All posts by Wildtrumpetvine

Working the System: Getting the Hang of High School Valentine’s Days

At my high school, the junior class began Valentine carnation sales in early February as a prom fund-raiser. During our freshman year, my two best friends and I didn’t grasp the magnitude of the event. I had had my wisdom teeth removed shortly before February 14 (a procedure that, amazingly, required a two-night hospital stay, the same as for the birth of my daughter), so I was preoccupied. But I clearly remember the day the carnations were distributed during homeroom. I didn’t receive any, and it was not pleasant. It was especially unpleasant to be surrounded by those who were greeted with bouquets scaled more appropriately for Derby-winning horses than for teenage girls. My memory may be somewhat warped here, but its essence is true. Those blessed with flowers carried them around from class to class all day long, so each hour brought with it a new group of lucky carnation-bearing kids.

 

As sophomores we got with the program. The three of us sent flowers to each other, the envelopes signed “from a Secret Admirer.” As an investment, we also bought carnations for several boys in our circle. We chose funny, thoughtful boys who were likely to return the favor next year. When the flowers were delivered, we each received an additional one from a senior boy who had taken a big-brotherly interest in the three of us. Getting three carnations, even if none was from a potential boyfriend, was far preferable to walking around all day with none.

The next year, the boys did their duty, and by that time, we all got a couple of flowers from other friends. We had learned how to work it, and the annual event had become almost enjoyable.

By senior year, the day was a real pleasure. My two old friends and I were closer than ever. We each sent a number of carnations and received quite a few. I had a boyfriend by then, and he came through with candy, as well. How wonderful to receive Valentine candy I could feel good about! My friends and I made GQ-spoof magazines for our favorite boys. We wrote silly captions for clippings snipped from National Lampoon, Seventeen, and a French fan magazine our teacher had suggested we subscribe to. We called it Hunky-Stud Quarterly: The Magazine for Discerning Gentlemen. We found it hilarious. The boys, though pleased, were probably not quite as bowled over by our humor.

It took us four years, but we had mastered the art of the high school Valentine’s Day. Unfortunately, we had to start from scratch again the following year, because things were different in college.

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My carnation cards from Valentine’s Day, senior year (of course I saved them).

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A rare edition of Hunky-Stud Quarterly. I have this copy because my high school boyfriend returned everything I had ever given him after we broke up.  He left it all on the front porch in the middle of the night.  Evidently he knew I would appreciate it more than he did.


And he was right.

The Best Part of Valentine’s Day: Before the Day

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One of my favorite childhood memories is sitting at the kitchen table, eating cinnamon red hots and making Valentines. I can see the bright February sunshine warming up the room. Popi would be sleeping nearby on the dining room rug. After a while we’d hear Daddy’s car come up the driveway as he arrived home from work. Before long it would be time for dinner. It’s a vision of complete, homey contentment.

When I was little, my mother and I would make our Valentines together. We’d each make one for Daddy, and she would help me with those I gave out to my classmates. We used all the typical materials: red and pink construction paper, doilies, flowers and hearts that we cut from old greeting cards. As I got older I might use watercolors to paint my own designs. Our supplies were far more limited in those days. There were no stores that stocked a nearly infinite variety of stickers, archival papers, fancy cutters, punches and the like. Martha Stewart was still just a hardworking caterer.

The preparatory time was what I enjoyed most. The lead-up was always better than the day itself. I have few recollections of an actual Valentine’s Day during elementary school. The clearest memory I have is painful. In fifth grade, a boy gave me a heart-shaped box of Valentine candy. Of course, he was not a boy that I “liked,” so the gesture made me feel sad and uncomfortable. I wished I liked him. I knew how he felt; I was familiar with the misery of unrequited love. I liked another boy who didn’t like me. Fortunately, though, I hadn’t given him a special gift that made me feel even worse.

