Archive for the 'motherhood' Category

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Exploring the Fictional Worlds of Poet Tasha Cotter

Headshot for Tasha Cotter, Writer

Tasha Cotter

Your prose poem, “A Lack of Power at the South Central Women’s Clinic” opens with a clean, crisp image of “men in hard hats dart[ing] like bats in a gray air.” Can you talk to us about your process of writing this poem? How you decide when to use the prose poetry form? (Or to blend traditional stanzas with prose poetry, as you do in “Description of a Figment and a Letter to Imagination?”)

Even now A Lack of Power at the South Central Women’s Clinic seems strikingly different from much of my other work, the language and scene feels more raw and exposed. The poem came about when I was in a lobby, waiting to get a physical (it was a requirement before I could work with kids in the schools). Like so many of my poems, I used one element of reality to begin sketching a fictional world. For me, it feels like taking the essence of something and building a world to anchor it.
The poem began like this: I got a journal out and began braiding threads together–segmented thoughts and abstract concepts all started fitting together. The man at reception, the discomfort that arises from the most trivial things. I asked myself what if you were very scared? I tend to be a very discreet person, very secretive too, and so I used a voice much like my own in this prose poem–a form I associate with Baudelaire and the french, that’s being reimagined and redefined by contemporary poets like Sarah Manguso, Laura Kasischke, and Ann Carson.
I sat there scribbling for a while, hoping that I didn’t seem too strange, lost in my frantic little world in the Professional Park Plaza. It was rainy and cold out–a combination that always puts me in a gloomy mood. I remember feeling better once I got most of the poem on the page. It felt like I’d had a parallel anxiety that only found relief once there was something on the page. Odd, I know. The whole business of writing continues to alert me to aspects of myself I didn’t know existed….
You preface “Description of a Figment and a Letter to Imagination” with a few lines by poet Sarah Manguso. Can you talk to us about what draws you to Manguso’s work?
Sarah Manguso has been a very important influence on my own work. My two favorite books of hers are “Siste Viator” and “Captain Lands in Paradise.” I still remember how I felt after first reading her poem “Address to Winnie in Paris.” Dickinson said that she knew poetry by the sensation of “her head being taken off” and whenever I read Sarah Manguso’s work, that’s how I feel. My other two favorite poems of hers include “What we Miss” and “Love Letter (clouds).” The world gets re-ordered when I enter her poems and that’s what I look for in poetry. I was always drawn to the surrealists and the dada movement in Paris always captivated me for that same reason. I love Man Ray’s work and Duchamp’s—when I view their work it’s like something in me is being fed. Poets like Rusty Morrison and Ilya Kaminsky are other poets who just continue to inspire and astound me. They infuse my life with beauty and so I return to them again and again.
The poem Description of a Figment and a Letter to Imagination is something I’ve been working on for about three years now. It’s one of those poems you put away for a while and re-visit every six months or so, tweaking a line-break, checking the language, and basically improving it incrementally. The poem arrived too fast–I’m always suspicious of anything that comes about too easily, even if it feels nearly right. I don’t know where the idea for the poem came from, but when I re-read it a few months ago, I had a new take on it–it felt spacious and airy.
The white space seemed to operate like stage lighting for the beginning half of the poem. For some reason I kept imagining a white landscape when reading the poem–a blank modern shell of an apartment that comes off as distant and cold. The poem seemed to defy intimacy and inhabit it all at once. Now, more than ever, I see the poem being about the possibility of fertility–there’s something about life giving rise to life that seems so mysterious, so unexpected to me. Sometimes I just sit and meditate on what feels magical in an effort to understand it better: the notion of birth, some technologies, computer languages… I am endlessly fascinated by these things.
One of my favorite lines in “She Shouts at the Absence,” is the one that suggests, “Talk like a cowgirl who has chased an animal / For days, in a lonesome expanse of burnt orange country.” How did you arrive at this image? Any desire to discuss the writing of this poem?
I wanted to begin with a directive of sorts. I’d seen it done before and I liked the effect of pulling the reader into this world. I begin with “Go to a party…” and I wanted to continue building this world and guiding the reader. At the time I was living out west, surrounded by a burnt orange landscape. Mountain sage grew wild. I’d never seen anything like that vastness—it’s an image that still stays with me because of how compelling it all was—it just made a big impression. I was living in Colorado and I couldn’t help but think about how land—spectacular places like that—have this ability to minimize all other preoccupations and really transport you out of yourself and out of all that is human. You can’t help but feel small and a little awestruck. You start to question the great mysteries when you’re living in the shadow of a mountain range.
It’s that feeling I was trying to capitalize on when I was writing the lines you mention in your question. When you’re facing something that vast—when you’ve lost something that could by now be anywhere—you can’t help but feel lost and a little hopeless, but it doesn’t keep you from searching, even if what you need remains unreachable. I’ve always looked to the land for contrasts in my work. Naomi Shihab Nye has this line in her poetry about inheriting the ability to stand on a piece of land and stare. She’s not changing it, not transforming it, but looking as if to find something—to receive something just by that gesture of being present. I grew up in the rural south—I’ll always crave a certain amount of distance between myself and the rest of the world.
Some say it’s necessary to find “one’s voice” in their work. They work and work until something stabilizes–the voice, themes, language. To an extent, I understand what they mean. But when I look over my own work there are several personalities present: contradictory theories on life and lots of literary forms at play because I’m constantly experimenting. Maybe there’s a common denominator that I’m missing, I don’t know. The truth is I pay little attention to genre, focusing almost entirely on whatever it is I’m trying to communicate. I’ve written a three page poem before and I’ve written a hundred word story. As a writer, it feels like society wants to find a label for each piece of writing, though I think journals are getting more comfortable with accepting pieces whose form is irregular and resists classification.
Any mentors you’d like to share with us?
I was an undergrad at the University of Kentucky when I met Nikky Finney, who was a hugely important figure in my life. I took two of her courses—Poetry 407 and 507. She was a constant inspiration. She made me think of myself as a writer, constantly treating me like I was a peer. I’d never met anyone like her. Her comments and feedback on my work were exactly what I needed. I remember she had us all keep a word journal in which we were to turn in ten new words each week—a short definition and a sentence on why we chose each word.
I kept my words in a black moleskin journal—I still have it. I remember I logged a lot of hours at the William T. Young library that semester, trying to find the most interesting, most poetic words to include in my journal. I still have that journal—it’s like a treasure chest. She motivated me to think differently and to observe everything. At the time my poetry was rather cryptic, not anchored to the ground at all. She opened my eyes to narrative and accessibility in poetry. I was thrilled when I heard she received the National Book Award in Poetry—it couldn’t have gone to a more deserving poet.
For a long time I called poetry home, though I never, ever called myself a poet. I didn’t even like the term writer. I surrounded myself with books by Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Plath, and Joyce growing up, so I don’t think I’ll ever feel right referring to myself as a writer or poet. I remember in June of 2006 getting a package of books in the mail from Nikky–(all by Guy Davenport) she’d written ‘Poet’ after my name on the front of the package she’d mailed to me. I’ll be honest: seeing that title after my name thrilled me, but, despite being immensely flattered, I rejected the whole thing, opting instead to identify myself as teacher, educator, advisor. Anything but writer. Anything but Poet.
What are you currently working on?
For the last two years I’ve been in the midst of writing fiction. When I heard that The Fertile Source wanted to feature three poems, I felt a bit like a prodigal daughter, finally home after a very long trip away. I re-read the work and began to recall the choices I made. I remember who I am when I return to my old surroundings. There was poetry, waiting for me though I’d been away for some time. There was something comforting about being back–after all, poetry was what started it all for me. It has personally defined me for so long now. It’s been a lens I’ve used to give shape and meaning to my life.
Right now I have two full-length poetry manuscripts in need of a publisher. I’m not very good about entering contests–the whole thing can get pretty costly in no time, so I’ve been doing research on small, independent presses. Although I’m mostly working in fiction, I almost always have a poem I’m polishing–at this point it’s an act that I’m convinced is bound up in my identity. I like the element of understanding and the process of discovery comes with trying to capture the nuance in what I see and what I feel. In terms of publishing, I try to always have some of my flash fiction or poetry circulating among the literary journals. I’ve found that having a background in poetry can be a very useful skill-set for a fiction writer. I’m convinced that working in more than one genre can only improve upon the other.
And Tasha, for fun, we noticed the guitar in the photo on your website. Is music part of your poetry?
The picture on the website was taken at Normandi Ellis’s PenHouse Writer’s Retreat in 2011. It was an open mic event. I will say, though, that the idea of flight and music play a big part in one of my poetry collections. I’ve always been fascinated by bird imagery—Booth published a poem of mine titled “Goldfinches” last year. Some of my work seems to orbit both of those elements. It’s also true that I listen to music a lot when I’m writing. Right now I’m listening to Bon Iver, Lana del Rey, Vetiver, and The Shout Out Louds.
I want my work to be sonically pleasing. Without fail I always read my poems aloud as I’m editing them. I want the sounds to sort of inform each other. If a line feels clunky, or I leave out a word when I’m reading the poem aloud, I know something needs correcting and I’ll work to smooth out the language.
Tasha Cotter’s work has recently appeared in or is forthcoming in Booth, The Rumpus, Contrary Magazine, and elsewhere. Her fiction was recently nominated for a story South Million Writers award, and her poetry has been nominated for Best of the Net Anthology 2011. You can find her online at www.tashacotter.com.

Three Poems by Tasha Cotter

A Lack of Power at the South Central Women’s Clinic

It looks like the power lines are being restored. Outside, men in hard hats dart like bats in a gray air. This time I’m not worried about my medical records or what my hypothetical political rival would leak to a hypothetical media. The man in front of me wants to know which insurance carrier is better: Humana or Anthem? There are more men than women in the office. I hate it when men are in lingerie stores, tampon aisles, and women’s clinics. It’s 2 PM on Tuesday and it’s unseasonably cold. No one wants this more than I do.

Description of a Figment and a Letter to Imagination

Where are you if not outside the enclosure?
Only figments live inside.
I am colorless and cold, I am my own figment.
–Sarah Manguso, “The Black Garden”

Small—as you would imagine.
Immaculate and white
Like a light beam of memory
Focus until I see a tiny blank
Body the size of a keyhole.
You are unspeakably clean.
So pure, I’m scared of you.
But this is where my emptiness
Goes. You are the address
I muster after sight settles down.
My body is adrift, we pace
This room. I notice someone
Faint through the wall
To wall windows.

***

I am told to be realistic by everyone but you and so I thank you and each piece

of dandelion wing I see in wind oddly departed from its weeping stalk. How does it feel released from cell—weaker parts get me down. You can’t be located biologically, but I say what about all those endless shivers and wakes that speak for themselves (loudly & within). Watch what you read: unreliable definitions cause panic. Think of the light as coming from within. Think hard on what you are.

She Shouts at the Absence

Go to a party of mothers and daughters.
It’s just that you are motherless.
As you listen to the sound of braiding hair,
As you listen to pepper jelly recipes
Don’t tear up.

Hold that bird your heart.

In the basement they are searching
Their skin tones for clues, propping
Themselves on beige furniture.
You pretend you’re fine, lightly laugh,
Accept wishes, whatever they are.

Talk like a cowgirl who has chased an animal
For days, in a lonesome expanse of burnt orange country.
The animal escaped, passed a point of no return.
Sit wondering how it happened.

(Cowgirl thought it wanted to stay).

Act like the blood that escapes
The bullet hole is not physical, not seen.
Dab it with a handkerchief of lace.

Tasha Cotter’s work has recently appeared in or is forthcoming in Booth, The Rumpus, Contrary Magazine, and elsewhere. Her fiction was recently nominated for a story South Million Writers award, and her poetry has been nominated for Best of the Net Anthology 2011. You can find her online at www.tashacotter.com.

 

 

Bastard babies are born with broken hearts: an interview with Leslie Worthington

Interview by Jessica Powers

Last week, we published Leslie Worthington’s short story, “The Beach House,” a story about a young woman, pregnant and  unwed, and trying to deal with her emotions as the father of her baby arranges an adoption. This week, I spoke with her about the spark for her story; about the realities of young women and pregnancy both today and back in the 1960s, when the story is set; and about why writing about these issues is important.

