When I was in my third trimester, I discovered the peaches at a farm stand near my house. The stand was a tented, dusty, open-air market on the side of the road; one I passed every week on my way to the organic grocery store. Oh, the peaches: they were orbs of pure sun, and I ate them the way they were meant to be, devoured standing at the sink, juice running down my chin, my belly making me lean at an uncomfortable angle. Twice a week I went back, dragging home sacks of the red-gold fruits that made their way to my Ohio kitchen all the way from South Carolina. My “eat local” zealotry was temporarily weakened on the day I tasted that first peach.
The men at the farm stand came to know me — I was hard to miss at nine months pregnant, after all — and they smiled and called out when they saw me waddling in from the gravel parking lot. One of the younger men bragged one afternoon about having four children, his face alight as he exclaimed how amazing his wife was. He made the well-worn joke about getting my sleep now, one I had already heard too many times to count, and even though I smiled at his recommendation, the unending counsel from strangers was beginning to wear on me.
My confidence was wobbly at best. I had grown up steeped in violence, my mother’s hands wielding wooden spoons, rubber-backed slippers, pink plastic hangers, all aimed at my flesh with the sole intent of draining her rage. For most of my adult life, I was convinced that this violence was dredged into my muscle and bone, that it had permanently altered me and that I did not possess the soft, pink center required for the art and skill of mothering. By the time I was pregnant in my mid-thirties, I believed I had healed, but my footing was still quite unsteady. I harbored a secret but very tangible fear that all these kibitzers possessed information I didn’t; I feared that any convictions I held would melt away under the compression and restriction of motherhood, causing me to revert to my early conditioning.
One afternoon in August, not long before my due date, my husband accompanied me to the farm stand for the first time. When I shuffled up to the wooden table that held the register with my customary bag of peaches, the oldest man working at the stand began chatting with my husband. My husband is Italian, and seems to find other Italians everywhere we go; he was pleased to discover a fellow countryman, and they exchanged last names and family hometowns. The wiry old man was missing a few of his teeth, and some of his fingers were cracked and dry, several fingernails split. The enormous metal fan above our heads blew his shaggy salt-and-pepper hair as they talked.
The conversation turned to my pregnancy and our looming introduction to parenthood. Maybe it was the veneer of familiarity we created over the weeks, or maybe it was the conversation with my husband, some need to connect with another man, but the old man asked what we were having — a boy — and then began to pontificate.
“Now, you’ve got to start young when you teach them,” he said, raising his eyebrows almost paternally as he looked at us. “It’s never too early.”
We smiled and nodded in a noncommittal way. We knew what was coming: a host of platitudes. We’d already heard it all. The old man continued.
“Listen, when my son was a couple months old,” he said, “my wife was so tired. She was just plain crazy, a real mess. That baby would sleep all day and then cry all night. He just wore her out. So I told her I’d take him one night so she could get some sleep.” Here he got a twinkle in his eye. “Then when he started up with that crying, I just took my hand and smacked him a good one on his bottom.”
He smiled as he swatted the air with a rigid hand to demonstrate how to hit a newborn.
I stopped breathing. Next to me, my husband was very still.
“My wife heard him screaming and came running into the room and grabbed him, yelling at me, ‘What did you DO?’” he said, his grin unwavering, his hands fluttering in the air as he mocked her long-ago voice in a falsetto.
“Oh, she was furious with me, but you know what? That boy never cried again at night after that.” He pointed a finger at us — a gun, cocked — for emphasis.
We were stunned into silence. We mumbled goodbye and walked to our car, loading the peaches into the back before we collapsed into the pod of air-conditioned air. We didn’t say anything for a moment. Eventually we shared our horror, our disgust, in low tones. I was appalled and also righteously convinced that I was incapable of inflicting such abuse. And yet I could still hear it: that wicked little voice that reminded me that I was here and the parents were over there, that I could not know what I was capable of, that I could not know what was necessary, until I stepped my toes across that divide and became one of them.
Later, after our son is born, I will disintegrate in the crazy-making depletion that only new motherhood can induce. I will pick vicious fights with my husband, I will collapse in a lake of tears and leaking milk for a long string of days that turn into weeks, I will wail into my pillow instead of screaming at my baby when he will not sleep. On one particularly long afternoon when he is six weeks old and he will not stop screaming, I place him in his swing in the bedroom, walk into the living room, and shriek at the top of my lungs for him to Stop crying! Stop crying! Stop crying! I feel nothing except the blackest desperation. When I have emptied my lungs of my frustration, I return to the swing and pick him up and hold him tight. I am empty and frail and shaking, but I have not hurt him.
I will beg my obstetrician for something to help me sleep, something to help me relax, anything at all to help me learn my way through this new way of life, and then, when she gives me the magic pills, I will not take them because the label tells me the medication is expressed in breast milk. On those dark nights when my baby vaporizes the precious elixir of sleep with his pitiful yowls, I will not hit him. It does not appear even as a fleeting thought in the darkest corner of my sleep-shattered mind. The stains of long-ago violence do not burble to the surface and tempt me to strike him even once. I treasure this little blossom of confidence: my convictions have held steadfast. I contain within me exactly what I need to mother this child. It is my first step into real motherhood, over to the other side.
I think of the old man and I shiver, and think to myself: I am not you.
The following summer, we will buy peaches at the farm stand again, but they will be soft and slightly shriveled within a day of bringing them home, their texture mealy. We never see the old man again.