This seemed to set the pattern for my Valentine’s Days throughout middle and high school. A card, flower or candy, if one came, would be from a nice boy I didn’t like. If I ventured out and gave a gift, it was unlikely to be reciprocated. Although I kept my expectations low, the day was either mildly disappointing or fraught with anxiety. Best, then, to enjoy making cards for my parents and a few extras that I could pin on my bulletin board, eat red hots, and appreciate the winter light.

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Sitting by the kitchen window prompted me to paint this Valentine tree.  I painted lots of heart-trees during my early teens.
They were easier than trees with other foliage.

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This heart is made from strips of rolled paper, inspired by a library book Mama found on the art of quilling.  Now, there are kits to do this type of thing.

Remembering Doug

Two weeks ago today, my friend Doug passed away. Doug had a zest for life that never flagged, despite the direness of the situation. He was a character. He was great company. He will be sorely missed.

Doug was known for his sharp memory, keen sense of humor, and flair for observing the odd detail, qualities that made him a compelling storyteller. He had copious amounts of material to draw on, including high school days in his native Seattle, where one of his classmates was Jimi Hendrix.

Doug had an exceptional ability to talk to anyone about anything. What’s more, he could make the exchange interesting. Early in his career he worked for the CDC in the effort to combat the spread of syphilis. He coached interviewers on effective methods for talking with syphilis patients about those to whom they may have spread the disease. If anyone could make a conversation about VD less uncomfortable, perhaps even verging on enjoyable, it was Doug. Not simply a skilled talker, Doug was a thoughtful listener and an engaging conversationalist. He delighted in the give and take of a spirited conversation. He would have been in his element with Samuel Johnson in the clubs and coffeehouses of eighteenth-century London, or with the circle of the recently deceased Christopher Hitchens.

Doug found his true calling in his career with the Fulton County Public Defender. His outlook made him uniquely suited to the position. He had a profound respect for all people. He empathized especially with underdogs and with those who had been dealt life’s poor hand. Doug took pleasure in getting to know his clients. He could see their admirable qualities despite the shadows of their terrible decisions and ill-advised deeds.

Doug was a dapper dresser with a discerning eye. For years, he and my father made an outing of the annual sale at Muse’s, the old Atlanta menswear store. Doug recognized style wherever it appeared. I remember his remarking on the classic élan of one of his clients who happened to be a transvestite. He was so impressed with her smartly tailored dress and lovely jewelry that, with a thought to his wife’s upcoming birthday, he asked for shopping references.

For the past two decades, Doug had suffered from syringomyelia, a rare degenerative neuromuscular disease. It began with a disturbing loss of balance first noticed during his neighborhood jogs. Over the years, it progressed at varying rates, leading toward a nearly complete loss of physical mobility and bringing with it a host of related issues. As the disease accelerated, Doug never lost his dignity or his ability to laugh. When he could no longer work, his computer and the Internet served as lifelines to keep him mentally active and in touch with his many friends and acquaintances. He continued to be a force in the legal community, appearing remotely on several occasions as a commentator on Court TV.

During our visits to Atlanta, my daughter and I liked to stop in to see Doug on our walks to the park. He and I discussed recent events and swapped memories of former neighbors. Doug was a great resource for entertainment trivia, and he never forgot names. He knew, for example, that Rashida Jones, who had just begun appearing on The Office, was the daughter of Quincy Jones and Peggy Lipton. Doug and I liked similarly offbeat movies and TV shows. I regret that I never got the chance to ask him if he watched Justified. Its dark, ironic humor would have appealed to him, I think. And in its colorful, flawed characters, he may have seen glimpses of his former clients.

When my daughter was very young, her primary motivation for stopping by Doug’s house (other than to marvel at his futuristic wheelchair) was the chance to see the elusive and fabulously fluffy Elvis the cat. Elvis is shy and typically avoids children. If we stayed long enough, though, he would usually appear from beneath the sofa, or slink in furtively from another room. After staring intently for a while, he sometimes allowed my daughter to pet him. Doug told D it was because she behaved in a calm and grown-up manner that Elvis was willing to trust her. But he didn’t condescend to children, and D came to enjoy talking with him as much as I did. She appreciated his addressing her as a full-fledged person, even when she was a preschooler. Doug asked interesting questions, and he heard her responses. He avoided the painful clichés children must often endure from well-meaning adults.

