Round and round the living room I twirl, squishy baby cheeks pressed near my heart, rockin’ a little girl, singing breathy bits till her eyes fall, heavy, heavy to sleep. “Three little birdies, outside my window, singing a sweet song, melody pure and true, this is my message to you…”
Sixteen years ago I was doing the exact same thing – dancing back and forth between the walls of a tiny house in Massachusetts, clutching a newborn next to my chest as if he were a swaddled little star dropped from the midst of the swirling heavens, padding back and forth in slippered feet, dropping whispers soft as snow, waiting for slumber.
For the last two weeks, here in Seattle, I have been watching my friend’s newborn little girl, Miss Abigail Rose. She seems such a doll-baby – soft, pink, perfect - her big, blue eyes opening and closing mysteriously, attuned to some other world still.
I take her picture all day long. Instant message tiny bites of her every action – smiling, napping, cooing – straight to her Mama, working away downtown. I recall the days when I had to drop off my babies in the early morning chill, wrench myself away to work, crying, blurring my mascara alone in the car. Each day trudging forward despite leaving my vitals behind. All day long watching the clock, wondering how my babies were faring (Sadly, no one could IM me pictures of them back then, before iPhones and such).
Today my children are nearly grown. Nowadays they march out the door each morning while I’m the one who stays behind, half-dressed, wondering when they will return. What’s a career mom to do when she no longer needs to ‘mother’ full-time? Like so many other folks, I am out of a job, and my prospects for securing new employment don’t look great. Over time my skill-set has whittled down to three main assets: 1) rocking newborns to sleep 2) playing the piano 3) turning cartwheels - none of which seem to be in great demand, nor command much of a salary anywhere at all. I suppose I might qualify for data entry somewhere, if I find the right clothes… brush my hair…hitch up my bra…lather myself with pluck and luck.
Yet suddenly, instead of looking for a job outside the house, work has come to me! A baby, who needs tending until her Grandma comes to town. I happily agree. What could be more ideal?
Immediately a time-warp sets in. Round and round I spin, till I’m right back where I was at 24, walking the halls with a baby attached to me. Here I was thinking the end of mothering was near, but wonder of wonders, the path stretches before me once again - this land of blankies and binkies and pure, unblemished faces. And I begin again as eager and ill-prepared as I was eighteen years ago.
Every day I entertain my one year old boy with books and blocks and balls. Each day I dress up my itty-bitty girl in bonnets or scarves, pin-stripes or polka-dots. I teeter-totter between the two of them, back and forth, marveling at how I went anywhere or did anything when I had three…then twins….boy howdy, you forget what a lot of toil and energy young creatures require of their mothers!
Finally 4pm arrives, and Abigail’s mom or dad return to swoop her up with visible relief. They smother her with kisses and carry her home.
He has me all to himself, or so it seems. Yet Eli swoops in, demanding food, telling me his high school was on ‘lockdown’ today, describing two big fights at lunch, begging me to find his Crew clothes and make him jam toast, please, please, please?
Annalise arrives with oboe in hand, clutching permission slips to be signed, texting her friends, searching for scissors and tape, ribbon and glue. In no time at all her shoes are embalmed in glitter glue, her hair braided then unwound, Grape Juice spilled all over her bed, every last possession thrown hither and yon, overturned, upended, searching for what’s previously been thrown to the floor.
Juliet, Katriel, and Holland run circles through the downstairs, begging to hold the baby, begging for snacks, begging for help with homework or tying shoes. They want help finding badminton rackets, a pencil sharpener, band aids, some crayons, Katriel’s library book, Holland’s lost baggie of goldfish crackers, Mia’s phone number…on and on it goes. These little women argue over who pulls the train for Lochlan, who changes the baby’s diaper, who gets more strawberries in their bowl, who stirs the macaroni without spilling any, who can hold the baby…now, now, now!
Jacob wanders in and out the front door as I lead my fragile charges between couches and beds and bouncy chairs like horses to and from their stalls. I slice bananas, change diapers, find blankets, warm bottles, all while he and his new girlfriend swoosh past me, hand in hand, coming and going who know’s where? I try to smile. Say hello. Pull up my pants, play the part. Wonder if this grown child of mine is actually going to his job, doing his school work, showing up for class, being responsible?
One morning the nurse from the elementary school calls. Juliet’s sick. Stomach cramps, appendicitis, she really can’t say. Tells me she’s pale and shaky with lots of pain. I worry that it’s ileus – a kink in the intestines (which she’s had before) and sigh. Here I thought that was behind us! (Or is it staring us in the face once again?)
Babies are stuffed into buntings, shoes are pulled from beneath sofa cushions, pants are buttoned, coats zipped, cuffs rolled up, bottles collected, car keys located, then off we go – haltingly, baby-step by baby-step, out the door, yet it feels like so much more – like an expedition is underway, a great, big, vast journey, and I’m the unwitting guide, forced to carry gear and act knowledgeable and remember facts and locate essentials and enforce safety and explain patiently and still push this tribe forward, step by tiny step.