1. What was the spark for your story?

 The spark for the story came from a single sentence: “Bastard babies are born with broken hearts.”  That popped into my head, and I liked the alliteration and the oxymoronic nature of the phrase “bastard babies.”  We don’t use the word “bastard” in its original sense much anymore, so it added a shock to the statement.  At first, I thought the sentence was a line of poetry, but it eventually became the story “The Beach House.”  I wrote the story around it.

 2. Setting (time and place) is critical for this story. Can you give us a little bit of historical background for women who found themselves in your protagonist’s situation (unwed, pregnant) in the 1960s, when this story is set? The 1960s are an interesting bridge between cultural mores since the so-called “sexual revolution” was happening yet it was before Roe v. Wade.

Women find themselves in this situation even today.  Their options may be different, but sometimes when they are young and poor as Cecelia is, things aren’t all that different.  I set the story in the 60’s partly because I wanted the reader to think about that.  At first glance, you can say “oh, thank goodness it isn’t like that anymore.”  But is that really true?  Yes, as you say the sexual revolution had begun, but yet women didn’t have access to reliable birth control, there was no planned parenthood, and the options were, keep the child or put it up for adoption.  I think most women got married whether they wanted to or not.  Those who put their babies up for adoption were often hidden away as Cecelia is.  These girls were kicked out of school and sometimes sent off to homes for unwed mothers or to live with family far away so they could come back and pretend nothing had ever happened.  No one spoke of the child, and the girl could never speak of what had happened to her.  Another option was sometimes to give the child to a family member as Cecelia’s mother had left her to be raised by her grandmother.  Most of the time, these women never had a voice or avenue for release, a way to deal with their loss and pain over the huge thing that had happened to them.  They just had to shove it down inside themselves.

 
 
 

Dr. Leslie Worthington

Despite easy access to birth control, despite additional options, despite the lessened stigma on pregrancy without marriage, women, not just girls, still find themselves in this situation.  As a college English professor, I meet them all the time.  They are in my classes, they miss exams to have babies, and they write essays about babies they’ve lost and given up.  And society now, in the twenty-first century, isn’t as forgiving as we might like to think; these women aren’t always as forgiving of themselves. 

For Cecelia, she isn’t going to get married.  The baby’s father doesn’t have that in mind.  Her family thinks she is, so she can’t even go home without humiliation.  Can she go home to her grandparents with a baby, as her mother did?  It’s obvious she doesn’t have the means to keep the baby and care for it by herself.  It’s also obvious that she doesn’t want to give that baby up.  She’s decided on the baby’s gender, given him a name, and a future.  She’s imagined his future without her.  She’s fallen in love with her child before he’s even born, as mothers do.  Cecelia faces a horrible dilemma.

3. I love the ending, where we don’t know if Cecilia dies or just imagines her death and, later, makes it to shore. Metaphorically, however, she felt as though her life was essentially over. Can you talk about how you crafted the ambiguity and the metaphor into that ending?

I guess I haven’t thought much about intentionally crafting the ambiguity of the ending.  I’ve displeased some readers who couldn’t believe I’d create a woman who would kill her child.  I think the ambiguity comes from the fact that even Cecelia doesn’t know what she’s going to do.  She doesn’t set out intending to commit suicide.  She doesn’t go into the water intending it.  Maybe she thinks she’s letting fate take over, and the universe will decide.  She’s been in denial, not thinking about what’s going to happen.  She’s a very adaptable person, as we can see from her memories of her life before the baby.  She’s alone, and her future is uncertain, but she’s making the best of where she’s found herself.  She’s enjoying the leisure, her reading, the beach.  Being able to adapt to change and stick it out through hard times is a desirable and even admirable quality, but sometimes it hurts us.  Sometimes we need to be able to say, “No, stop this” “or I want out of this.  I’m not going to take this anymore.”  Wes’s remark about this being over soon sets her thinking more deeply about her situation.  So when she sets out for her walk that day, reality is flooding over her.  She does not want to give up her baby, and maybe killing herself and taking the baby with her is the only control she’s ever going to have over her own life.

One thing I did want the story to have was metaphor.  I wanted the things she sees on her walk along the beach to have meaning to her, as our surroundings take on life and meaning when significant things are happening to us internally.  Yellow houses become symbols of a happy life.  Birds protecting their nests become young mothers who have to give up their babies.  The world around Cecelia becomes infused with meaning as she becomes more emotionally aware.

4.  Why do you think it’s important to probe these issues surrounding sexuality, pregnancy, and motherhood in literature?

These issues are part of our common experience, and art is a cultural experience as well as an individual one.  I don’t believe literature has to be didactic, but it does need to be about something, something important.  Sexuality, pregnancy, motherhood are all important to who we are as women, and the sharing of these experiences and feelings joins us.  Sharing can sometimes lead to healing.
 

5.  What are you working on now?

I’ve just finished an academic book about intertextual connections between Mark Twain and Cormac McCarthy entitled Cormac McCarthy and the Ghost of Huck Finn.  It was released a couple of weeks ago.  I’m currently working with a colleague on an anthology of essays about images and definitions of home in the work of Appalachian artists.

With my own fiction, I’ve been working on a collection of short stories for some time now.  It will probably be called Odes of Solitude. Each piece has a female character who imagines, remembers, or hallucinates the story, yet she’s the only character who is actually present.  “The Beach House” is part of the collection.  And I continue to write poetry, usually about the experiences of women: career, love, children, grandchildren, and balancing all our many, many roles.

Hundred-Year-Old Soup

An essay by Amy Amoroso

For Duncan

 

 

I made a pot of carrot lentil soup the day before going into labor. It was big enough for dinner that night, plus two nights during the week. But instead of easy meals for my final days of pregnancy, the soup came to the hospital with us, where it would sit in glass jars on a shelf in the Labor and Delivery refrigerator for days. We never ate the rest of it. And for some reason that lentil soup is one of the details I can’t ever forget.

            Duncan came four days early. He came without crying. He came without breath. And after all of our childbirth classes and birth plans, we couldn’t have been prepared for what happened during his birth.  On the short ride to the hospital, I thought of all the things I’d left undone. There were boxes of baby clothes that needed sorting, the sixty-year-old family bassinet that needed painting, and the cloth diapers that needed another round of washing and hanging in the sun. I assumed, since Seth and I are perpetually late, that our child would fall into line and that I’d have plenty of time to get these things done. I also imagined that after a healthy and hard labor, I would welcome my child immediately into my arms and onto my chest like I’d seen in the DVD’s we watched in class. It turns out that I was wrong, and maybe I should have taken my early broken water as a sign.

*

 Seth and I expected to spend most of the early labor at home, but since my water broke, our midwife thought we should meet her at the hospital. At first we were giddy and excited about meeting our baby, but as the hours went by, time became warped and we stopped exchanging words. Orange leaves dropped from a maple tree outside our hospital window and the sun was high in a blue sky, but I had no real sense of how long we’d been there. Yes, there was pain, but I can’t access it anymore. Not in a concrete sense. I remember breathing like the sound of waves, loud enough to push my thoughts away and deep enough to dampen the sharp edges of my contractions.

            Before I knew it, the sun was gone. An entire day had almost passed and I was still laboring. Most of the details are fuzzy, but I remember chicken salad, a red rose on the windowsill from my sister, and Van Morrison singing Astral Weeks. I wound my way inward to a place inside my body I’d never been before. Numbers, time, even food had left my consciousness. I moaned and moved according to the rhythm of my body. I floated in a Jacuzzi, squatted over a toilet seat.

When it was finally time to push, I was on the floor. Seth and our midwife were there too. Their faces weren’t in my view, but I could feel their hands and hear their words. With my knees bent and my head bowed, I felt like an animal. It didn’t matter that I was in a hospital on the corner of State and Spring streets in Portland, Maine. I could have been in the woods on a bed of pine needles or in the middle of the ocean.

*

Duncan’s head came while I was there on the floor, and I felt immediate relief. But the rest of him didn’t slide out like I’d seen in the birthing DVDs. I didn’t know this at the time, but he was stuck, and our midwife had started to panic. She tried moving me to different positions and then finally decided to help me up onto the bed.  I was reluctant to heave my pregnant body, complete with a newly born head poking out, back up onto the hospital bed. It was the one place I had decided early on that I did not want to give birth. When I was squatting on the ground, I could push every one away and focus. I could imagine I was an animal birthing in the woods the way we talked about in one of our childbirth classes. Up on the bed, plastic monitors flashed digital numbers, numbers I had no concept of at that point. People in scrubs swirled around the room. And the gray institutional doors and florescent lights brought consciousness back to me. All of it lifted me from my birthing trance and I suddenly became rationally aware of what was happening.

            When I was in graduate school for writing, a professor of mine would say, If the sun and moon should doubt, they would go out. He was talking about us as writers and the natural flow of a story. It’s only when we start to doubt what we’ve written, when we stop to break down the components of the story before it’s done, that the whole magical gift of storytelling goes out like a light. Giving birth is similar. You work yourself into a trance and you flow there until the job is done, until the pain of it is over, and you have the first draft of a beautiful life. But if you stop in the middle of it and think about what it is you are actually doing, you risk putting the breaks on the whole process.

            So there I was, surrounded by nurses, by Seth and my midwife, and by the reality that it had been 22 hours since my water broke and at 24 hours it wouldn’t be as safe for the baby to be inside me anymore.  I wasn’t sure what kinds of interventions they would try, but I saw in their faces that it was time to push the baby out. Except that now I was suddenly conscious of how much time it’d been since I last slept and how utterly exhausted I was. They were all cheering me on as if I were twelve years old again and swimming in a race. That’s the one, Amy. That’s the push. I wished they would stop. I wished I was back in the middle of the ocean by myself, birthing my child. I told the midwife I couldn’t do it anymore. I knew in my heart that I wasn’t giving in to anything yet, but for some reason I had to say the words and see what kind of power they had.

            It was then that I saw Seth’s eyes. I mean, actually saw them. Blue, blood shot, determined. He moved his head into my line of vision and somehow lifted me from the hospital room, the bed, the day that had slipped away from us, and said, “Aim, we need to get this baby out now.” He wasn’t mad or scared, just matter-of-fact, like he always is, pulling me back to the work that needs to be done. Somewhere between consciousness and dream, I pushed, and the others in the room chanted, I pushed, they chanted. It went on forever it seemed. But finally, with a nurse shoving my legs back toward my ears and the midwife pressing hard on my belly, Duncan was born.

 *

He came into the world silent and blue. Before I could catch my breath, Duncan’s cord was cut and his slippery soul was whisked away to a plastic cart beside my bed. A nurse pressed on his tiny chest and blew air into him. For seven minutes we waited, suspended between life and death.

            Flashes of what I knew about babies in the womb came to me like tiny dreams, messages from the gods. “Go to him,” I told Seth. “Let him hear your voice.”

            My knees were heavy. My arms numb from pushing the bed, the floor, the tiles in the shower. But I held each limb with such intensity that I was almost hovering above that hospital bed.

            Our midwife yelled to call anesthesia, to get the baby intubated, but the nurse refused. She was calm. She’d been here before. “He’ll breath on his own,” she said, quietly. “He can do it.” Two fingers pumping, lips blowing. Nothing.

            Seth moved from my side to the cart. He took Duncan’s tiny fingers in his own.

            This couldn’t be happening, I thought. After all of that, he had to be okay.

            If the sun and moon should doubt… There was a space just above the light of the warmer, a space full of air and breath and the energy of all the women who’d given birth before me in that room, a space where the sun and the moon had shone, where everything merged together. It was that force, like water coming together at the mouth of a river, that I focused on during those minutes of limbo. I held it with my whole being, that God of the moment, and begged it to give me my child. To make him cry. To fill the room with the missing sound I ached in the center of my chest for. It was worse than what I imagine being starved of water or food would be like, my own flesh and blood nurtured and loved for 40 weeks, tucked safely under my heart, now limp on a plastic hospital cart that seemed miles away.

            The room was painfully quiet as Seth leaned down close to Duncan’s body. “Hey, little guy,” he whispered.