Doug’s devoted family was his greatest treasure. He never bragged, but he adored sharing amusing anecdotes about his beautiful wife and daughter, his handsome son. He chose Christmas and birthday gifts for his wife with the utmost care. To preserve the surprise, he had her presents sent to my parents’ house, where my mother would wrap them. Sometimes, however, his gifts needed no festive paper. As his illness increasingly confined him, he treated his wife to unusual thrills with an emphasis on motion: a flight in a hot air balloon, a ride in a speeding racecar. Doug was a NASCAR devotee. Anyone who thinks all NASCAR fans are cut from the same cloth never met Doug. His elegant wife is an even less likely fan, but under the influence of his enthusiasm, she became a convert.

After so much of his life spent in hospitals, subjected to a dizzying array of treatments and procedures, Doug took his last breath at home, asleep in his own bed. I like to think that where he is now, the opportunities for fascinating conversation are even more abundant. And he has no need, anymore, for that cool wheelchair.

Middle School Memorabilia, Part II

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Near the top of my miscellaneous middle school mementos was a stationery box containing several small notebooks I used as journals. My account of seventh grade begins on a cheap note pad shaped like a tulip and continues on others, equally makeshift. These messy little chronicles carried me back across the years, with jottings concerning such experiences and events as these: 

  • The chaos that accompanied every class change in that immense and heavily populated school. Unaccustomed to negotiating crowds, I was surprised at those who delighted in barreling their way through bullishly. By mid-winter I had come to enjoy the challenge of the crowded halls. It was valuable life training, useful in airports and on the streets of New York City.
  •  Locker drama. Considerable anxiety surrounded the necessity of learning my combination and opening the lock successfully in the midst of class-change turmoil. One day as I was focused on the lock, an unknown boy took hold of my long hair and kept walking. Another time, my locker was broken into and my money, all 45 cents of it, was stolen.
  • The opportunity to make friends from a broader, more diverse pool.  Many pages contained lists of my new friends and the wide spectrum of elementary schools they represented.
  • The obscenity-laced scuffles that broke out every day among a group of boys during art class. Thankfully, my table-mates, all girls, were a peaceful, non-confrontational group. As pandemonium exploded around us, we carried on resolutely with our drawing and painting. We quickly learned that some problems can be avoided by simply pretending they do not exist. The teacher, who could neither ignore the commotion nor deal with it, was often in tears at the end of class.
  • Hobo Day, which we celebrated in mid-November.  This astonishes me.  I do not remember Hobo Day, although I participated.  As a fund-raiser, the PTA sold “hobo permits”  (at 25 cents each), that allowed students to come to school dressed as hobos. Those growing up in the 60s and 70s may remember when Hobo was a popular Halloween costume choice; the term as yet had no ironic or politically incorrect implication.
  • The powerful presence of our assistant principal, Mr. Sharpe, who effectively blocked the gateway to total anarchy. On my mother’s first visit to the school, she walked in as he was breaking up a violent confrontation between two sizable female students. One girl refused absolutely to back down. She continued to struggle ferociously to get at her opponent, requiring the assistant principal, at last, to sit on her. Somehow he managed to do this with dignity and no sense of impropriety. I befriended Mr. Sharpe early in the fall when I discovered $2 in a stairwell corner. My conscience demanded that I take it to Lost & Found, evidently another of his domains (he managed to be everywhere at once). After two weeks, he said, if the money remained unclaimed, it would be mine. Sure enough, the rightful owner never appeared, and I was $2 richer. Mr. Sharpe was my champion ever after.  In the spring, I accidentally threw my retainer away inside my lunch bag. Mr. Sharpe immediately set about searching for it in the cafeteria trash. When that proved unsuccessful, he got in the dumpster to continue the search. He didn’t find it, but by then it mattered far less. His selflessness had transformed bad into good.
  • First crushes. My friends and I created complicated code languages to discuss and pass notes about the boys we liked. Seems like the note writing occupied far more time than actual class work. My friend Katie managed to infuse her notes (which she usually folded into flat paper footballs) with great absurdist humor. To this day, I find them hilarious. We’re still good friends, and she’s still funny. Two or more of us tended to choose the same boy to focus on. Looking back, this first struck me as a silly approach, but I see now that it served its purpose. We weren’t yet actually interested in having a boyfriend. We needed first to prepare ourselves for the idea of a boyfriend. Because we chose boys who were unlikely to fall for any of us, solidarity was maximized and friendship-threatening rivalries avoided.
  • The sea of flamboyantly-hued polyester that engulfed the teachers and staff. Our principal, in tinted aviator glasses, favored earth-toned leisure suits. Mr. Sharpe opted for the more traditionally tailored double knit suit. For some reason, the paunchiest of the coaches gravitated toward brightly patterned, body-hugging synthetic shirts. The sensible and impermeable polyester pants suit prevailed among the female teachers. Patent-leather loafers, in white and rainbow colors, were popular with both men and women. Jeans, always bell-bottoms, were worn by students, but never by adults.

