Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Part 2: My mother, the tomboy

There is another Sara in my life, and she was my mother.  The fact that I named my only child after her probably says a lot, but maybe not what you think.  Certainly not what I thought.

The story of my mother’s life is not completely known by me, and sometimes I suspect it was never fully known by anyone, even by my father.  What I think I know is that it wasn’t always very happy and it was often times very hard.  Her father died when she was just two or three.  When I look at the few scattered photographs that we have of them together I like to imagine that it was the happiest of times, when they were all young and the world had not yet gone to war.  My mother had an older sister, too, the beloved first child who I recognize as the girl with the sweet smile and finger curls that I’ve seen in pictures.

Mom’s sister died of polio when she was only 14.  I think I learned this when I was in elementary school and I was given an assignment to do a report on a famous scientist.  I came home and told my mother, and she said I should do it on Jonas Salk.  I had no idea who Jonas Salk was, or why Mom cared who invented the vaccine for polio, a disease I hadn’t even heard of.  But now I do; now I know that the regret and grief and loss you feel when someone you love dies never goes away.  It doesn’t suffocate you or render you numb forever but it does play constantly in the background, shaping your thoughts and beliefs, always subtly sculpting you into the person you are perpetually reinventing.

With so much loss so early in life, during an era when there was so little certainty in the world, I can only imagine that happiness was a sweet  but fleeting thing.  We work so hard to build happy lives for ourselves today, and as I get older I wonder what it is doing to us.  It’s certainly not natural, but why would we opt for pain when we can manufacture glee?  But isn’t that what we’ve been doing since the dawn of time?  Always finding new ways to make life easier, safer, happier?  But maybe there is something to be said for making room for a little pain.  Maybe pain hardens the stone so grief can’t reduce us to a broken pile of rocks.

Though she lost her own little family she gained another, and this new family brought a brother and a sister, a pair whose own mother had died too soon, and eventually a new baby brother as well.  These relationships were frequently tenuous, and while I know that Mom had great love and affection for her new-found siblings, and they for her, the circumstances of their lives didn’t allow for the kinds of alliances and confidences that one might hope to have in a brother or sister.  

I sometimes wonder if my mother felt rather alone in the world.

didn’t grow up hearing very much about Mom’s childhood.  War stories, mostly:  helping to refurbish the big house at 43rd and Illinois, most memorably how the kids’ small hands were enlisted to reach the narrow spaces under and around the radiators where the floors had to be stripped and sanded and varnished.  How the house was filled with borders to help pay the bills, and so she and my aunt had to share a room on the sun porch.  Peeling potatoes for hours on end (or so she said) and the stacks and stacks of dishes they had to do each night.  How she got histoplasmosis when she was in high school and missed weeks of school because of it – and blind spots in her vision for the rest of her life.    How they would eat baked bean sandwiches on Sunday nights, because that is what they had.

But there were good times, too.  She found joy in what to me were the oddest things:  taking in hockey players as borders while the teams passed through town; having pear fights with her brothers, and always looking for the hardest, greenest pears to launch at them; and even still to my amazement, playing semi-professional softball (much to her own mother’s chagrin).

Mom, as it turns out, was a tomboy.  She loved to be outside, hitting a ball with the boys, walking the mile to the pool so she could swim away her summer days.  My uncle has said that, if she had just been born 50 years later, she would have most certainly earned an athletic scholarship.  She had a good arm, a good eye, and a natural talent that made it easy for her to pick up most any sport and succeed – often times outplaying the boys in her neighborhood. 

As a kid I would have short bursts of interest in sports, mostly softball.  I wanted to be able to toss the ball up into the air and then swing the bat, sailing the ball across the yard and out into the gravel alley at the other end.  Mom made it look effortless.  Even with blind spots in her eyes she could chuck the ball up, pull her arms back and take a smooth, easy swing, lightly connecting with the ball so it would skid gently across the lawn.  Over and over, never missing, telling me to just keep my eye on the ball.  And then she would hand me the ball and bat and let me have at it, but inevitably the ball would land with a thud at my feet, or lob off to the side forcing her to duck to avoid a hit.  Eventually she would just smile and shake her head and say “Amy, I just don’t know what to tell you.”

My mother, the tomboy whose athletic talents came easy, was always very comfortable in her own skin, even when she was the middle-aged mother so different from the others that I knew, the ones with painted nails and long, braided hair, the ones who wore high heels and earrings.  She wasn’t apologetic about it – and shouldn’t have been.  She didn’t know any other way to be, and I wouldn’t have wanted her to be anyone else.

Mom was entirely herself, in her quiet and easy way.  She was honest about who she was and who she wasn’t, and though we weren’t alike in many ways I like to believe we are a very much alike in that.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Part 1: My daughter's body

When I was pregnant with Sara I prayed for a girl that would be healthy and strong.  Smart.  Good-hearted.  Kind.  And thin – I so wanted her to be thin.