           And then I could see a foot move. Fingers curling. Then, full of the gusto of life and fight, Duncan parted his lips and screamed. He screamed a blood curdling beautiful song. And we all took a long, slow breath, as if we too were tasting air for the very first time. Even though it seemed the whole world had been in suspension a moment before, we now didn’t have time to doubt the animal instinct inherent in all of us: to simply fill our chest cavities with air and breathe.

            Hey, little guy. I still hear those words like a prayer in my mind.  

*

 

Duncan screamed for almost an hour. We cried, too, and laughed, and held him so that his little lips were pressed against our skin. Feeling the warmth of his breath was like feeling sun on my body. When it was over and we were sure he was okay, I walked down the hall to the hospital refrigerator. I was starving. There on the middle shelf in two glass jars was the lentil soup we’d brought from home. It was just as orange as it was the day before. And it reminded me of all the undone things I had on my to-do list. It reminded me of the bassinet, and the piles of clothes, our dirty bathroom and all the things that didn’t really matter. Everything had changed since I last ate that soup. I’d been out to the middle of the ocean, to the woods, to a place only the animal brain can understand. I’d hovered in limbo for what seemed like hours, waiting for my baby to come to life. And I wasn’t the same person. I would never be who I was when I made that soup again. It seemed like the soup was 100 years old as I stood there in my slippers, with my uterus shrinking. 

            That night, Seth told me he felt something different in his heart now. “I don’t know how to explain it,” he said. “It’s like waves pulsing in my chest.” He put his hand on his heart and his eyes filled with water. Perhaps he’d been to the woods and the ocean and back, too. We didn’t eat our lentil soup that night. Instead, my sister brought us sushi and champagne.

Amy Amoroso is a writer and mother of two. After leaving medical school, she completed an MFA in Creative Writing and went on to teach writing at George Mason University and the University of Southern Maine. She currently works as a ghostwriter in Portland, Maine and helps women write about their birthing experiences. Amy is working on a novel and several nonfiction essays. Her fiction is published in Alligator Juniper and Upstreet.

 

 

 

 

 

Celebrating the Foregoing of Motherhood: Poetry in the Service of Spiritual Quandary, Lineage, and Teaching Adolescents with Poet Lisa Rizzo

Lisa Rizzo poet teacher headshot

Lisa Rizzo

Editor’s Note: I first heard Lisa read “Daughters” at a Women on Writing (WOW) conference in the Bay Area three years ago and thought the poem belonged here at The Fertile Source; no coincidence then, that several days into this summer’s 2011 A Room of Her Own Foundation (AROHO) Writing retreat, I found myself sharing breakfast with Lisa, talking poetry. Once we realized our earlier connection—that we’d first met at WOW–I had the opportunity to ask her again for the poem, along with “Uneasy Grace” and “Childhood”. I left in Lisa’s nods to me (forgive the indulgence), drinking in a little return acknowledgment for the time and hours spent here, with gratitude.  Enjoy—Tania Pryputniewicz

I read these poems looking at the question of foregoing motherhood as a series, assuming a common narrator. As a trio, they present a moving look at the process of such a decision, and oddly enough, the dual finality and opportunity to connect in other ways. The childless narrator of “Uneasy Grace,” in reference to the gift of time with her niece, ends the poem on a haunting question, “What other spirit could I need?” Can you talk to us about how the process of writing poetry might lend itself to such decision? (Or what does poetry offer that other forms might not?)

For me, poetry is about being brutally honest with myself.  When writing a poem, I can’t hide from myself, but rather have to face myself head-on.  A friend just wrote to me: “You manage to tear out parts of yourself and stand back and appreciate them.  I wanted to say analyze, but that is too harsh.” That is exactly what I want to do with my poems! So perhaps this art form has allowed me not just to accept my childless stay – a decision that in our society is often suspect, but to embrace it as a positive thing.

It amazes me how many words referring to spirit or religion I use in my poems.  As I described in this poem, I have a real quandary about what I think of spirituality. It’s one of those gray areas in my life I prefer not to analyze too much, even though I write about my unresolved feelings all the time.  In the same way, foregoing motherhood kind of crept up on me unawares.  I think I had made the decision long before I realized it.  As with most women, it was and is a difficult thing to explain.  I do know that it was only after I became comfortable with my life without children that I decided to become a teacher.  Are those two events related?  I’m not sure, but I do think the progression rather interesting.

In a delightful turn, nested within “Uneasy Grace,” we witness the lineage of poetry itself passed from aunt to niece as they compose haiku together. Can you talk to us about the role poetry plays for you in your daily life?

I find it interesting that you used the word “nested” in your question – it brings us back to the idea of mother/caretaker.  Thinking about this makes me realize just how much poetry is intertwined with my interactions with the children in my life.  I’m lucky that I get to share in both sides of the poetic dance in my writing as well as with my day job. Being a middle school teacher, while challenging to my writing life in many ways, also allows me to share my love of poetry with the young people whom I teach.  Adolescents are just awakening to their own place in the world and as a result, they are learning the power of words. So many of them love poetry.  I enjoy the interplay between us when we read and write poetry together.  It is that sense of wonder that I got when I wrote the haikus with my niece that day in church.

How did you arrive at the metaphor of the ribbon (appearing in both “Childhood” and “Daughters”) and were there other metaphors you considered along the way?

Until you asked this question, I had never even noticed the connection of the ribbon metaphor in both poems.  Isn’t that amazing? I love it that other people can see things that I as the poet don’t!  To be honest, I’m not sure how I came up with these metaphors.  I do know that in both poems I was exploring the idea of where I come from, how my background and family has influenced who I am today.  Those ribbons hold me to the past while giving me enough “line” to move on into my future.  This is something I write about often.

Have you encountered work by other writers along this topic line that you’d recommend to us? Any desire to address the range of ways you see mothering still finding expression despite a decision to forego having a child (either in your life or the lives of others)?

This is a very interesting question. I really have not come across poems along this line. Once at a poetry reading, another poet read a poem about her unborn children, but that is really the only one I can think of.  I believe this is such a sensitive topic in our society that many women don’t talk about it – or if they do talk about not having children, they have to excuse themselves. I know I have to be careful not to do that myself.  I think this is why the poem “Daughters” has such an impact whenever I read it – I am always amazed at the deep emotions it seems to stir in other women.  I feel quite honored by some of the stories women have shared with me after hearing this poem.

In “Childhood,” the lines “my future self tucked / dormant and waiting/ packed for my journey” struck me as an eloquent ovarian metaphor, in the context of the green suitcase the child is carrying. Can you talk to us about the process of writing this poem?

The photograph (view here) I wrote about is one of the most evocative images of myself that I have.  It’s hanging on my bedroom wall right now. There is just something about the look on my little four-year old face that draws me back to it.  I looked so hopeful about the world around me, yet also a little afraid.  (The way I still feel most of the time even today!)  Another very provocative part of the photo is the small fragment of my childhood friend that appears behind me.  This has always intrigued me because she was wearing what appears to be an identical dress.  Because so little of her can be seen, it looks almost like a ghost image.  And why was I carrying a suitcase?  I wrote this poem when I was just beginning to take myself seriously as a writer.   The idea that this poet self was there all along comforted me.

Any writing mentors you wish to share with us?

 My most important mentor is Charlotte Muse (her real name!).  She’s a local poet with whom I have been taking poetry workshops for many years. She is an amazing teacher; gentle and encouraging while at the same time incredibly honest in her criticism. I credit her encouragement in helping me overcome my nagging self-doubt about my poetry.

And then there are all the amazing women writers I met at AROHO (like you, Tania!).  I now consider every one of those women to be mentors.  Since attending that retreat, the support I received there has helped me find a new commitment to my identity as a writer.

 How do you balance teaching and writing?

With much effort and difficulty!  It is always a struggle to meld these two parts of my life so that I don’t feel like they are at war with each other.  To be a teacher means to be on stage for most of the day, a very extraverted activity.  Then I often don’t have any energy left when I go home to tap into the introverted poet in me.  Since coming home from AROHO, I’ve done a better job because I won’t let myself off the hook as much when it comes to carving out time for my writing.  When I was at Ghost Ranch, I bought a stone that had an image carved into it.  There were many of them with various images.  The first one I was drawn to had a carving of a half moon/half sun.  When I read the description of what this image was supposed to represent, it said it showed an eclipse. This is symbolizes power and union.  I think it is a perfect metaphor for how I am trying to balance the union between these two sides of myself.

 What are you currently working on?

I am working on a variety of things.  As far as my poetry, I am currently at work on a series of poems about my trip to the Serengeti this past summer.  Being there was awe-inspiring.  I am also trying to “outline” a vision for a poetry manuscript that I hope to write.  I truly hate outlines, but I want to be more intentional about finding the connections between my poems so they work together to form a book.  So far, that means a great deal of musing but little black and white on the page!

Recently I started my own blog Poet Teacher Seeks World.  I never thought I would blog (I do hate how we have made this a verb) until I met you, Tania.  Also, I’m working on our collaborative interview project, AROHO Speaks: Writer to Writer.  Again, this is a new type of venture for me and I am enjoying it immensely.

Lisa Rizzo is a poet and middle school language arts teacher who manages to combine her love of words and poetry with her day job. She was born in Texas, grew up in Chicago and now lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.  Her work has appeared in such journals as The Lucid Stone, 13th Moon, Writing for Our Lives, Earth’s Daughters, Bellowing Ark and Calyx JournalIn the Poem an Ocean is her first chapbook publication.  She recently entered the “blogosphere” with her blog Poet Teacher Seeks World and the collaborative project AROHO Speaks: Writer to Writer.

April 14, 2014 update:  Here’s an additional Interview with Lisa Rizzo at The California Journal of Women Writers by Marcia Meier.

Childhood, Daughters, Uneasy Grace: Three Poems by Lisa Rizzo

Childhood

I begin with a photograph:
find a face
much like my present one
peeping out
shy, unsure of its welcome.
A tree stands behind –
shading scrub yard and gray steps.
My dress white
organdy.
On my head
a hat of plain straw
with black band and flowers.
Its yellow ribbon grasps
my neck firmly.
On the back I read:
“Lisa in Mt. Pleasant 1960?”
The question repeated
in my face.

In the upper left corner –
on the half hidden porch
a snippet of another girl
in a white dress
in a straw hat.
Since she has no face
I imagine her to be
my shadow
refusing to cooperate.
The smile I can see –
half formed,
head dipped
seeming to say: “Please.”
Carried in my hand
a child’s round suit case.
It is green.
Into this
my future self tucked
dormant and waiting,
packed for my journey.

Daughters

I bear a thin red ribbon
around my wrist. This flows
from me to my mother
and back. I am
the eldest daughter of
an eldest daughter of
an eldest daughter.
This embrace I can never
unwind. Instead I
have chosen to cut my own
daughter free – the bond
never begun.

On my 38th birthday gazing
at a bowl of daffodils I
forced to bloom, I conceded
I would never have a child.
I shed no tears, but simply felt
hot wax seal the ribbon’s end.

I am a woman
who will never have children,
who never expected to fall in love
with the sweet hair and baby grasp
of her brother’s daughter.
Still I have no tears, only
now I understand what
I have foregone.

Uneasy Grace

Ensnared into church by my mother’s faith
and Christmas wishes:
that old Methodist feeling of
remorse and regret
blended with a tinge of guilt.
Uncomfortable tug of a past
that no longer fits
even if I might want it.
Sitting silent during prayers
so I don’t feel a liar.

And then a gift:
My brother and his daughter
slid into the pew,
she in her little girl finery:
spangly dress and slippers
I brought her from Istanbul,
their cardboard soles soggy
with Portland rain.
She and I amused ourselves with
counting hymns and syllables
for haiku:

Winter is wonder.
Winter is snowflakes in the air.
Winter is cocoa.
By Felicity Grace, age 9

Winter is wonder.
When mist marries mountainside
Cedars sprinkle stars.
By Lisa Grace, age 51

What other spirit could I need?
This is something I know how to hold.

