Underneath the basement stairs of the Walter Vincent Smith Art Museum in Springfield, Massachusetts, there was a tiny bathroom. It had a green wooden door with a loose brass knob. The door’s paint was chipped away here and there and splotches of pale green, cream, and taupe showed where the past poked through. The top of the door was cut at an angle to fit the sloping A-shaped opening beneath the stairs. I loved this; I loved the way the door and the space fit like spooned lovers. Inside the bathroom there was a small triangular enamel sink with bulbous-thumbed taps marked Hot and Cold on their enamel discs. It was set snugly into a corner. There was an old commode, and an oval mirror hung above the sink. In the mirror itself was my face: blue-eyed, tired-eyed, deep-eyed with the expression of a whitetail doe—one of simultaneous fear and ethereal calm, as if always bearing a fawn, all spotted and wet, about to land so gingerly on this earth that might eat it alive or cradle it in its palm. That look.
I went there, to the gray granite art museum, and to that tiny bathroom, every Tuesday evening during the winter of 1991. I would drop the dangling L-shaped latch into its partnered ring to lock the door and in there I would sigh, happy. I smiled into the mirror, slowly peeled off my blouse, stretchy pants, and underthings, and shrugged into the forest-green velour dressing gown my mother had given me a decade earlier for my seventeenth birthday. It had demure red and white smocking stitches across the top that bunched the mossy fabric, now making room for my swelling breasts. It had a long, prim column of little, white, flower-shaped buttons running down the front, and I did up all of those that I could, one flower at a time. I took bobby pins from my bag and held them between taut lips, studying my hair in the mirror as I pinned it up and left a tendril loose to curl on my collarbone like a soft brown snake. That was for the artists, they appreciated curve, shadow, and metaphor, and I was more than glad to provide those as I had plenty. I was six months pregnant, already large enough that there was the question of twins, and the rising hemisphere of my belly peeked out through the front of the dressing gown, curious.
I modeled at the museum for an art class. Nude. I did not tell my husband. I said, in half-truth, that I was sitting for a portrait class. I am not sure why I hid the truth. Perhaps it was because he was working hard in those days, as a medical student, and I hated to disturb him with my non-scientific yearnings. Perhaps it was that I needed my own tiny universe, without him in it, to retreat to when I was first hit by the tidal wave of what it meant to be pregnant in our own White, intellectual America.
It was an unsettled time. We had just returned from four years in Zaire, where we’d met as Peace Corps volunteers and had felt deeply, warmly welcomed. Back in the noisy, cold, chaotic United States—theoretically our home—we plunged dutifully into the culture and began grad studies in Boston: he in medical school and I in education. We had dreams of returning to Africa, to work in refugee camps. Meanwhile, though, it was a shock, that abrupt leap into cerebral North American academia. But it was not the first one. After my first degree I became pregnant, and during that year we moved to Springfield, a small city two hours west, where my husband worked and I floated in the nether world between a master’s and a doctorate, and between holding a child in my belly before holding it in my arms.
I travelled that year too, back and forth between the worlds of rural western Massachusetts, where I drove a horse and carriage for a living, and Harvard, where I was an academic. As my belly grew more between each of my trips back to Harvard, my classmates stared openly. There was no one else visibly pregnant in the Education school at that time. Students were focused on getting degrees, getting ahead, getting scholarships, getting better positions or into upper level academia. On campus, I walked a gauntlet of, “Oh no, what happened?”, “Did you mean to do that?”, and “How are you going to pay for it?”. Pregnancy was not admirable, at least not in my academic world; on the contrary, it revealed a remarkable lack of good judgment. At Harvard, it was as if I had been living in the Garden of Knowledge and eaten from the Tree of Pleasure and was therefore, by some, cast out. Or at least so I imagined; either way, it felt the same. By the end of that winter of pregnancy, and of negotiating the commute between Springfield (where I was the Fecund Wife) and Cambridge (where I was the Fallen Researcher), I had both gained and lost so much.
I was delighted to be pregnant, it was just that the world around me did not seem delighted. I had never felt so divorced from myself at the same time that I loved myself. I would lie, as perhaps all new mothers do, with my hands on the rising globe of my middle and feel for heels, kicks, and a head. Against both the skin of my palms and the bowl of my pelvis I would feel this child roll inside me, first like a goldfish, then a cod, eventually a curled and slippery seal. At night, I would spoon up against my exhausted young husband and feel the vibration of his deep breathing ripple into the child inside me.
