My mother had exotic wounds: a deaf ear, a scar down her chest. My brother and I would whisper shocking things into that one bad ear, hoping to trick her into listening. We could not believe an ear on our mother refused to hear, that it could be an ornamental thing hidden under the feathers of her dark brown hair.
When we swam at the city pool my slim young mother wore a floral print bikini and dangled her feet off the edge of the pool next to her friend Debbie. The delicate scar left from an open-heart surgery pointed from my mother’s neck to her navel. My brother and I dog-paddled away from my mother, dove under the water, then frog-kicked back to her feet. We would duck at the pool’s edge, daring to move away from her, daring to come closer and rise out of the water with a giggle. As I saw my mother’s long white scar against her tanned body, I imagined this was how my brother and I were born. Her heart opened up and we climbed out of it, swam away in the glittering water and sunshine, only to swim back again, to trouble her feet to make sure she was still there.
My mother seemed at any moment capable of disappearing. Not running away, exactly, but simply fading, as if she was living in a way that was not quite real. My own daughter, no matter what she is doing, periodically yells “Mama!” just to make sure I am around. I remember that feeling of mother as a temporary thing, a thing which must be perpetually invoked or lost forever.
As soon as I learned to write, I learned to write my mother love notes. Similarly, my daughter learned to write my name before she learned to write her own. Perhaps these notes that I hid in my mother’s purse or her pantyhose drawer were secret incantations that would make my mother, whose connection with life seem so tenuous, stick around. Perhaps my daughter feels that if she labels everything she draws with the letters of her mother’s name, I will never leave her.
When I was three, and my brother was in school, my mother and I would spend mornings in Debbie’s tall Victorian house. Debbie and my mother would drink coffee in the kitchen. Debbie’s daughter, Melissa, exactly twenty days older than me, was my first best friend. She was a mouse of a girl, with mousey brown hair and mousey eyes and a pointy little nose and a squeaking voice.
Melissa had baby dolls — hard plastic, coarse haired, some with holes for
peeing and drinking. Still others had eyes that opened and shut, and textured waves of tinted plastic that suggested hair. When we played with baby dolls in Melissa’s attic room, we entered into a tacit agreement. We were not the mothers of these babies: we were simply concerned citizens. The babies we tended arrived by means other than birth or adoption, most often the result of a disaster on a mountain, usually a tragic forest fire, that compelled their real mothers to throw them through the air to us at level ground.
The orphan fantasy is a popular concept in juvenile literature. In order for a good story to get started, the real parents have to be done away with. The mountain disaster scenario of our doll play must have been a preschool version of this. We could not play with these dolls if we were expected to act like real parents. We must have been aware, at least subconsciously, that motherhood was an awesome chore. By rescuing our babies from tragic circumstances, our attachment to them was not some sort of emotional slavery, but an act of compassion. The slightest care we gave these babies was heroic, and we were free to leave the babies and eat cookies, or make mud pies, or run a race.
Our mothers were not so lucky. They would chat for hours in the kitchen, laughing about things we couldn?t imagine, and then come upstairs to find Melissa’s room dusted with baby powder and her dolls bloody with Debbie’s
fuchsia lipstick. They couldn’t just put us back on the mountain, so they would scold us, and we would watch them clean up our mess. Even when we misbehaved, Melissa and I were certain that we would marry each other or at
least be best friends forever.
I didn’t marry Melissa, or even stay friends with her. Her life became cheerleading and church group. I was an edgier girl, more prone to wearing black and reading Russian novels. I last saw her four years ago, in the hospital after I had birthed my first baby. Melissa was huge with her own child, and she and her mother had shown up to see mine. I was crazy with heartbreak over the drama in the hospital that resulted in my daughter spending days in the neonatal intensive care. Melissa was crazy with expectations. We both blushed as our mothers reminded us of the hours we spent with our baby dolls. I imagine we both secretly panicked as we realized what miserable preparation those dolls had been for the work ahead.
Despite my recurring pregnancy dream of mistaking my baby for a teddy bear and leaving her in a suitcase, I knew the magnetism of mother love as soon as my daughter worked out of me and into my arms, bloody and wide eyed. Although my daughter was soon hooked up to machines in the NICU. Though I was only allowed to bring her out of her plastic bin to nurse her on a set schedule, I felt her pulling on me like an anchor. I would wake up drowned in sweaty terror in the hospital room those first few days of my daughter’s life,
wondering where my baby could be. I would call her name in sleepy fear as
she now calls my name to help her climb out of a bad dream.
Soon after I last saw Melissa, her daughter was born dead. My mother said her family grieved over everything: the fruitless pain of labor, the loss of the family’s first grandchild, the medical pronouncement that due to a genetic disorder a stillbirth might happen again and again. I can imagine Melissa now, in the deep part of her sleep, searching the base of every mountain for her lost child.
This cord between mother and daughter is wicked in its attachment, pulled so tight we feel it could at any second break. Someday, my mother and her long,
delicate scar will fade away from me, and I will no longer be able to whisper
outrageous riddles in her one bad ear. Someday, my daughter could call out “Mama!” and discover that I have disappeared. Melissa and I were smart to care for babies only as concerned bystanders, smart to protect ourselves from the disaster on the mountain that can be mothering. When we took the step towards welcoming our own children, we exposed our hearts to the randomness of experience. Like all mothers, we now bear our own exotic wounds.