We have had this conversation a number of times, and each time I reassure him that when I die I’ll probably be old and he’ll be middle-aged with a wife and children and friends—he will be able to cope.

I know all the turns his thoughts will take and the pace of them, too, and have my answers ready. When he asks who will take care of him in heaven if he dies now, I tell him his grandma will care for him until I get there to take over for her. When he says he wants to be a baby ghost so I can carry him as I used to, I agree that that would be nice. After the recitation, he falls asleep, but I am wide awake.

I remember when my son appeared as a pink dot in a home pregnancy kit. I was giddy, unbound. For the first month I felt taller, lighter, faster. For the next three, bedraggled by morning sickness, I had to work at wanting him, sounding out names to reinvent my eagerness. He was Thor, I decided, after the Norse god of thunder who brought rain to the peasant farmers and protected them from the cruelties of disgruntled giants and the caprices of rambunctious boy-gods. He would be Thor, champion of the underdog, smiter of evildoers.

He was born on a mild summer evening in the company of women—a quiet, glamorously thin nurse and a solidly horsy doctor, pregnant with her sixth child. The doctor rubbed my feet while I was in labor, chiming in on the refrains of songs on the oldies rock-and-roll station, praising me lavishly every time I pushed. As the contractions worsened, I was a wishbone ripping in two, and yet I marveled that my body was working just as it should. I wondered if my son knew what was happening, that I had fished him out of ancestral brine to bring him to the cusp of the 21st century, that I would entrust him with stories to take to a time I wouldn’t see, to tell to descendants I would never meet.

He is not a lost boy; he will not be a lost man. In his life, every window, every one, will open on a view of memories that will sustain him. He will call up the look in my eyes when I searched him out on the brink of some calamity to promise to take care of him. He will call up the sound of our shrieks as we played hide and seek in the thrill of the dark, the slow beat of an afternoon of long division and confidences, the warm softness of our bodies as we held each other through the grief of the night. There are all kinds of legacies. To my son: a view from every window, every one.