Lisa Rizzo is a poet and middle school language arts teacher who manages to combine her love of words and poetry with her day job. She was born in Texas, grew up in Chicago and now lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.  Her work has appeared in such journals as The Lucid Stone, 13th Moon, Writing for Our Lives, Earth’s Daughters, Bellowing Ark and Calyx JournalIn the Poem an Ocean is her first chapbook publication.  “Childhood” was previously published in 13th Moon; “Daughters” previously appeared in Writing for Our Lives. All three poems published here today also appeared in In the Poem an Ocean. Rizzo recently entered the “blogosphere” with her blog Poet Teacher Seeks World and the collaborative project AROHO Speaks: Writer to Writer.

Read our interview with Lisa Rizzo conducted by Tania Pryputniewicz, Celebrating the Foregoing of Motherhood: Poetry in the Service of Spiritual Quandary, Lineage, and Teaching Adolescents.

 

The Empty Cradle

Photo by Kathy Leonard

The Empty Cradle

Kathy  Leonard says, “When I photograph, I do not consciously search out particular types of images, but I find that there is a surprising similarity in many of my photographs.  There is dark and light, great contrast, or “chiaroscuro” as the Italians call it.  I find this juxtaposition of light and shadow very appealing in black and white photography, especially when it serves to highlight the angles or curves of some object. These are the elements that drew me to photograph the wooden cradle. The natural light from the window cast dramatic shadows on the hand-carved cradle and I knew that the resulting image would be stark, simple, and beautiful.”

Kathy Leonard is a professor at Iowa State University.  She studied photography at the University of California, Davis, and at the University of Nevada, Reno, where she received a degree in Fine Arts with specialty in photography. Her photographs have been published in numerous magazines, websites, online journals, and in textbooks and have been exhibited in various venues in California, Nevada, and Iowa.

Limitations, Imitations, and Haiku as Form of Expansion: an Interview with Poet Stephanie Lenox

Poet Stephanie Lenox, headshot

Stephanie Lenox, Photo by Sabina Samiee, Oregon Arts Commission

In “Confinement: A Haiku Sequence in Ten Parts,” (published earlier here at The Fertile Source) the narrator speaks to her unborn child, “My fears feast on you / But even the leaves let go.” This beautiful line in particular seems to hone in on the way a mother’s brain has to rewire itself to accept the responsibility of loving someone we can lose at any moment. The rest of the poem also documents this process (which starts in utero). Can you talk about how the images came to you? And why you chose the form of haiku? How did the conditions of bedrest figure in to the psychology of the narrator?

I was inspired to start this haiku sequence after taking a workshop with Ce Rosenow, president of the Haiku Society of America. Her workshop reminded me that a haiku is so much more than simply a 5-7-5 syllabic form. Since haiku traditionally include images from nature, I wanted to do that in my sequence, but for the most part my imagery is confined to those things I could see from my bedroom window – telephone wires, a few treetops, the sky. I invited nature into my haiku through other images, but for the most part I aimed for images that reinforced the cramped, claustrophobic feel of pregnancy, especially a pregnancy spent on complete bedrest.

I started with haiku in part because motherhood and the preceding 70 days in bed was such a monumental experience – it completely rearranged me – that I wasn’t sure where to begin. So I started with five syllables, then seven more, and I slowly built and layered one image on top of another. (It was also a writing project I could chip away at between feedings, diapers, etc.) The formal restrictions of haiku helped focus me. I also discovered in the process that haiku, while appearing small, is a form of expansion. Without punctuation, it is intended to unfold and expand in the reader’s mind. I liken it to one of those toy capsules you drop into the bathtub that transform into a sponge dinosaur.

In “Last days of nursing,”  the metaphor of the magician strikes me as a clever way to point to the intermediary nature of motherhood—part God, part magician, yet so rooted in tangible and impossible acts, like weaning a child. I believe every mother who has had to wean her child will relate to this poem! Were there other metaphors you considered along the way? Poetry by any other writers you’ve seen covering this topic you’d like to share with us?

This poem is a direct response to the poem “The End of Nursing” in a beautiful book called Out of Refusal by Carter McKenzie. Her poem begins: “Interminable nibbler, attached fish, when / does this end?” My poem, in its last line, answers hers.

I felt so empowered to write about this topic after reading her poem that I practically stole her title and started writing my own version. I’m sure I considered a lot of metaphors along the way, but I settled on the extended use of the magician because magic is messy, or at least that’s the way I envision it. From the audience’s point of view, it’s all illusion, but for the magician and the assistant it’s a rehearsed performance, one that begins with awkward practices and risky errors and that eventually works its way toward mystery.

We understand you are at work on a new series of poems inspired by the birth of your daughter. Can you give us an inside peek at the range of topics you’ll cover? (And let us know when it comes out so we can alert our readers and support your work.)

I have been fortunate to receive an individual artist grant from the Oregon Arts Commission in support of new work inspired by my daughter’s birth. My first book of poetry, Congress of Strange People, will be coming out from Airlie Press next fall. I’ve always been intrigued by bizarre characters and events, and my first book explores this in large part through the use of persona poems. But in my new work, the strangeness has come home with me. I find it in the middle of the night during a feeding. I find it in the ants crawling through my kitchen cupboards and across my newborn’s tongue. I find it in my dog whose severe separation anxiety caused her to consume baby bottle nipples and parts of my breast pump.

I’m also experimenting with imitations of other poets. Theodore Roethke has said that “Imitation, conscious imitation, is one of the great methods, perhaps the method of learning how to write.” I’m a perpetual student of poetry, so imitations are my way of tracing my poetic lineage through poems that have changed the way I think about what language can do. I like to think of my poems as “offsprings” of the originals.

Any mentors you’d like to share with us?

I’m a member of a poetry response group known as The Peregrines (named so because we meet twice a month at a different member’s house). They apply the gentle pressure I need to keep writing in spite of all the competing obligations. I’ve likewise been grateful for the mentorship of the editors at Airlie Press, the nonprofit poetry publishing collective that is publishing my first book.

Has your experience of motherhood changed your relationship to your writing or your editorial work?

Motherhood has made me more honest about my time: either I do it, or I don’t, no excuses. I’ve actually been more productive since my daughter was born than I was in the years before she arrived. I work during naps and by the good graces of babysitters. My daughter has a bedtime of 6:30 pm, which used to give me a lot of time to work. However, since I’m now expecting my second child, I no longer have the creative energy to write in the evenings.

I wish I’d realized how good I had it when my daughter would sleep in my lap as I compiled an issue of Blood Orange Review or read submissions. I miss the days I could read an entire book of poetry at 3 am while rocking my daughter back to sleep. Now that I have a toddler on my hands, there’s no working while she’s in my presence. But what I’ve learned most from motherhood is to constantly adapt to today’s challenge rather than forcing yesterday’s solution. 

Any programs for writing mothers you’ve found helpful or that you’d’ like to see developed?

The grant I received from the Oregon Arts Commission has been especially helpful for me as a writing mother. It’s paying for the babysitter right now as I answer these questions. Another thing that helps is finding other writers with young children. It’s extremely useful to share one’s frustrations and accomplishments as a writer while the babies roll around on the floor together.

As for more programs for writing mothers, I’m dreaming now, but I’d love to see more daylight poetry readings, ones with a separate room with childcare provided. I think one reason you see poetry audiences aging (at least in my corner of the world) is that young families face a lot of barriers to attending evening events. This has been the part of my literary life most impacted by motherhood. If I’m going to spring for a babysitter, I want it to be for my own writing or a date night with my husband.

Stephanie Lenox lives in Salem, Oregon, with her husband and daughter. Her chapbook, The Heart That Lies Outside the Body, was published by Slapering Hol Press in 2007. The work published here was written with the support of a 2010 Oregon Art Commission artist fellowship. She teaches poetry at Willamette University and edits the literary journal Blood Orange Review. For more information, please visit her website at www.stephanielenox.com.

Stray Pets

An essay by Jody Keisner

 

Besides the frogs, fireflies, grasshoppers, and June bugs that my younger sister Debbie and I trapped in canning jars, my parents adopted seven cats, six dogs, three rabbits, two hamsters, one duck. And me. I had been adopted as a newborn, and Debbie was my parents’ biological child.  I don’t remember some dramatic moment when my parents told me they weren’t my first set of parents. It seems like I have always known. It wouldn’t have bothered me that I was another adoptee in the Keisner menagerie, except we moved to the country when I was nine, and the lives of most of our animals ended tragically. I wondered if I was next.

Our new home was on four acres in Louisville, Nebraska, a town with a population less than 2000. My bedroom faced a mowed front yard that led to dozens of dense trees. Unkempt pasture and the occasional cow bordered one side of our home, separated from us with barbed wire. The adjacent farmland gave us opportunities to stick our noses into trouble. One dog died from a gunshot wound inflicted by a half-blind farmer, one cat met death from a parasite living in cow pies, and a hamster was flattened under a truck. My mother swore an eagle plummeted from the sky to snatch a lap-dog from the snow. I found my rabbit stiff as a board one morning when I went to feed her, the death ruled a mystery. A furry gray and brown puppy we named Odie, who we liked to roll down the sides of a small hill, disappeared into the middle of the night just weeks after his birth in a cardboard box in our garage. Armed with flashlights and Dad, we walked all four acres. We never saw Odie again.

The cats that roamed our property were once kittens Mom had rescued from a farmer whose only other option was a potato sack and a lake. Our dogs were strays my father brought home from the railroad, beaten dogs that tucked tails between legs and wolfed down food in a few bites. Mom’s dog, Ladybug, was different. She had been handpicked and was our only inside pet; she slept on my parents’ bed instead of in the garage on a smelly blanket with the others. A blonde Pekinese Maltese who always had goo in the corner of her eyes, Ladybug followed Mom from room to room, her toenails clicking on the linoleum of the bathroom or kitchen floor while my mother cleaned. She tolerated my sister and me, lifting her pug nose in the air. She allowed us to briefly pet her before prancing through the house, searching for something more entertaining.

I worried about our pets’ bad luck. Was I a doomed stray that had wandered into our family? Or had I been carefully selected like Ladybug, meant for a life of luxury and coddling?  I wasn’t like Debbie, who always wanted to be around my mother, boiling the spaghetti noodles while Mom stirred sauce or cuddling with Mom and Ladybug on the couch, watching Little House on the Prairie. I preferred to be alone, reading books or exploring the neighboring land with one of the transient dogs.

One day, I studied my mother as she sat on the couch, folding laundry into a basket.  She bent awkwardly to avoid waking up Ladybug who lay curled in her lap. Even though she was only 37, half of Mom’s hair was completely gray.

“Your hair looks frosted,” I said. “Like you had it professionally done.” I knew what “frosted” hair was supposed to look like from seeing it on a magazine picture of Madonna. Mom wouldn’t let me listen to “Like a Virgin” on the radio. She claimed I was too young to know about such things, but I learned plenty from listening to the older boys up the road. The thought of my mother and Madonna sharing a hairstyle made me giggle.

“What can I say? I’m a natural beauty,” Mom said, continuing to fold the laundry.

Mom had never colored her once-black hair or even had it professionally styled. Her beauty routine consisted of a bar of Coast and Pert Plus: Shampoo and Conditioner in One. She sprayed her short “frosted” hair into a stiff, helmet shaped hairdo every morning with clouds of Aqua Net that burned my eyes and made everyone but her cough. Aqua Net was good for other things, too, and I sneaked it out from under the bathroom counter to spray bugs permanently onto the walls.

My hair was what Grandmother referred to as dirty dishwater blonde, but Debbie was a brunette, just like Mom had been when she was a child. I wondered what color of hair my other mother had.

“Why didn’t that lady want me?” I blurted.

Mom looked up at me, startled. She held a pair of Dad’s worn Wranglers, stiff from drying on the clothesline.

“Your biological mother?” she asked.

Ladybug licked her paw and yawned.

I nodded.

She set the jeans in the laundry basket by her feet and patted the couch. I sat a few inches away. 

Mom scooted close to me and hugged me hard. “You are my special gift. I chose you.”

I imagined a room full of rows of crying babies in baskets, displayed like puppies or flowers. I imagined Mom pointing to me and saying, “I want that one.” 

 “You asked me about her once before—when you were very young. I couldn’t believe a three-year old figured that out. That there was another mother,” Mom said, her eyes filling with tears, which didn’t alarm me because she was what Dad called “Sensitive.” Little House on the Prairie set her to boo-hooing, even when the episodes were reruns. Sometimes she choked up just from standing in our bedroom doorways after tucking us in, her hand on the light switch. “I just love you so much,” she’d say. “When you’re a mother you’ll understand.”