 

  • Bus drama. Our bus number, P-50, is a fixture in my memory. A frequent afternoon announcement was this: All students riding Bus P-50 must report to the cafeteria immediately! P-50 was exceptionally crowded, the aisle filled with standing kids, and notorious for bad behavior. My friends and I weren’t generally involved. We kept to the front of the bus, a zone of relative order. In the back, mayhem ruled. Fighting, yelling, smoking, and profanity-spewing were among the typical pastimes. Various items, including left-over lunch foods and specially prepared “flour bombs” were routinely launched from the windows onto passing cars. On several occasions, our bus driver, unable to enforce discipline or to bear the pain any longer, simply stopped along the route and made us all get out and walk. This usually happened not far from my house, and after the uproar of the ride, the quiet was welcome.

I find it reassuring that my journals confirm the accuracy of many middle school memories. I really do know what it’s like to be thirteen. This should qualify me as a wise and valuable advisor to the young teens of today, right? Even though when I was thirteen, computers were the size of a house, and there was no such thing as the Internet, a cell phone, texting, Facebook or Twitter?  I’m hoping my daughter thinks so.

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Do you have middle school memories that beg to be shared?
Tell me about your odd ones, your funny ones, your unforgettable ones!

Middle School Memorabilia, Part I

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The fragility of memory has always bothered me. Even as a child, I hated that many experiences were already lost. During Atlanta’s mild February days, my parents would reminisce about the lovely white winters in Kentucky. Don’t you remember the huge snowman we made when you were three? No, I didn’t remember, and it angered me. Just as it angered me that my Georgia friends and I were so snow-deprived that the slightest dusting of powder, or more typically, ice, sent us outside in deliriously futile attempts at snow-related activities. The sled would get mired in leaves and mud, the smallest snowball was elusive. We would return inside wet, cold and grumpy. I had spent my babyhood in a winter wonderland, without a single memory to show for it. The old photo of me in a snowsuit stirs no wayward recollection. It seemed terribly unfair.

Partly in an effort to make up for the transience of memory, and partly because I have a strong thread of OCD, I save the stuff that declares I was there. My parents’ attic was once filled with boxes of papers attesting to my life’s various stages. There are letters, artwork, class papers, books, school information, playbills, calendars with notes of daily activities, and much more. Although I realize the line is fine, I’m not a hoarder. Not every scrap of my past made the cut; much has been thrown away or recycled over the years (sometimes, I admit, reluctantly). My collections are organized, to a degree.

Now that I live in a house with storage space, on every drive up from Atlanta, my parents bring along one or two of those memory-filled boxes. They are determined, little by little, to win back some space in their home, while mine becomes more cluttered. This Christmas, a battered file box labeled Middle School arrived with them. Its timing was perfect. It offered a window onto my early teen years, when I was my daughter’s age. And it proves that my memory is not altogether unreliable.