And she is all of those things.

Even when she was a newborn, Sara was thin.  Not unhealthy, never underweight, but never one of those chubby babies with plump, squishy thighs and lips that permanently pucker from the flushed pillows of their cheeks.  She always had a neck, unlike those sturdy babes whose heads seem to sit directly on their shoulders, and she was born with a strong body that allowed her to lift her head, just the slightest bit, on her second day.  I know the soft focus of her eyesight didn’t let her observe the details of that cold, quiet hospital room, but I still remember thinking She’s taking it all in.

Sara’s baby body was soft and pink.  Her head was covered with a fine smooth coat of sandy hair – I had not thought to pray for the head full of thick, wavy hair I always wanted – and she had a small, round nose.  Her lips made a perfect kiss, rosy and full with a perfect Cupid’s bow.  And she had the most perfect chin I had seen.  I don’t know why I was so taken by that chin; maybe it was because, unlike most other babies I had known, you could actually see it.

Her arms and legs had small, shallow folds, what would have been deep fleshy creases on other babies.  Most people love a big, fat, baby – and I do, too – but I found relief in the sight of healthy but lean limbs on my sweet girl.  I remember my father, when Sara was about five months old, holding her one day and worrying that she was trying too soon to support her own weight.  “She’ll be bow-legged,” he said.  But I wasn’t worried.  I knew she was strong already.  She was born that way.

In time the sandy hair lightened to a burnished gold, a twist this mousy brunette never would have predicted.  Her lips stayed full and issued quick, wet kisses any time you could catch her long enough to beg one.  And her body stayed slender.  She had a force, was a force, that I didn’t expect.  She never stopped moving, from the minute she woke to the minute she fell asleep.  She crawled, cruised, and climbed her way through the first seven months, until the eighth when she pulled herself up and began to walk.  We were at my dear friend’s house, and I remember standing in her kitchen watching in happen.  Elaine looked at me and said “Sara’s walking, Ket.”  I think she was telling me because she knew I wasn’t convinced it could be happening.  But it was.

It wouldn’t be accurate to say that I’ve worried about Sara’s weight over the years.  There’s been no reason, really; she was blessed with her father’s build and metabolism, and she is so active that there is no time for the calories to convert to the fat that my own body hoards.  Even when I was pregnant, and going sleeveless in November from a heat I couldn’t escape, Rob joked about the fusion reactor I had growing in my belly.  As she grows we still fuel the machine, sometimes endlessly, but the tank, it seems, is never entirely full.   She has that magical mechanism, hidden somewhere deep in her developing brain, that tells her when she needs more and when she has enough – just enough, and never more.

That must come from her Papa, too.

She is seven now.  Still deep in childhood but always changing, in small but incessant steps, from a little girl to a woman.  I’ve had these seven years to get to know her body:  when it’s hungry, tired, or sick; how far it can climb up a tree; how soon it will need a new size; how long it will glide through the water (until you pull her out - wet, happy and exhausted).  I’ve had years to study it and I suppose I know it better than anyone, but I’ve come to realize that I don’t, and will never, truly understand it.

Sara is altogether comfortable in her skin. She uses her body in ways I’ve never been inclined to do, and understands how it works in ways that I, at 35 years her senior, will never know.  I’m convinced that she has understood, almost since she could walk, that her body is a means to an end, a vehicle to all kinds of experiences – “Adventure!” as it is known in our house – that are only open to those who can do.  And so she does.  Her body is strong and she knows it.  There is nothing she will not allow it to do, and there is no fear in trying.   It is a complete trust in her body not to fail her, a trust I have never experienced in my own.

I am glad that she possesses this confidence, and I’m comforted in knowing that it is paired with enough sense, usually, to keep her out of harm’s way.  (And where her sense leaves off, there is Mama’s overly cautious nature and Papa’s commiserative understanding of Sara’s.)  But I’m troubled, too, because I don’t know how to teach her about this kind of body, one that is both lithe and athletic, lean but powerful.  Where Sara is all hard angles and strength, I am soft curves and weakness.  She is sturdy bones and muscle where I am heavy and weak.  The girl is strong; I am not. 

I have no experience with the body she is building.  I don’t know what will soothe it when it’s fatigued from over-exertion.  I don’t have advice on how to move it in a way that is easier, or more difficult, or more fluid; I certainly can’t demonstrate a perfect cartwheel or a feminine carriage.  I don’t know how to dress it in a way that flatters rather than hides.  Her body, in many ways, is a complete mystery to me, and when it is all said and done I’m afraid that my ignorance is somehow going to fail her. 

So I suppose all I can do is ask:  Lord help me understand this answered prayer.