“You’re my Mom,” I said. I meant it. Mom was her name, but she wasn’t my only mother.

 

Thoughts about my adoption were mostly infrequent. The concept was abstract. Mom was there, in the flesh, every morning to pick out my clothes and make me scrambled eggs with flecks of ham. At bedtime, she weaved my freshly showered hair into dozens of tiny braids, so that I could have “permed” kinky hair like The Bangles. The process took hours, me complaining of a sensitive scalp the entire time. (In high school, friends would brush my hair into ponytails for track practice because I wouldn’t learn how until college—my mother did it at home!) She was, in my mind, proper—a proper mother.  Mom had worked her way up from bank teller to credit union manager all without a college degree and still quizzed me out of my history books and clipped my toe nails before sending me off to bed at night. She made sure our family attended Mass on Sunday, even Dad who sometimes fell asleep in the pew after working third shift at the railroad.

But by junior high, I started to find the idea of having another mother romantic. I spent hours on the couch with books and with my favorite band, Journey, who contributed the soundtrack to my life. Books offered me an exotic world of mothers, each one I imagined saying, “Pick me. Pick me.” I fantasized about what the other mother would be like. I imagined a beautiful and sad woman dressed in a white, flowing dress, like a character from Gone with the Wind. She would stand in an open door in a house surrounded by tall, swaying grass, watching the same sky as me, feeling the same breeze, wondering where I was. She hadn’t appeared to me, so I made her anything I wanted, a Choose Your Own Adventure mother, like the sci-fi books where I could determine the protagonist’s fate. Sometimes I envisioned the other mother as a horrible woman, unfit to raise a child: a slobbering alcoholic, a hallucinating lunatic, a slut, a bum, a madwoman ready to throw herself off the roof like Bertha in Jane Eyre.

I knew that someday I would meet the other mother and she would welcome me like my favorite Journey song, with “Open Arms.” I mostly kept this to myself, since my recent renewed interest in my adoption flustered Mom, who began claiming she had forgotten. “It doesn’t even enter my thoughts,” she said. But thoughts of my adoption had begun to enter mine all the time.

I learned from Mom that 31 days between my birth and adoption were unaccounted for. “But where was I?” I pestered. “Who took care of me then?”

“I don’t know, honey.” Mom, exasperated, ad-libbed: “Nuns? You were well cared for.”

“What about the eye infection I had when you got me? You said my eyes were a mess! I’ve had surgery on both of them because of it!”

I became certain that every shortcoming I had could be directly linked to those 31 lost days and that I had been irreparably harmed in some way. I read all the adoption books in Louisville’s small school library, many of which theorized that babies removed from their natural mothers never learned how to bond with anyone else. Another book informed me that adopted children would always fear rejection. Suddenly, every possible psychological affliction in the book seemed like it was describing me, although Mom was usually nearby to assure me how special I was.

“You saved my life,” she confided. Mom had lost three babies before they adopted me. “After those miscarriages, I thought I would die. Then you came along.” Her eyes were already misting.

Mom told me my adoption was a closed one, which meant that descriptions of my biological parents were sealed in a file until I turned 25. I decided that until then, I would become the daughter that my imaginary mother would want. I studied every night to earn straight A’s, ran track and played basketball after school (even though I was equally horrible at dribbling, passing, and shooting), stayed away from situations where classmates were sneaking beer and groping each other. The more perfect I became, the more my real mother would mourn giving me up (I didn’t think Mom was my fake mother,  but the word “real” popped into my head whenever I thought of the woman who gave birth to me).

 I often felt out of place, but every kid I knew felt the same way. Some of my friends were even envious. “God,” they’d say. “You’re so lucky. I hate my parents. I wish I had another set I could trade them in for.” My status allowed me to choose my family at whim. I told myself I was not related to Uncle Dean, who smoked pot behind Grandma’s garage during family reunions. I denied relation to a distant cousin, a woman Mom privately nicknamed Dirty Martha, who picked her scabs with grimy fingernails at the kitchen table. When, during our annual Fourth of July family get-togethers, a drunken uncle began hugging our female teenage cousins for too long, I just denied him, too.

Sometimes, though, my biological truth sprang suddenly and without my wanting it. One Christmas day, Mom and Dad, my sister, our cousins, aunts and uncles, and grandparents gathered in the living room before opening presents. A younger cousin and I looked at the new issue of Highlights, racing to see who could find the kitchen appliances and other out of place objects poorly hidden in the drawing of a tree. It had been the best part of the magazine when I was a child, but now I was too old for it. My grandmother on Mom’s side cleared her throat. She pointed at the school picture of my sister on the wall. “You know who that picture reminds me of?” Then she looked at Debbie. “You are your mother’s spitting image, child.” She laughed, pleased and everyone nodded at the unmistakable similarities: the same dainty smile, black hair, and ice blue eyes.  I suddenly found myself swimming in a crowd of faces, but I couldn’t find my nose, my eyes, or my hands anywhere. I felt like the toaster in the Highlights tree: Can you find the item that doesn’t belong?

Debbie had been born my parents’ natural child ten months after my adoption.

“Our miracle baby,” Mom said.

I looked at my younger sister, who sat grinning by our Christmas tree in her lace-hemmed dress, and I felt my otherness wallop me in the head.

 

As a teenager, I relished the feeling of belonging elsewhere, mostly because I found my own parents too strict, too familiar, and too annoying. I pretended I was an uncaught character in a Nancy Drew mystery novel and that my adoption made me mysterious. I passed hours rereading the few documents my parents had recently given me (the only papers available in a closed adoption): my health statistics at my birth, a line or two about the physical condition of my extended biological family, and a succinct paragraph of description about my birth mother. It was the later I was most interested in. “The biological mother was 19 years at the birth of the baby. She has blue eyes and light blonde hair. Her complexion was listed as fair and she is of German descent. She has had two years of college and her interests are artistically inclined.” I told my friends that I was German. My biological mother and I had the same color of hair. I thought she must be a magnificent painter, her canvas capturing what she instinctively knew I looked like. She would paint my hair dirty-dishwater blonde, like hers. I would smile in her paintings, but my eyes would be sad, the loss of each other a secret between the two of us. Sometimes, when we had a hip, urban-seeming substitute in art class, wearing paint splattered slacks, I was sure it was her!

Mom sat next to me on the couch when I called United Catholic Social Services. In a few weeks, I would move to Wayne, Nebraska, a small farming and manufacturing community, to attend classes at Wayne State College. I had told myself that before I moved, I would work up the nerve to make the call. My stomach lurched as I dialed.

A sympathetic sounding woman explained that because my adoption was closed, the state couldn’t release any information to me until I was 25, and even then, no names, only more paperwork.

“Your biological mother has to agree to meet you, honey.” Her delivering-bad-news voice was as soft as a pillow.

“Has she been in contact? I mean, has she asked how I’m doing?”

“Sweetie, it looks as if we’ve had no contact from her, but that’s to be expected. For some women, the entire process is just too overwhelming.”

“Oh.” I was heart sore. How could she not want to know about me? I looked down at what I was wearing—a Jordache T-shirt and tight jeans rolled into pink socks. Mom squeezed my leg. I felt ridiculous.

“But it looks as if your biological father has contacted us. He wanted to know that we placed you with a good family.”

I felt ambivalent towards him. I only wanted to meet my biological mother, the woman who had shared a heartbeat with me for nine months. I had a vision of her filling in where Mom left off. I imagined my birth mother and I would conduct serious talks about literature (Thanks to my American novel classes, I was already becoming a literature snob), boyfriends and sex, and the meaning of life. Mom read novels with cowboys pictured on the cover, told  me my father was the only man she had ever slept with (and only after their wedding) and she was raised Catholic, so she believed that life was a series of good deeds you performed to get into Heaven. I hoped my biological mother wouldn’t really be like a mother at all but more like a cool older sister.

“What now? Is there anything I can do? Can I write her a letter?” I had written her dozens of times, though each attempt frustrated me and eventually ended up in my wastepaper basket.

“Well, sure. You can mail it to us, and if she contacts our service, we’ll send it to her.”

It wasn’t much, but it was something. “Okay.” I set the phone in my lap.

“I’m happy for you,” Mom said, leaning in for a hug. “It’s just, I don’t think of you as being adopted.” Her eyes were welling.

“She doesn’t want to know me, anyway.” The phone receiver was warm in my hand. I held it tightly for a few minutes before setting it in its cradle.

 

Wadded up drafts of letters filled my trashcan, imperfect testimonies and explanations of how much I needed my biological mother. The letter I had sealed and stamped was also unsatisfactory, an overwrought story I called “The Motherless” about searching for faces in a crowd that looked like mine, finding none.  I used the same phrases one might use in a letter to a love obsession, except I kept everything in third person so my real mother wouldn’t see how fanatical I was: “thought of my mother day and night,” “wished my mother and I were near one another,” “not certain who I am without her.” I asked her if we could meet, but the Catholic Charities woman had warned me that she likely wouldn’t want to. I disagreed.  I imagined this other mother to be someone who couldn’t live without me, someone who would understand my teenage self in a way my parents couldn’t. She would never think it odd when I wrote melodramatic poetry or spent entire evenings lying in my bed feeling certain that nobody could feel the world’s pain as deeply as me. I would lie backwards on my bed, my feet draped over the headboard, and write sad sappy poetry that I signed “Clover” because of a four-leaf clover pressed in my dictionary on the page defining leprechaun.

When Mom tried to draw me into conversations like the kind we had when I was younger, when the two of us used to snuggle on the couch, I answered in one syllable words.  How was I? How was my day? Was anything on my mind? “I’m fine. I’m fine. I’m fine.” Leave me alone to be with my important imaginings. My parents were exasperated with the self-absorbed teenager I had become and showed me with a poster that read:  Teenagers, Leave Home While You Still Know Everything. I felt certain my birth mother would not only understand me, but find me a wise old soul full of fascinating insights into humanity. And she, unlike Mom, wouldn’t hang her nylon granny panties on the outdoor clothesline for visiting boys to see.

Amazingly, two weeks after I sent my letter, someone wrote me back. Claire Marie the letter was signed. The last name had been crossed out, just in case, I reasoned, she decided not to meet me and didn’t want a crazed lost child hunting her down. In calligraphy, Claire told me her parents had sent her to a Catholic hospital to give birth to me, a place where nuns had prayed for her forgiveness. My biological father, also a college student, moved to a different town before the pregnancy showed. He didn’t know Claire was pregnant until Catholic Charities contacted him, asking him to sign the adoption papers. Because of the silence Claire’s parents demanded, my birth became a secret that she kept through college and eventually from a husband and two young daughters.  “I will never regret my decision to have you,” she wrote. “Deep in my heart I know that you are beautiful and my contribution to this world.” She prayed and hoped that I was happy, healthy, and loved and wrote that these were gifts she couldn’t have given me then. The letter had a note of finality, of closure. She never mentioned the possibility of us meeting. I slept poorly that night, continually checking to see if the letter was still where I had tucked it under my pillow. My only proof of her existence, I was certain it would disappear.

 

The fall semester passed without Claire and me exchanging another letter. I didn’t forget about her, but she wasn’t exactly on my mind now that I had college classes, parties, and guys to obsess over.  One afternoon I was summoned to the dorm’s hallway phone. Over the past few months, my phone calls with Mom had become increasingly scarce. I felt annoyed at having to leave the dorm room full of laughing co-eds. I answered the phone with an exaggerated sigh, but it wasn’t Mom calling to ask if I was using my food plan and getting enough sleep. It was a woman from Catholic Charities.

“Would you like to meet your biological mother?” the woman asked.

Adrenaline shot through me. My ears started to buzz. “Yes, I want to meet her! What happens next? Have you already talked to my parents?”

 “Honey, you’re a legal adult. You can decide for yourself.”

I forgot. I wasn’t in high school with permission slips jammed into my backpack. I didn’t need to ask Mom before doing something.

“When do I meet her?” I asked; the words were surreal.