My seventh grade year coincided with the desegregation of the Atlanta Public Schools. This was accomplished, I am glad to say, without the riotous tumult that occurred in certain cities (not all of them southern—Boston comes to mind). The perceived threat of greater diversity prompted a few families to flee our in-town neighborhood for distant suburbs. But we would stay the course, as would most of my friends. This was no time to pull up roots so recently planted, roots that were just beginning to flourish. We believed in equal rights for all people, and we were in this together.

We were bused to a newly created middle school adjacent to the Georgia Tech campus. Previously a high school, it was a massive, rambling, red brick structure built in 1922. Impressive, yet down-at-the-heels, it would have made a spectacularly atmospheric haunted house. I can see it as the architectural star of American Horror Story: Schoolhouse.  Even now I have the occasional eerie dream that I’m lost in the shadowy recesses of the sub-basement, or peering out from a broken window in a third-floor classroom. If the details are vague, the spirit of the place remains very much alive in my mind.

The life that teemed within the walls was equally unique. The school brought together a diverse young population. We spanned every spectrum. There were kids from the grand old homes of Ansley Park, from Techwood Homes, the country’s first public housing project, and from every Atlanta neighborhood in between. All of the major ethnic groups were represented, as were many of the more obscure ones. For most of us, it was the first time we were outside our own comfortably familiar environment. For all of us, it was an adventure. A nearly unforgettable one, as my memorabilia box confirms.

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My 7th-grade schedule.

 

 

Memory: Persistently Disintegrating and Rebuilding

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If time moves at a bewildering pace, memory is equally problematic. Over the years, I have clung to certain recollections, the details etched in my mind with crystalline clarity, only to realize later that they are erroneous.

I was absolutely sure, for example, of the enormity of the airplane on my first overseas flight. As I remember it, in coach there were four seats across on the two side rows and ten in the center. I thought my friend Jackie and I were in that miserable middle section. A frail, elderly couple was marooned in the very center, and I felt terrible for them. Recently, when I found my notes from the trip, I read in my own eighth-grade cursive that there were three seats on each side row and only four in the center.  I had been so sure about that central row of ten. While this may seem an insignificant point, in my mind it had been pivotal. It was hard proof of the plane’s great size and cattle-car conditions.

I am not alone in my flawed remembrance. Recently, the iron-clad nature of the eye-witness account, once accorded special precedence in crime solving, has been cast into doubt. A witness may be supremely confident of what or whom he saw, but still he may be dead wrong. Perception is likely to be flawed in various ways, including the angle of vision, circumstances surrounding the viewing of the event, even one’s emotional state at the time. Memory is not set in stone, but prone to suggestion and easily colored by prior and later experience. It’s an ongoing drama being constantly reshot. As time passes, our memories both erode and build up piece by tiny piece, like shifting beach sand in a storm. Salvador Dali’s paintings of melting clocks capture this truth: over time, memory is simultaneously persistent and disintegrating.

Memories of early childhood are especially likely to be compilations, aggregates of our own experiences and accounts of older friends and relatives. Photos may trick us into believing we remember, when we do not. I think I recall playing on my swing set when it was set up behind the chicken lot at my grandparents’ house. I may remember using the dining room table as a secret fort before Thanksgiving dinner, reaching up surreptitiously to grab a piece of turkey. Guess I’ll never know if these memories are mine or borrowed.

In one of my most vivid memories, I’m about four years old, catching lightning bugs with two friends on a warm Kentucky summer night. The vision is suffused with a heavy Keatsian Ode to a Nightingale atmosphere. There are “verdurous glooms and winding mossy ways” and “fast-fading violets covered up in leaves.” Jarringly, amidst all that tender poetic beauty, there intrudes the sharp and uninvited recollection that the bubble gum I was chewing began to taste much like the pungent scent of the fireflies. Did this really happen? Maybe it did. As Proust has famously observed, the sense of taste can transport us miraculously into the long-ago. He had his tea-dipped madeleine; I had my insect-infused bubble gum. Perhaps if I were to sample lightning bug gum again, I would know for sure.