It was at those times, as I lie on our mattress on the floor and breathed in tandem with Laszlo, my hands cupping this child inside me, that my heart traveled too. It liked to go back to Zaire, where “Mama” was a term of the greatest honor and where women displayed their pregnant bellies as if they were prize pumpkins. I remembered how when a woman got pregnant for the first time, it was called her Red Year and for that entire year, she was free from having to do any physical labor at all: no cutting sugar cane, no digging manioc, not even carrying water on her head back from the well. Instead, she became like an incarnation of a wandering goddess, and as she went through the village the people would feed her meals of mashed plantains and smoked monkey, fresh fish and greens in peanut sauce, papayas and taro root, and the coiled, white, as-yet-unfurled sprouts of a plant whose mature leaves were the size of turkey platters. The new mother would grow plump on food, on love, on fertility, and on respect. The other women would make a red paint from the earth and paint her with it regularly, their strong hands running over her firm belly like a blessing, then over and over her entire blossoming body until she was covered head to toe in red. She wore a skirt—of cloth or, in some places, of grasses—slung low under her moon of a belly, and that was all. She was a smiling red Venus.
I wanted that. I wanted older women’s hands on my belly and stroking clayey paint there. I wanted the welcome. I wanted fed. I wanted the acknowledgment that this was Life; I was bringing forth Life, not birthing a financial liability, or a glitch in my academic career. I wanted pregnancy to be a period when I would gladly give up my body for a time to represent the sphere that is the earth and the endless loop that is time. I wanted to become One with all around me. But none of that happened. Instead, I was probed with jelly-covered vaginal ultrasound wands, listened to with cold stethoscopes as the doctor spoke to me with gentle condescension while focusing his eyes on the floor tiles and his ears on listening for an acceptable heartbeat, not for universal joy. I felt as if I had become nothing more than a capsule for procreation, which, the fun of sex aside, was viewed as a messy necessity leading to an undeniably long contract.
Aside from my husband, there was one exception in this mass of my population: one day an African American man on the bus with me stood up to get off at his stop and, as he passed, nodded at my belly in serene approval and said, “Respect, man, respect.” That moment was an oasis of pure water in an otherwise dry landscape. I felt such a yearning while pregnant, a yearning for something I could not name but it had to do with being truly seen—not seen as me even, but seen as bearing the seed of life that brought us all here.
Not long after that, I passed by a flyer in Springfield: “Art models needed.” The money was good, and the location just around the corner from our house. I did not even think about it, I applied. I had begun modeling for art classes in college to impress a fellow student, Tom, who had a big grin and loopy black curls. He modeled. I took it as a dare to do so too. I was a terribly shy person and a virgin. The first day of college modeling, I dripped puddles of nervous sweat onto the floor beneath the tall wooden stool I posed on. And yet, at the same time, it was exhilarating. It was the first time since I’d grown breasts in fifth grade that I felt I was taking something of my body’s power back from the culture that wanted it for its own purposes.
The Springfield Art Museum accepted me as a model too. I looked forward to it. I loved the smell of the art room: the thick scent of clay paired with the sweet-acrid one of acrylic paint. I loved the scritch-scritch of charcoal pencils leaving curved lines on broad tablets of paper. I loved the whispered patter of occasional conversation between the teacher and her students, the sounds rising and falling like the notes sung by distant birds in a forest. After the hubbub of the city outside, the music of the art classroom sounds was as soft as a stream. It soothed me, and it swirled around me like I imagined my amniotic fluid swirled around my baby, cradling it.
This class, as it turned out, was all women. The teacher was a woman too. I would step out of the little bathroom with its angled door under the stairs and walk down the hallway to the classroom, my maternity clothes stuffed into a plastic grocery bag held at my side. The teacher, Annie, would have arranged the students’ easels in a circle around a low, round dais, and on that she would have spread an arrangement of big soft pillows, covered by a black or white satiny drape. Annie would fluff and tug and plump the pillows and the drape, getting them to where the fabric flowed like a river over stones and to where she hoped I would be most comfortable. She would set up lights to help the students yet not shine in my eyes. She would arrange little electric heaters, whose coils would hum and glow red in the winter evening in that basement, to keep me warm. She would bring water and set it by the platform, and when I slipped my dressing gown from my full body, she would take it from me with two hands outstretched as if it were the robe of a queen, bending forward slightly and backing away a step before turning to hang it on a hook by the paint cupboard. I do not think she was aware of this small obeisance. I was not aware either until years later, pondering why the atmosphere of that room held so much sacred energy. Back then I thought it was just the magic of art.
The women gathered around in a circle. They eyed and measured and murmured. They went back to their easels and began to draw, in silence. And that is when the hush descended until all I heard was the slow clicking of the heater and the arcing and skimming of pencil across paper and my own breathing. I felt their eyes on me, but for the first time in hours or days or sometimes weeks, these were eyes on me with no judgment. They saw shadow and light, curve and weight. They wondered. They expressed on paper the shape of this one form of Nature, a pregnant human female, in all its rotund hope. Nowhere else, except perhaps in the embrace of my husband, did I feel that the sacred nature of pregnancy was acknowledged. This was the closest I would get to having my Red Year. There would be no plantains and no fish, but I would be fed with appreciation for sharing this form, and be painted not on my body but onto canvas, and that was enough. There in the basement of the art museum, I got to experience for an hour something essential, something beyond me—the gorgeous red of which soaked into my skin and has never washed out.