Without my ever having spoken with my biological mother on the phone, Catholic Charities acted as the mediator, planning a reunion at Riley’s, a local restaurant in Wayne. I felt like I was about to win a major writing prize or a state track medal (Other than a sixth grade Young Authors Award, I hadn’t won either).

At my request, Mom drove three hours to be with me, to meet the other mother and hold my hand. She picked me up at my dorm room. We drove in silence. My withdrawal into college life was hurting her feelings, yet here she was beside me, humming to an easy-listening radio station.

I stared at the fast food restaurants and the college kids bundled in their winter coats. I hoped meeting Claire would live up to my expectations. I felt a little guilty for so badly wanting another mother, in addition to the perfectly good one I already had. I pictured Mom plugging giant headphones—my sister and I called them her earmuffs—into her Sony stereo and sitting cross-legged on the floor, singing off key to Lionel Richie and Barry Manilow when she thought she was alone in the house, her hair matted down by the band of her earphones. Eyes closed, she swayed and cried when the music really moved her. Watching from the doorway, I muffled my laughter with my hand, but these stolen moments also made me feel safe. Mom would never hurt me. But the other mother might.

Riley’s moonlighted as a dance club on weekends. I had been there with my friends, usually after we drank bottles of Bud Light in my best friend’s dorm room or at one of the known party houses. By the time we arrived at Riley’s on those nights, hoping for someone to ask us to dance, the floor was packed with bodies swaying and grinding. Mom and I were meeting Claire in the restaurant, which was separated from the dance floor, but it was hard for me to dismiss the images of college students, dancing hip to hip, from my mind. I wondered if Claire and my biological father had ever danced, full of a yearning for each other that would produce a love child.  In my mind, a relationship was not worth having unless it was first full of pain. I cried hardest at the movie love stories where the couple had to overcome some self-inflicted misery in order to be together, like in Urban Cowboy when Sissy and Bud tried to make each other jealous because they weren’t mature enough to admit how they truly felt. Couples who made juvenile, passionate mistakes and risked losing each other understood my heart. I wondered if my biological father still loved Claire. How could he not?

Mom parked the car and looked at me. “Are you ready to see who’s behind the door?”

 “I’m ready,” I said. We got out of the car. I grabbed Mom’s arm before she could open the restaurant door.

“I can’t,” I said.  I started to cry.

“You’ve waited so long for this, Jody.” Mom wore one of her work outfits, a navy vest and matching slacks, navy flats. She wore a strand of pearls around her neck; she had even put on mascara and lipstick for the occasion, flare she only wore for funerals or weddings. Her hair had turned from its natural “frosted” look to all-white years ago. Mom suddenly looked older and frail, though I knew she and Dad were in the midst of a remodeling project, and she would carry two-by-fours and aim a nail gun. Mom was tough when she needed to be.

I pulled my winter coat up to my chin and withdrew my hands into my coat sleeves, though I had read in an article on body language that this gesture showed insecurity.

“I’m scared,” I said. What if she didn’t like me? I wanted Claire to be impressed. Didn’t she regret letting me go? Hadn’t I turned out well? I wanted her to think so, even though I felt nerdy. I was more comfortable with books than with college boys.

“We don’t have to go in,” Mom said. She was unusually calm and unemotional.

“No. I’m okay.” I wiped my nose on my coat sleeve. “I want this.”

I stood in the entrance and let my mother enter ahead of me. I could see empty tables. “This is a special meeting,” Mom had said when she called to make reservations. “Can we arrive a little before the restaurant opens?”

Mom saw her first, inhaled and turned to me. “She doesn’t look very much like you,” she said. It was a comment I would think about later, considering how much we looked alike. I felt as nervous as I used to at the start line during a high school track meet, when for a millisecond, I thought how much easier it would be to flee to the school bus. I took a deep breath and pushed past Mom into the restaurant where all of the tables sat empty except for one, where a fair-haired woman sat with a man. I knew who she was immediately. She stood. We were the exact same height. I walked over to her and hugged her stiffly without really looking at her. I didn’t want to cry again, so I went numb inside, a trick I learned to use when my first cat died.

Mom hugged Claire. Even though Claire was only a few years younger than Mom, she seemed like a child in her embrace. Mom patted Claire’s back before she sat down. I sat down between them.

“It’s so nice to finally meet you,” Mom said when no one else spoke.

I first stole glimpses of Claire’s face while Mom talked about the drive to Wayne. Just the tip of her nose. Then her eyelash, her eyebrow, the curve of her lips. I stared at her hands, which were visibly shaking. Her hair was reddish blonde. Claire wore city attire, a long form-fitting dress, black knee-high boots, hand-crafted jewelry. I was used to seeing my Mom and other Nebraska Moms in Midwestern mom attire: jeans with elastic waistband, oversized T-shirts with pictures of furry animals or a Huskers football logo, and dirty tennis shoes. Claire was an eccentric sort of pretty, more exotic than Mom and more attractive than me. I suddenly felt frumpy in my oversized sweater and jeans. The tanning salon near the campus sold dollar tans, and my face was unnaturally orange. With my inch-high hair sprayed bangs and winter fake-bake, I looked like every other college girl in Wayne. Ordinary. I was sure Claire would know it.

“This is Rick. My friend,” Claire said. “He’s here for moral support. I don’t know that I would have come without him.” Her voice surprised me. Unlike her shaky hands, it was sturdy and low, the way I imagined the matriarchs of my British Literature novels sounding.

“Jody, you can’t possibly imagine how happy Claire is to see you,” Rick said, “Or how much she has thought about you.” Rick’s voice was full of saliva. He spoke each word slowly. I stared at his thinning hair and his wide forehead. His glasses slipped down his greasy nose.

I had thought of meeting my other mother for years, rehearsing reunions in my head where years of experiences would finally be shared. I was unable to say any of those things. Unwilling to face possible rejection, I went mute. Mom filled our silence by presenting the best version of me, how I wrote for The Wayne Stater, my high GPA, the time I placed third in a cross-country meet, my braces in junior high and perfect teeth now. She left out the recent arguments we had been having about my college partying (in my freshman photo album, I held a beer in every picture). I was glad Mom was there to take the pressure off of me. While Mom talked, Claire remained silent and aloof. It surprised me that her demeanor seemed restrained, unlike the warmth of Mom’s.

“The two of you,” Rick said looking at Claire and then me, “just need to snuggle.” Rick reminded me of a salesman in a New Age Store. Everything out of his mouth was sappy and intrusive. I wondered if he had read my letters to Claire. I felt pathetic and needy. I hated him. Rick leaned across the table and put Claire’s hand on top of mine. We all looked at each other. Claire’s hand was cold and rigid. I slowly slid my hand out from under hers and fiddled with my napkin.

“I didn’t want to give you up,” Claire said. Mom looked surprised that Claire was addressing me. “My parents are Catholic. My mother, well, she thought it was so shameful for me to find myself with child. Out of wedlock.” She looked at Mom when she said this, and at Rick, who was smiling and nodding. Then she turned to me. “I didn’t know what else to do. Or how I would take care of you.”

I didn’t know anything about taking care of babies. I didn’t have a boyfriend. Having a child seemed like decades away.  I couldn’t relate to what Claire was telling me even though it was about me. So far the evening had been a conversation between my two mothers. I wanted to say something, but my words really needed to matter when I finally opened my mouth. Did Claire think I was insecure? When I looked at Rick, he winked.

“You and Claire need to spend time alone together,” Rick said. “In order to have those feelings, to really unearth them.” He leaned in towards me. The pores on his nose were enormous.

Mom shifted uncomfortably in her seat and cleared her throat.

“Did she have brown hair?” Claire asked.

“What?” The waiter had brought our salads and my mother had a speared baby carrot on her fork.

“The nurses wouldn’t let me see her. They didn’t even let me hold her.” I thought Claire might cry, but she sat straight up and regained her composure. “When I went down to the nursery, I saw this baby, with this beautiful brown hair. I felt something. I felt like it was my baby.”

Mom winced at Claire’s words: my baby.

“Was it her?” Claire asked.

“Yes.” Mom started whimpering. It amazed me she had lasted so long. “She had a head of brown hair. All of this hair.”

 ”Our hands look exactly alike,” I blurted. I’d often thought my hands looked like my father’s. It was a small way I looked like my adoptive family, but now I could see it wasn’t true.

Claire’s eyes met mine. “You remind me of your biological father. You look so much like him.” She placed her hand next to mine on the white linen tablecloth. I looked at our identical hands together. My pinky touched her thumb.

“It’s hard for me to look at you,” Claire said.

 

I knew Claire even less after meeting her. She wasn’t anything like I had imagined. We were still strangers, and it surprised me. I had expected we would have some instant, intuitive connection like a couple who fall in love at first sight. I wanted to see my friends so we could scrutinize everything Claire had said, like we did after first dates. Will she want to see me again?  Did she think I was smart? Pretty? What will she tell her friends about me? Why didn’t I talk more? My English professors could never shut me up, but tonight when it really counted, I just froze. I wanted to look at my hair sprayed bangs in a mirror to see if they looked stupid.

“It’s a lot to take in,” I said to Mom. We sat in her car outside of my dorm.

“If you want, call me tomorrow. We’ll talk about it.” Mom leaned across the car and hugged me. She was still belted in. When she pulled away from me, her face dissolved in tears.  “It’s just…” She rummaged in her purse for a wadded tissue. “I just think of you as my own.” Mom was driving back to Omaha, a total of six hours in the car for two hours of dinner. Her mascara was smeared from crying, and her lipstick had worn off during dinner.

It had hurt her to meet Claire. Claire was intriguing, and I wanted to know everything about her because I wanted insight into myself. I liked to imagine a fantasy mother and Mom liked to imagine she had given birth to me. Claire had ended both of our fantasies.

“I guess I’m Claire’s daughter now, too,” I said, but I didn’t really feel like anyone else’s daughter. I got out of the car.

“Yes, I guess so,” Mom said.

Mom lifted up a hand, wiped her eyes with a tissue and waved her signature wave. Debbie and I called it her ‘tootles’ wave: index finger, middle finger, ring finger. She left for home.

That night I lay awake in my twin bed, my roommate snoring in her twin bed across the room. I thought of all the clever things I didn’t say when I had met Claire. I replayed the night in my head with Wynonna Ryder as myself in the starring role of a sophisticated, beautiful, long-lost daughter and Claire as the gracious, loving long-lost mother. In my edited version, we hugged and cried and spoke years of emotions with our eyes.  We were a Lifetime movie. Mom was merely backdrop, the unremarkable but sturdy character who sets up the key lines. I had great hopes for how things might turn out for me and Claire. The next morning I called Mom to tell her all about them. She was in the middle of mixing a dish of dried cat food and milk for her newest drifter. I could hear the persistent “mew, mew, mew” in the background. Mom had named the fluffy white cat Snowball, a sign that she had opened her home to the small traveler and probably her lap.

Other than me, the longest living Keisner-stray—a mixed-breed dog with soulful brown eyes—was nearly ten years-old. None of the others, though, had made it longer than a handful of years.

 “Don’t get too attached to Snowball,” I teased Mom. “We both know your track record.”

 “I know,” Mom said. “I just can’t help myself. What if she doesn’t have anyone else to care for her?”

“She might have a family somewhere, wondering where she is,” I said. When Mom didn’t say anything, I added: “Maybe she’s been abandoned.”

“It just breaks my heart. That someone would abandon such a little thing.”

“I’m glad she has you,” I said.

“Me, too,” Mom said with a sniffle.

I couldn’t predict how the story would end: Snowball might wander off the next week and find the family she last lived with, she might meet an odd and early death, or she might stay with my mother until old cat-age. I was hoping for the latter. We were lucky to have my mother, the other strays and I, however we came to her, however long we stayed. 

 

 

Jody Keisner is a full-time writing instructor of the University of Nebraska-Omaha, a weight-lifter, and a Real Housewives junkie (the latter for academic reasons, of course). She lives with her husband and young daughter, Lily. She has publications in SNReview, Left Hand Waving, Women’s Studies, Third Coast, Studies in the Humanities, Modern English Teacher, and NEBRASKAland. She is busy on her first memoir, The Runaway Daughter.