Memory is perversely selective. The most trivial of objects and events may be fixed indelibly and inexplicably in our minds. Yet unless we have consciously prepared ourselves beforehand, crucial episodes slip away with barely a trace. Faces of loved ones fade and blur. I don’t remember visiting my grandfather in the hospital before he died. I remember the blue dress I wore to his funeral, and I think I recall kissing him as he lay in his coffin. My shock at the firm, marble-like coldness of his face rings true, but who knows?

Memory, like life, is a work in progress, a bubbling stew of the inconsequential and the profound, the ridiculous and the significant. In both memory and life, the miscellaneous threads may tangle. We tend to look for meaning where it doesn’t exist, and fail to recognize it when we stumble upon it. Yet dead ends may lead us on new and better paths. When I’m struck by a memory’s mingled richness, sweetness and bitterness, it’s comforting to remember that it’s the taste of life itself.

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Seems like I remember playing in my grandfather’s 1951 Dodge with my friend Bob.  It was the old car Grandaddy used for his errands in town and trips to the tobacco barn. My grandmother wouldn’t let him drive her much newer car, a Chrysler with pronounced fins.

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The only thing I remember clearly about this day is the Sugar Daddy I was eating. It was very cold, and we were about to go somewhere.

Are you puzzled by the strangeness of some early memories?
Wonder why you recall certain details clearly and forget the main story?  I’d love to hear about it.

Where did the Time Go?

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As I’ve been looking back on those first few months with our baby girl, it hits me: how is it possible that thirteen years have passed in a flash?

With the busyness of the holidays, I hadn’t had much of a chance to think about our daughter’s first teen birthday. Now, in the silence of a nearly empty house, the realization is here to be reckoned with. Where did the time go?

I must be officially old, because time is most definitely whizzing past me. My husband and I have discussed how we seem always to be looking at events in the rearview mirror. Thanksgiving: way back in the distance. Decorating the house for Christmas (such a production): all done. The entire holiday season, with its daunting preparations, a flurry of family arrivals and departures: all done. Our daughter’s birthday: over, bringing with it a new year, a new number to remember to write on checks and correspondence. Taking the decorations down and boxing them up: almost done (a less enjoyable task, so it stretches out longer).

Time speeds by now like the numbers on our oven timer. As in childhood the years move at a slower pace, setting the timer for a short while takes forever, each five-second interval requiring its own finger punch. Suddenly, though, the digits are flying by in a blur. The roast is set to cook for thirteen hours.

The ever-accelerating passage of time is a threadbare topic, a conversational fallback that I remember considering more tiresome than the weather. But now my comments about time’s bewildering flight come pouring forth unbidden and unwanted. My baby has become a teenager, in what seems like the span of a few months. I don’t want a return to the baby phase, but I would like to know how all the stages zipped by with such haste.

Another symptom of my advancing age is that, against my better judgment, I persist in noting the rapidly increasing height of every child I know. My goodness, how you’ve grown! I can’t believe how tall you are! My daughter typically appears more willowy after a night’s sleep. She and her friends are growing like the pokeweed that nearly took over our back porch one summer. I found similar comments particularly tedious when I was young. They’re equally irksome when I say them. But they are true, and the situation begs to be acknowledged.

I take some solace in the fact that I do not ask this question of children and teenagers: Do you have a boyfriend? A girlfriend? At least I don’t ask it yet. As a girl I was bombarded with that exasperating question by distant family members during visits to Kentucky. I guess it was the only remark that came to mind. There was no satisfactory answer. “No” signified that I was unpopular and deserving of their sympathy. “Yes” meant more questions to follow: What’s his name? How old is he?. . .His name is Marcus Aurelius and he’s 35! Oh, who cares? You’ll never meet him!

Time flies, the kids are growing like weeds, and I’m getting older at the same pace. I may blubber on about such truths, but I haven’t surrendered my life entirely to cliché.  At least not for the fleeting nanosecond that is now.

