I hold a friend’s baby at church. Five weeks old, his slender fingers with perfect oval nails clutch my pointer extended to him. His eyes, not yet their actual color, are pale blue. He smacks his lips, and roots around my shirt for his mother’s nipple. Disappointed, a small wail escapes his rosebud mouth; an attempt at a battle cry. His complaint falls to the ground, void of the power required to ruffle me, a veteran mother of four. I prop him up on my shoulder and pat his tightened back muscles. He relaxes. His head droops. I sigh. He sighs. We both close our eyes.
Two strangers, one seasoned and one new, bump into a moment of freedom through the sensation of belonging to one another on a Sunday morning. The minister preaches. Legs cross and uncross. People shuffle in their velvet chairs. They leaf through thin pages of scripture, cough, sneeze, sleep, and nod. The newborn in my arms will grow. He’ll crawl, walk, run, build a life of his own, and yet the freedom experienced by clinging to his mother’s damp skin, of being exactly who he is — and loved for it — a mystical maternal belonging, will stay with him. He’ll search for it throughout his life.
Three recent short story collections, The Beautiful One Has Come, by Suzanne Kamata, Shout Her Lovely Name by Natalie Serber, and This Crowded Night by Elrena Evans, all address ordinary people trapping moments of motherly belonging as a means to the individual, spiritual, and cultural freedoms we all desire — connections that often come, like my own with that new baby, when they least anticipate it. Kamata keys in on the necessity of cultural freedom as a means of belonging, while Serber and Evans tackle other examples of freedom such as individual and religious.
In “Hawaiian Hips,” the second story out of twelve well-crafted pieces that make up The Beautiful One Has Come by Suzanne Kamata, an American expatriate lives with her Japanese husband in a small island town off the edge of the Inland Sea. After five years, Beth still considers herself an outsider even though Japanese women no longer look into her shopping cart to see what kind of toilet paper she buys. She joins a Hula class and befriends Victor, a gay American instructor from Hawaii. Kamata, an expatriate herself living with her Japanese husband and children in his homeland, tells the story from a knowledgeable vantage point, thus confidently allowing the reader to exist within the pages of small-town Japan. Beth and Victor stumble into mothering one another. Beth’s sound advice and listening ear mother Victor through his tumultuous relationship with his Japanese lover. Victor mothers Beth with conversations in a familiar tongue. In doing so, he fills in a cavernous desire in Beth; he gives her the freedom of belonging, after living for years in a culture that is still not truly hers.
Natalie Serber, author of Shout Her Lovely Name, also addresses the notion of maternal belonging as a means to personal freedom. The title story, written powerfully in second-person present tense, features an anorexic daughter and a worried-out-of-her-mind mother, each shackled by disease and desperate for freedom. They orbit around each other, counting handfuls of dry roasted almonds, and jabbing at one another with words. The mother fears she does everything wrong and will lose her daughter. “Worry terribly. Feel like a failure: like a chubby-stupid-no-life-fucking-bitch-loser.” Anorexia fixes a great gulf in the family. “You are each alone, your daughter in her room, your husband on the toilet, you in the tub. You’re each in your private little suffering-bubble.” The mother realizes she can’t save her daughter. The child must learn how to mother herself back to health and freedom while her mother stands helpless, watching. “Open your arms wide. Your daughter is getting nearer. Know that it is up to her. Say her lovely name. Know that it is up to her. Shout her lovely name.”
Elrena Evans, author of This Crowded Night, brings women’s voices from the New Testament to life in narratives steeped with history, bravery, and vigor and grasps at notions of maternal belonging as a means to religious and feminist freedom otherwise unseen and unwarranted in the ancient world. In “The First Stone,” a woman accused of adultery is bent before a crowd of people waiting for someone to throw the stone that will ultimately lead to her death. The story tenderly retells the unexpected love that occurs between her and a young fisherman. Her life with her husband had been amiable. Old enough to be her father, he is her best friend, but the young wife has never experienced sexual arousal until the fisherman appears at her table. “I heard my accusers talking to the man Yeshua; he must have been summoned to pass my sentence. It seemed a trivial matter with which to occupy such a notorious man; the law clearly stated I was to die.” Yeshua crouched by the woman and drew something in the sand. “’If any one of you is without sin,’ I heard Yeshua say, ‘let him be the first to throw a stone at her.’ And I waited. Nothing happened. I waited.” In this narrative, Evans makes an excellent point regarding a fundamental aspect of belonging: it has nothing to do with perfection or with being worthy enough to belong. It has more to do with acceptance and being loved for who one is.
Each of these collections reveals important truths about the connection between maternal belonging and personal freedom. The notion of belonging as a cemented pathway to personal freedom appears through such unlikely relationships as two Americans bonding in a Japanese town, a worried mother and her anorexic daughter, and a young adulteress who is given another shot at life from someone she hadn’t been given the option to believe in. Helping another human being belong is not limited to mothers. In a way, we all walk through this world grabbing at handfuls of slippery freedom from anyone willing to give it. These books of short stories by Kamata, Serber, and Evans offer opportunities to acknowledge, expect, and accept unlikely maternal interactions that push hearts to feel free, at least for a little while.