 

Birds and Egs

Fiction by Don Kunz

Wendy awoke in the master bedroom of the restored Victorian on Prospect Street.  She lay listening to the lovebirds shredding newspaper in their cage next to the bay window and her husband making breakfast in their downstairs kitchen.  She stared at the ceiling.  The new light of an August morning had streamed through the stained glass to cover the cracked plaster with sky-blue and blood-red streaks resembling a child’s finger painting.  She thought of a shiny white egg the size of a marble.  She thought of nesting.  At almost five months she was definitely showing.  Beneath her flannel nightgown Wendy’s stomach was no longer flat and hard from years of abdominal crunches and five-mile runs along Blackstone Boulevard on the east side of Providence.  She heard Bill breaking eggs into a ceramic bowl, whisking them with a fork, pouring them spattering into the cast iron skillet.  The skillet had belonged to Wendy’s mother who had died of colon cancer on Valentine’s Day.  She remembered her mother’s distended belly rising beneath the sheet of her hospital deathbed and imagined she would look like that herself before she delivered in December.  Wendy found it disturbing that on the surface life and death should look so much alike.  She wished her mother had lived long enough to share the mysteries of pregnancy and childbirth with her, especially because this would be a Christmas baby, a miracle.  Then, Wendy smelled freshly brewed coffee and felt the familiar first wave of morning sickness.

Bill dropped four slices of whole wheat into the toaster then turned back to stir their eggs in the skillet.  He sang the chorus of a top-forty tune he remembered from his younger years, “Hang on Sloopy, Sloopy hang on.”  After a miscarriage during the second month of Wendy’s first pregnancy, this had become their theme song.  Bill could almost picture this second fetus adrift in amniotic fluid trying to find a grip on the uterine wall with its newly formed hands.  If Sloopy could just hang on, then, what?  Bill would be a father for the first time at age sixty-one.  At a time when his colleagues would be looking forward to retirement, Bill would be heating formula and planning his schedule around day care.  He was still not certain how to feel about that.  But he was trying to stay positive.  From the beginning of fertility treatments he had told himself that becoming a father would make him young again.  Bill wanted to believe that at seventy-five he would have a dark tan, ropy muscles, and lungs like a Sherpa.  He tried to imagine playing one-on-one basketball in the driveway, making a fade away jump shot against his taller teenage son while his retired colleagues across town shuffled about in walkers, dithering over long-term care policies and bingo schedules in nursing homes.  Bill turned into the hallway, carrying two full plates toward the dining room.  He paused at the foot of the stairs.  “Breakfast,” he hollered.  “Eggs and toast.  Breakfast for Wendy and Sloopy.”  No answer.  From the bathroom at the top of the stairs came the sound of his wife retching.  Bill walked slowly into the dining room and set the plates on the table.

Wendy rested her forehead on the forward edge of the white porcelain toilet bowl, reached up and flushed.  “Coming,” she hollered.  “I’m coming, for Christ’s sake!”  She heaved herself up and reached for the Aquafresh on the pedestal sink.  The bristles on her toothbrush were splayed out like the legs of an old dog trying to stay upright.  Her voice tumbled down the stairs toward Bill.  “I’m not too sure about Sloopy.  I may have barfed him up.  I couldn’t bear to look.”

Christmas baby or not she thought as she brushed her teeth, no one could call her the Virgin Wendy anymore; that’s for sure.  At work, Joe Early had christened her with that nickname when they were dating, because she was holding out on him.  She glanced into the speckled mirror over the sink.  She was foaming at the mouth.  Rabid bitch she thought.  She remembered snapping and growling at poor Joe, formerly her would-be lover, now barely a colleague.  Joe Early, one of four senior partners at Robinson, Bender, Early & Touché, Attorneys at Law had spent four months after his third divorce trying to get into her pants.  Back then she was in her fifth year at the firm and had wondered if giving into sexual intimacy would be a quid pro quo for making partner in the firm.  So Wendy, who hadn’t been a virgin since she was seventeen, decided to keep their relationship platonic as a test.  A week after the vote which made her a partner and head of the firm’s workman’s compensation division, Wendy dumped Joe when he tried to grope her in the small kitchen off the second-floor conference room at the end of the hall.  Mooning about with unrequited love was unprofessional but, nevertheless, flattering; feeling her up at work was not.

Wendy took a gulp of tap water, grimaced at the taste of chlorine, thought again about buying a filter for the tap, and rinsed her mouth but did not swallow.  She recalled she had not been able to read anything but embarrassment in Joe’s face, like when he had received a Victoria’s Secret Catalog at work.  She was hoping for disappointment.  She would have preferred epic heart break.  But Joe just blushed briefly.  Then he reached past her, poured himself a coffee (no sugar) and turned away.  She had been tempted to ask if he knew anything about sexual harassment statutes but decided not to rub it in.  Three weeks later Wendy had tried to imagine what Joe would think about her having intercourse with an economist she had met through a dating service.  At first it had amazed her, but later Wendy figured she was overdue.  At age thirty-seven having committed all her energy to marathon training and a seventy-hour workweek at the law firm, she decided it was time to stop acting like a cloistered nun.  What could she have told Joe if he had asked why him and not me, especially when Bill was almost twenty years older than either of them?  Bill just smelled right?  Wendy believed in the science of pheromones.  Now she was pregnant at forty, trying to believe in miracles.

Bill ascended the stairs wearing a red T-shirt, khaki slacks, and a denim apron that read, “If you laid all the economists end to end, they still couldn’t reach a conclusion.”  He shoved both hands into his front pockets beneath the apron and stared at Wendy in the bathroom mirror, admiring her brown eyes, perfectly oval face, and short auburn curls.  Bill watched Wendy wipe her mouth with the green guest towel.  “You were just kidding about Sloopy, right?  Because I’ve got his breakfast ready.  He needs to eat to hang on.”

Wendy brushed her fingertips across the dark circles beneath her eyes as if to erase them.  She wondered when she would see the glow that younger women seemed to get when they were pregnant.  Since marrying Bill three years earlier, she had wondered if starting a family this late was an unrealistic prospect.  Now she tried to push doubt aside.  She told herself it was like hitting the wall at mile eighteen in a marathon when the body had used up all its glycogen; if she kept pushing, she could do it.  And so could her husband she thought; he was a tough, old bird who looked and acted younger than his years.   Bill’s reflection appeared beside hers in the mirror, a square chiseled face with scar tissue around the eyes.  Wendy spoke to his image.  “I’ve got to believe this one’s got a grip.  This baby’s a keeper.”

Bill bowed his head, rested his chin lightly on Wendy’s shoulder, and wrapped his arms around her.  He wanted to hold on more tightly but feared he might break something.  “It had better be.  I don’t think there are many more where he came from.”

Wendy rotated inside the circle of Bill’s arms and gave him a peck on the cheek.  “Thanks for fixing breakfast.”  She wrinkled her nose.  “Oh, God.  I think I’m going to be sick again.”  She pushed Bill away, put both hands on her knees, and leaned over the toilet.  Her hands turned into fists as if she could fight off the nausea.  “Morning sickness is supposed to go away by the third month.  It’s too late for this.”

“It’s probably the damned eggs,” Bill said.  I should have fixed oatmeal.”

Wendy straightened up.  “Yeah, probably just the eggs.  But I ought to be able to keep something as simple as an egg down.  Eggs are supposed to be good for you.”

“Why don’t you save a step, leave the toilet seat up just in case?”

“Don’t be a damned pessimist!” she snapped.   “I refuse to be sick any more.  I’m going to take a seat at the table, and I’m going to finish everything you put on my plate.”

Wendy waited for Bill to get out of her way.  But he reached out and placed both hands on her belly.  His knuckles were heavy, thick, and scarred.  Sloopy wasn’t kicking.  Wendy reached up to brush toast crumbs from Bill’s lips.

 

That evening Wendy and Bill lay in bed with their heads propped up on pillows and watched a rerun of “The Best of Johnny Carson.”  Wendy was nibbling on soda crackers to settle her stomach.  Beneath the sheet Bill’s feet framed the screen on the twenty-one inch Sony at the foot of the bed.  When he forced his toes together, Johnny disappeared; when he let them flop to the side, Johnny reappeared.  Now Johnny was wearing a black velvet turban and holding an envelope to his forehead; he was playing the Great Carnac, solver of riddles.  The routine reminded Bill of “Jeopardy,” but every answer was a joke.  Johnny closed his eyes, furrowed his brow, and let the suspense build.  “Sis boom bah,” he proclaimed.  Then Johnny tore the end from the envelope and blew into it.  The envelope bellied out, Johnny extracted a piece of paper, unfolded it and read:  “What is the sound of a sheep exploding?”

Seated on the sofa to Johnny’s right, Ed McMahon burst into gales of hearty laughter.  “Yes, oh Great Carnac, The Magnificent.”

Bill brought his toes together and erased Johnny.  “Looks like we didn’t miss much the first time around.  If this is the best of Carson, I wouldn’t want to see the worst.”

“Oh, I don’t know,” Wendy said, “maybe that would be more entertaining.  You know, less scripted, more spontaneous.”

Bill moved his feet apart.  Johnny popped up on the screen again.  Bill wondered if that was true about being funny.  He thought it was true about sex.  Now that sex was a regular part of his life, he was relieved and grateful.  But it seemed less exciting.  He remembered the thrill of picking up chicks in bars and bookstores down city when he was fresh out of Providence College with a graduate degree in economics.  It had helped that he looked like a body builder, that he had trained in gyms from the age of thirteen, and that at seventeen he had become New England Welter-Weight Champion in the Golden Gloves.  Whenever some flighty woman in a bar reached up to trace the scar tissue beneath his left eye or paused to focus on his twice broken nose or asked about the callous on his knuckles, Bill knew he had her.  If he wanted her.  But after hitting forty-five, suddenly all the knockout women close to his age were taken.  On weekends he saw them in minivans driving their kids to the Roger Williams’ Park Zoo or swimming lessons at the Barrington Y.  By the time he was fifty, Bill had gotten used to going a year or more without getting lucky.  Eventually, he found the women in bars divided into two types:  Young and giggly or old and desperate.  They were either caught up in trivial details of undergraduate work or seething with anger about divorces.  They all were obsessive about gaining weight.  Inviting them out to dinner was like asking them to step into the ring.

In hindsight Bill knew his sexual exploits had been a crazy game, the worst-case scenario being AIDS.  Meanwhile the sexual climate had changed.  Pretending to love and to be loved by a stranger no longer seemed possible.  When he had stopped scoring regularly, he told himself that he was being prudent.  The newspapers were filled with cautionary tales:  Sexual harassment law suits filed against CEOs; college administrations issuing strict guidelines governing relations between students and faculty; a picture in the Providence Journal of the Rhode Island Supreme Court’s Chief Justice zipping up his pants while emerging from a liaison with a prostitute at Johnston motel.  At First Federal Trust, where Bill worked, sexual harassment training became mandatory, and officiously scripted dialog replaced flirting.   Being a lapsed New England Catholic, Bill diagnosed these symptoms as resurgent Puritanism.  Once again the culture seemed determined to take the fun out of sex by handing out scarlet “A’s, but this time around it would be to men for exploiting women in a rigged economy.  So, at fifty five, William Williams, now Chief Economist at First Federal with offices throughout New England, began to talk openly of looking for a wife and perhaps starting a family.  Bill’s male colleagues, who had been entertained by his earlier sexual exploits, were amused by his transformation.  Privately they began to refer to him as Bill Squared.