Good Times with our New Baby

Our daughter, around three months, marvels at her crib toys.  My husband particularly loved the way her hair stood on end, resembling the fluff of a baby chick.

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A little farther along in my journal, descriptions of the sweet, endearing ways of our daughter become more frequent. She was still upset and no doubt uncomfortable much of the time. Her new world apparently continued to disappoint, but perhaps she was learning to lower her expectations. Increasingly, she expressed happiness and ease as well as anger and frustration. And in my eyes, she was becoming less other, more human. As she looked up at me and smiled, wrapping all her tiny fingers tightly around one of mine, it was impossible not to feel overcome by motherly love.

I recall, just like it was yesterday, standing at the changing table in our little nursery, entranced by my little girl, three weeks old. She liked to gaze out the window onto the snowy street below, then turn toward me, her eyes open incredibly wide and her lips pursed, as though mimicking fear or surprise for comic effect. Sometimes she’d stare intently at the curtain and appear similarly impressed. Can you believe that curtain? Isn’t it the best thing ever?  When she was so inclined, it didn’t take much to please her, just as it didn’t take much to rouse her fury.

She loved my big fuzzy stuffed bear. One of her first deliberate actions was to stretch out her arms to feel his fur. She did this repeatedly, and when I brought him close she’d bury her face in his fluff. With great satisfaction I recognized a future fellow dog lover.

Her smiles and periods of contentment increased. She watched me cheerfully as I cooked or folded laundry. When she was truly excited, her entire face lit up and her small body launched into motion, shoulders shifting, hands reaching, legs kicking, brimming full with the joy of life. And when she settled down, she did so with a luxurious stretch, ending in an exuberant flourish, arms high above her head, fingers outstretched gracefully. It brought to mind a gymnast’s gesture after a spectacular dismount. Maybe this world wasn’t so bad, after all.

Around three months, we started hearing little laughs, mixed in with her ongoing babble of sounds. It wasn’t until five months that we were rewarded with extended, exultant giggling. As she sat in her swing, my husband fanned her vigorously with the Virginia road atlas, an activity they had enjoyed for some time. She clearly loved the feel of the breeze on her face. With each burst of air, she’d breathe in with a delighted gasp, her eyes widening. After a considerable build-up, she erupted in giggles. A magical, enchanted, musical sound, the laughter of an angelic elf. Not surprisingly, she still relishes the feel of the wind on her face. She loves skiing, riding roller coasters and speedboats, and going fast in general.

Our daughter began to discover fun and excitement in many sources: her toys, her feet, her toes, and her fingers, which she would often lick very daintily, one by one, as though having just polished off a fried chicken dinner.  At four months, we bought her an “exersaucer” that allowed her to practice putting weight on her legs. She loved jumping in it, spinning around, rattling its various attachments, all the while making singing or talking sounds, usually very loudly.  For a while it was like having a miniature Stanley Kowalksi in the house, bellowing a jibberishy form of Stelllllaaaaa!

Now, as my daughter whistles piercingly while doing her homework, it seems that in some respects things have changed very little.  Inside my tall, elegant teenager, I can still see that baby, a whirling dervish of energy, noisily rocking her exersaucer, awake to all of life’s wondrous potential.

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A welcome smile.

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Asleep in her swing.  Thank goodness for that swing!

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First day in the new exersaucer.

New Motherhood: An Uphill Climb

I recently found the journal I somehow managed to keep during our daughter’s first year.  It confirms my vague, uneasy memories: learning to be a mother was a hard slog.

 

My first months of motherhood were no doubt made more arduous because I had absolutely no previous experience with infants. While I’ve always enjoyed toddlers and preschoolers, I’ve never been drawn to babies, who appear frighteningly small and unfinished. When I got my own baby, I didn’t think I’d missed much.