Damon appears at dinnertime; Lochlan and Holland head home; I am done. My back hurts from carrying babies, my head hurts from all the noise, my inner self longs for quiet and stillness. I head upstairs, while Damon starts dinner.
After a bit Katriel knocks on my door. She finds me lying on top of the massive piles of unfolded laundry scattered over my bed. “Do you want to read me a story?” she asks, with the innocent chirp of a nine-year-old. “No,” I mutter. “I’m so tired. I need to rest for a bit.”
“Would you like me to pat your head?” she offers sweetly. “We could watch ‘Good Luck Charlie’ together.” I nod. This actually sounds nice. Katriel crawls over the laundry and settles in next to me, while I flop my head onto a pillow resting atop her tummy.
After a minute or so Katriel stops running her fingers through my hair and says sheepishly, “Mom, your hair is really greasy and dirty…when is the last time you had a bath?”
I sigh. “I don’t know. How many days since Dab-a-Dab-a-Dab’s been here?”
“Um…she’s been here over a week, Mom! Gross!” Katriel groans. “You need to get in the tub, pronto!”
I tell her I’m too tired. “Come on, I’ll make the tub nice and warm for you,” she says, tugging gently on my hand.
I follow her downstairs and force myself into the warm water. Katriel brings me a towel from the dryer. Then she carries in a little step stool and places it next to the tub. “Here’s your wine,” she says, carefully setting a full glass of wine down with a flourish. “And wait, there’s more! I said I was going to make it nice, but I’m really going to make it super nice, just for you!”
Katriel next appears with two candles, which she lights and sets next to the wine on the step stool. Then she says, “Would you like me to play for you now?”
“Yes, please!” I feel immensely better already. My girl scampers off and returns with a banjo slung over her chest. She sits herself down on the toilet lid and begins to strum out the one chord she knows, over and over. After awhile she is singing along to the up-and-down twang. And this is what she sings, word for word:
Mommy’s in the tub
Washing her hair
With soap and stuff
That spreads around
Like an oil spill
Where duckies swim
Amidst it all…
Till people come
And scoop them up
And clean them off
With soap and stuff
Just like Mommy soaking
in the tub…
Here she stops to breathe and I beg her never to stop. This moment needs to linger, both in real-time and in memory.
Of course eventually she grows tired, and I exit the tub, only to dash, naked, out to the computer desk to copy down her lyrics. Then I head straight back to bed. I throw all of the clean clothes onto the floor and crawl under the covers. Katriel returns clutching a book and slides in beside me.
“Now I will read you a story,” she declares triumphantly, waving her library book in my face. “But wait! First you should brush out your hair so you don’t get tangles, right, Mom?” I nod reluctantly. “Don’t worry,” she says…”I will wait for you.”
I do as instructed and brush out my hair. Then Katriel tucks the covers around me once again and says, “This book is called ‘The End of the Beginning’ by Avi, and it is all about the adventures of a small snail and an even smaller ant.”
I put my head back on my daughter’s tummy and listen to her read:
“The two adventurers were going along. Avon was singing.
“Stop!” cried Edward. “We’ve reached the end of the branch.”
With great care the two creatures edged to the very tip. From there they looked out at the cloudless sky.
“The end of the branch,” said Avon, mostly to himself.
“The beginning of the sky,” said Edward, mostly to himself.
“Which is it?” asked Avon. “The beginning or the end?”
“It depends on what there’s more of, the tree or the sky…Think of all the things that get in your way along the branch – leaves, bark, other creatures, a million things to slow you down. Now look at the sky.”
Avon looked. “There’s nothing there.”
“Exactly. Which means that it will take longer to climb the branch. And if it takes longer, the branch must be bigger. And if the branch is bigger than the sky, that means we’re at the sky’s end, but only at the beginning of the branch.”
“You mean,” asked Avon, quite amazed, “that after all this time, we’re just beginning?” I had no idea how far you have to go before you can start. Almost makes me want to stop.”
“You can’t do that, either,” said Edward severely.
“Can’t very well stop if you haven’t started, can you?”
“Edward,” cried Avon, “I never knew how important it was to start before you begin.”
And turning around, they began.
Lying in my warm cocoon, I begin to drift away. With my eyes closed I listen as her sweet, pure voice continues on…
Cik, cik, cik, cik, cik, cik.
“What’s that?” asked Avon.
“A cricket,” explained Edward. “Isn’t it irritating the way all crickets sing the same song? That’s the trouble with most creatures. They have no creativity. They do the same thing, the same way, day in, day out, from parent to child, without ever doing anything differently.”