Bill found a wife two years later through a dating service called ForPlay, which operated out of a former fitness club and karate studio on Broadway.  It catered to athletes, arranging dates around workouts and sports—skiing, tennis, swimming, even swing dancing. This appealed to Bill.  As a boxer, he had done a lot of roadwork and weight training.  To stay youthful looking he had continued working out long after he stopped fighting.  So, when Bill read a feature article on dating services in the Providence Sunday Journal, he canceled his health club membership at Gold’s Gym on Bald Hill Road and signed up with ForPlay.  He liked their policy of no embarrassing interviews (“Well, after graduate school at NYU…”) or videotapes (“Hi—SMILE—my name is_______”) or newspaper ads (“SDWM loves walking on the beach, candlelit dinners, and stimulating conversation”).  ForPlay was just a chance to find a healthy mate.  In that way Bill met Wendy on a fun run, scrambling along Blackstone Boulevard on a Sunday afternoon in late April, passing five younger men to catch up to her because he liked what he saw from behind.  He was pleased she was a marathoner.  He wanted a woman who could go the distance.  They began to work out together—five mile runs and resistance training.  By the following January they were married.  She was thirty-seven and wanted children before it was too late.  Bill was fifty-eight and wanted to give Wendy anything that would make her love him.  Now at sixty-one he was trying to become a father.  And now Johnny Carson was razzing Doc Severson about his sportscoat looking like something a pimp would wear to an Easter egg hunt.  Johnny was saying “Where’s the hat with the Peacock feather?  What’s up, Doc?”  Ed McMahon was hysterical.  He cackled and hooted.  His head snapped back, then slumped between his knees as he fought to control his joy.  Finally Ed straightened up, wiped tears from his eyes and cut to a commercial for Tidy Bowl.

“Uh oh,” Wendy said.  “I’m bleeding.”

 

Wendy closed her eyes, leaned back in the passenger seat of their Saab station wagon, and pressed a supersize maxipad between her legs.  Bill drove through rain slick streets and swiped at the foggy windshield with a white towel.  The defroster had died several Sundays ago on their way to the United Church of Christ on Angell, and, although the car was still under warranty, they hadn’t found the time to get it to the dealer’s in Pawtucket yet.  Down Prospect and up Waterman there was almost no traffic.  But as Bill passed Hope, he realized that he was going the wrong direction from habit.  Accustomed to driving Wendy to the Ob-Gyn suite in Wayland Square for fertility treatments and monthly checkups, he had driven her away from the hospital not toward it.   There was no traffic, so he ran the light at Brooke, doubling back toward Hope, then Wickendon and the Point Street Bridge.  He checked his rearview mirror and listened for sirens.  The night was very dark.  Rain sluiced in the gutters and swept twigs and scraps of newspaper into storm sewers.  A Basset Hound frowned wrinkles as it lapped water from a puddle on the broken sidewalk under a streetlight.  The headlights cast small pale yellow pools on the pavement.  They reminded Bill of broken egg yolks.  As he passed beneath the freeway and approached Dudley, he could see the sickly green mercury vapor lights that marked the entrance to Women and Infant’s Hospital.  They made Bill want to vomit.  Hang on, Sloopy, Bill thought.  Hang on. 

The car felt like a cinderblock on wheels; he wondered if he was losing the steering as well as the defroster; Bill wrestled it into the space in front of the glass double doors marked EMERGENCY ROOM.  The asphalt was crosshatched with yellow lines, and a red neon sign read AMBULANCE ONLY.  Bill put on his hazard lights and leaned on the horn until he could see a blur of white coats and stethoscopes appear through the wavy path of the windshield wipers.  The Emergency Room doors burst open, and the water cascading off the roof broke all around them as EMTs pulled Wendy from the car, put her on a gurney, and wheeled her into the hospital with a blood pressure cuff already inflating around her left arm and Wendy holding up the blood soaked pad with her right hand and an EMT pressing Wendy’s hand back down against her crotch and hollering for her to just keep the pressure right on it.

Bill lowered his head to the steering wheel.  The windshield wipers thumped, thumped, thumped like an endless succession of barred doors closing.  Even with his eyes shut the sign’s red glow colored his thoughts.  Without this baby to keep him young, how could Wendy still love him?  He thought, who am I kidding?   I must have been dreaming!  For the first time he could picture himself alone, toothless, hooked up to an IV drip, lying in a nursing home like the one where he had visited his father when the old man was dying of heart trouble.  And like a split screen in a movie, he could see Wendy, seemingly ageless, standing in a navy blue power suit offering her summation to a jury.  This image dissolved into one of their two lovebirds, Anna and Fritz, stretching their clipped wings and singing to the mirror in their cage.  Tonight he knew Anna was sitting on the small white marble that he and Wendy had substituted for the real egg, which they had destroyed after reading about the mortality rate of lovebird chicks in captivity.  Bill imagined Anna and Fritz together now wrapped in silence and darkness by the night curtain.  Then his throat tightened and his eyes watered.  Bill shifted into reverse, backed out of the restricted area, and hunted for a place where he could park the Saab.

 

The voice came from behind the brilliant white light above her.  “Rate your pain on a scale of one to ten, ten being the worst pain you ever had.”

Wendy lay swaddled in a gray blanket on the sterile examination table inside the emergency-room cubicle.  Her feet were in stirrups, and a doctor was probing between her legs.  “Oh.  Two.  I think.  You know.  Like cramps, maybe.”

“When did the bleeding start?

“About twenty minutes ago.  We were watching Johnny Carson.  I felt this wetness between my legs.”

“Did you do anything strenuous today?  Lift anything?”

“No, I’ve cut way back on my running.  I stretched a little.  My husband and I had sex this morning after breakfast.  You think that could trigger it?”

“Did intercourse hurt?”

“No.  To tell you the truth, it felt terrific.  Better than usual.

“Good.  Just what Mother Nature intended.  That way, you’ll probably do it again.  If sexual activity isn’t painful, and it’s not too . . .ah . . . . athletic, it can actually be beneficial up until about the eighth month.  It usually keeps the parents happy, and if they’re happy. . .”

Wendy shifted on the examination table, recoiling from the pressure of the cold instruments against her pelvis.  The sanitary paper crinkled under her.  Her voice was suddenly husky.  “I lost the first one.  I don’t want to lose this one.”  She cleared her throat.  “I gave up biking.  And I’ll give up running altogether if I have to.  Just tell me.  I mean, I’ve cut back to six miles a week anyway, you know, like three two-mile runs?  And I swim laps when I can get to the pool at the Y.”

The doctor slipped Wendy’s feet from the stirrups and set them down gently.  She pulled Wendy’s green hospital Johnny down.  “It’s better to stay active if you can.  But walk, don’t run.  Swimming’s okay.  Most women know not to overdo.  However, the bleeding is a concern.  It isn’t just spotting.  On the other hand, it’s just about stopped now.”  The doctor turned off the examination light, and pulled her mask off.  “Some bleeding during early stage pregnancy is not uncommon.  But you’re, what now?  Four months?  Five?”

Wendy tried to blink away the dark spot in her eyes left by the examination light.  She could barely read the physician’s face, just making out a woman of about fifty in green scrubs, short blond hair protruding beneath a paper cap, no makeup.  “Almost five.”

The doctor nodded.  “Yeah, okay.  So, I want an ultrasound.  It won’t hurt anything, and it might tell us something.”

Wendy turned her head to follow the doctor as she edged around the foot of the examination table and held out a hand to help her sit up.  Wendy felt lightheaded.  “I’m not sure I want to know.”

Abruptly, the doctor crossed the cubicle, picked up a second blanket, returned, and draped it around Wendy’s shoulders.  “It’s always better to know.  That’s the only way we can help you have a healthy baby.  I think you’d be surprised how much the medical profession does know.  We’ve got so many options now.”  She glanced again at Wendy’s chart.  “Anyway, I’ll make sure this episode gets into your file so you can go over it with your regular Ob-Gyn, who is Dr. . . . ah . . .oh, looks you’ve got a whole team working on this.  A year and a half of fertility treatments with Wayland Gynecological Associates.  You’re in good hands.  Those guys have childbearing down to a science.”

“We’ll I’m forty, and I guess science got me this far.  But it seems more like a miracle.”

The doctor took a pen from her breast pocket and began writing on the patient chart.  She glanced up.  “Yeah.  We see those, too.  Now let’s get that ultrasound.”

 

Bill punched in the security code, shutting off the alarm system in their Prospect Street home.  He glanced at the darkened stairwell leading up to the master bedroom as he helped Wendy out of her wet raincoat.  He hung it up with his own double-breasted trench coat in the hall closet and shut the door.  He threw the keys down on the dining room table, pulled out an end chair, and collapsed into it.  “I’m beat,” he sighed.  “And I wasn’t even the one doing the bleeding.”

Wendy slipped up behind Bill and placed a large envelope on the table.  Then she bent and put her arms around his neck.  She kissed him on the ear.  “Oh, I don’t know.  You looked pretty white in the face.”  She straightened up and massaged his neck with both hands, digging her fingers in deep like a boxer’s corner man loosening him up for the next round.  His muscles were rigid.  Wendy sighed.  “You know what?”

Bill tipped his head back against Wendy’s belly, hoping to feel movement.  Instead he felt the rising and falling of her breath on the top of his head.  He wondered if he was getting a little bald.  The need to feel his son had become an ache too profound to be massaged away.  It made him weak.  He thought, give me a poke, kid.  Give me a kick in the head.  Your old man is out here waiting.  Finally, Bill grunted, “No, what?”

“I’m starving.  I wish Johnny Rockets up on Thayer Street were open.  I’d get a deluxe hamburger with lots of onions, French fries, a frosty chocolate malt.”

“Yeah, but it’s closed.  It’s, what?”  Bill looked at his Swiss Army watch; there was a Red Cross embossed beneath the numbers.  “A little after midnight.  Nothing’s open.  Nothing but emergency rooms and bars.”  He turned and looked up at Wendy.  “Is this an emergency?  I could pop some corn.”

“That sounds good.  Pop the good stuff, the Orville whatshisface.  The kind where all the kernels pop.  You know, no old maids.”

Bill heaved himself up and took Wendy’s hands in his.  He pushed fatigue aside, forcing himself to speak.  “There are always going to be a few lonely old maids,” he said.  “But you’re not going to be one of them.  I won’t let that happen.”

Wendy stood on her tiptoes and pressed her forehead against Bill’s.  She thought of a lovebird staring at its own reflection in a mirror.  “I know,” she said.  “But it’s not entirely up to you.  I don’t care how tough you are.  That’s too big a responsibility for anybody.  We can’t control everything.”

“So what do we do?”

“We hope.”

“What if we lose this one, too?”

“Cross that bridge when we come to it.”

“It might be too late for me.”

“It might be too late for both of us.”

“So what do we do?”

“What we can.  Let’s look at it one more time.”

Bill let go of Wendy, then, turned toward the table, and slid the grainy black and white image from its beige envelope as if he were the one giving birth.  There it was on the table.  Together they stood, heads bowed, staring at the 8 1/2 X 11 Polaroid enlargement of the ultrasound monitor.  It seemed like a miracle, this projecting sound through flesh and blood to create a shadowy image of more flesh and blood.  There was Sloopy, one hand clutching his umbilical cord, the other raised as if waving to his parents.  Bill’s voice was a hoarse whisper.  “I don’t know if he’s waving hello or goodbye.”

Wendy ran an index finger over the image of her son’s upraised hand, then turned to Bill.  “Damnit, don’t!  Don’t you dare do that to us!”  She paused, fighting for control.  “We’ve got to believe it’s hello.  If you love me, give me that much.”

Bill placed his hand on top of hers.  “Jesus, Wendy, it’s all about probabilities!  When I look at the numbers, it’s hard not to be pessimistic.”  He squeezed his wife’s hand.  “I do love you.  I love you no matter what.”

Wendy swallowed.  Her voice was hoarse.  “This is family were talking about now, not some abstraction.  This is as personal as it can get.  Both of us have got to believe we’re going to be parents.  Both, okay?  All I’ve seen of our son is this crummy looking Polaroid, and I already love him more than I’ve ever loved anything.”

Bill raised Wendy’s fist, unclenched it, and kissed the palm.  “Me, too.  I think we have to show him.  Let’s give him a sign.”  Slowly Bill went down on one knee at Wendy’s feet, like a boxer knocked halfway to the canvas and waiting for the count.  He began to hum “Hang on Sloopy, Sloopy, Hang on,” resting his face against her belly so that their son might hear.  Wendy joined in on the second chorus, singing the lyrics softly.  Over the sound of their voices they could hear the lovebirds in the darkness hanging over them.  Anna shredding more newspaper for the nest and Fritz pecking against the bars.

Don Kunz taught literature, creative writing, and film studies at the University of Rhode Island for 36 years.  His essays, poems, and short stories have appeared in over sixty literary journals.  Don has retired to Bend, Oregon, where he writes fiction and poetry, volunteers, studies Spanish, and is learning to play the Native American Flute.




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