The first hurdle was nursing, which brought with it a host of anxieties and difficulties (and conflicting advice by every nurse or lactation consultant at the hospital). Suddenly I was a machine (and an overworked and badly functioning one, at that), for feeding. All I did was nurse, worry about nursing, or try to recover from nursing, only to have to begin again. During that first week, I remember that my mother seemed to be constantly standing outside the bedroom door, holding a screaming, red-faced D. “It’s been three hours, and she’s hungry again.” I thought I had just dozed off. Once I got the hang of effectively feeding my baby, there was still the reality of it, the giving of myself endlessly to this tiny screaming tyrant. The word parasite flickered occasionally through my mind. There is great isolation in being a nursing mother.

Just as I had always suspected, a baby is an awkward, uncooperative little creature, as small as a doll, but totally lacking its reassuring complacency. A baby is an anti-social rebel. She doesn’t want to wear those diapers, that onesie, or that darling outfit from Aunt Claire. She especially hates those socks, and she rubs her feet together tirelessly until she works them off so they’re lost in the food court at the mall. She doesn’t want that bath. She can’t abide being locked into that straitjacket of a car seat. She fights against everything but food. Sometimes she even fights against food. For such a diminutive being, her screams are astonishingly ear-splitting.

I don’t blame her. I realize she’s uncomfortable, that she has no knowledge of social graces or expectations. She has no words to tell us what bothers her. The world outside the comfy, watery womb is filled with adversity, noise, frustration, and unanswered needs. I know she doesn’t enjoy the never-ending cycle of nursing, burping, spitting up, pooping and diaper changing any more than I do. I feel for my baby. I was much like her, as my parents have frequently told me. I cried most of the time, except when I held my breath and passed out. Still, empathy and understanding don’t make the whole mothering process run any more smoothly.

It gradually gets easier, though.  Before long, the moments of wonder and joy begin to catch up with and even exceed those of annoyance and pain.  The uphill climb is worth it, in a big way.

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Our daughter, ten days old. She doesn’t look like a rebel or a savage, but looks can be misleading.

Thirteen Years Ago: Home with our New Baby

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Each January I look back on those first few months with our new baby, and I’m thankful they are in the past. No doubt this sounds heartless to some, especially to those who are not yet parents but hope to be.

It doesn’t mean I don’t love and appreciate her.  Our daughter is, and has always been, a profound blessing. All my life I had known that I wanted a child, and she was the realization of that long-held dream. She was an amazing, wiry little creature with a remarkable energy. Our first ultra-sound image had shown her upside-down and scissor-kicking, so we weren’t surprised. She did leg lifts in her plastic hospital bassinet and held her head up unsupported within hours of birth. Her enormous, other-worldly blue eyes were constantly surveying her surroundings. She wrinkled her forehead in a way that made her look all-knowing and smug, yet sweet. Her blonde hair was as fine as dandelion fuzz, and her tiny fingernails appeared newly manicured. She slept with her arms outstretched over her head, her fingers moving gracefully and expressively in her dreams. She was a miracle.

The first day home with her was wonderful. When we returned from the hospital, my parents were waiting in their car in front of our townhouse, having driven all night from Atlanta. My husband and I were the proudest of parents, showing off our beautiful baby to her grandparents, who agreed that she was perfect. She slept for several hours that day, which, we would learn, would be highly uncharacteristic.

I had dozed only fitfully in the hospital, and I finally got some real sleep that first night at home. I slept deeply enough so that when I awakened to an unpleasant whining sound, I had no idea what it was. Puzzled and annoyed, I asked H, “What is that noise?”

“It’s our baby,” he replied, rather too firmly.

That was the last time I failed to recognize our daughter’s cry.

After that I began sleeping the half-sleep of the new mother, alert both to the baby’s sounds and, even more alarming, to the lack thereof. One night, hearing only silence, I peered into the bassinet in the dimness of the room. Suddenly I realized those big eyes were staring back at me, and I almost jumped. Our daughter was still an alien presence.

The difficulties of early motherhood set in with a vengeance. I loved my baby instantly, but getting used to dealing with her persistent and shifting needs was an exhausting challenge.

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Our daughter, at 5 days old, under the Christmas tree. As quiet, for a brief moment, as the dolls.