Tuesday, December 28, 2004

a gathering of grandmothers

Before I got pregnant, I said often that if I were ever to have a child I wanted to move to a village somewhere where having children was a complete automatic, as automatic as breathing, as automatic as hitting your brakes when you see a cop car. And all would swarm around to coddle my infant while I snuck off with my journal to the nearest banyan tree. Really, I mean, who am I? Just the mother. Why hog the little one with an entire older generation of women waiting to help raise my baby? This may all sound very quaint and selfish, but tell me a child raised within a community of caregivers isn't better off?

Once in a while, I'm lobbed hope that something like that could happen here. People, often my friends with grown kids, make comments like "Of course, I'll baby-sit! Anytime!" I'm suspect, but I want to believe it. I've also discovered I'm welcome to tote my newborn to my writing group. This is exciting. One of my fellow writers added to the news "And there are plenty of grandmothers here to hold him." How very appealing. The woman who said this doesn't look like any picture of my grandmothers that I've ever seen – she's that spry, trim, youthful, California grandmother, no horn-rimmed glasses or grey hair swept back hurriedly into a bun, but I think she still counts.

Then there is our upstairs neighbor, a woman of seventy with five children of her own. She's another one who makes me want to believe that the community of grandmothers is out there just waiting to be reunited. She was so excited to find out about our news that I felt guilty all over again for my dubious approach to motherhood. Mike and I already go to her with a myriad of (non-baby) questions on a regular basis. Adding to her overall openness and seventy years of life are the facts that she's in proximity to ask, has lived in the area for decades (we, only six), this house for 12 years (we, only 5 months). We've come to simply point at our ceiling when we wish to include a reference to our neighbor, like it has to do with something on a higher level, at a status we haven't yet reached. Like it indicates hope in a power larger than us, the gesture of the index finger deferring to what might only be in heaven's grasp. Like the habit in many Latin American countries of pointing up to refer to the United States above them on the map, "el norte" (the north). If not literally their intended destination, it is often at least a (frequently economic) goal post, a mythical Other with all the answers, a solution to all worries. The term el norte has come to be used as a euphemism to mean any goal or high aspiration.

And there's more to tease me. Recently, we went to a holiday open house for our block at a neighbor's place. I have yet to meet the majority of the people on my block and it seemed like a reasonable thing to attend. (Besides, we had a great escape route built in, we couldn't stay long as it was Mike's birthday and we were off to dinner with my sister and a friend.)

We enter a foreign land I both fear and want to eat whole: a picturesque home, hearth lined with photos of the kids on Santa's lap through the years, table lined with goodies, a family dog that the owners must scold mildly in jocular tones about not jumping up on guests, though he never does, stiffly friendly greetings trying so hard, so hard.

We mill and introduce ourselves. Compliment the house. Repeat our names. Chew tiny pastry triangles of spinach and cheese. Eventually, fate calls for us to float into an adjoining room where older women in Christmas sweaters are holding glasses and leaning from plaid sectionals toward each other with animated conversation. We hover.

The owner of the house joins the group and, having been tipped off by my neighbor across the street, spills my news with "When are you due?" The old women's eyes move without delay to my belly. I am now the center of their animated conversation. "Who's your doctor?" they want to know right off. I am hedging, telling them of the various doctors I've had, mumbling something at last about a midwife. But I needn't have feared. "Oh!" Mrs. Livingston from four doors down starts with excitement. "My daughter-in-law is a midwife in Seattle!"

There is space on the couch next to Mrs. Livingston and I feel compelled by courtesy to sit, though I know we are dangerously close to being late to meet our friend at the restaurant. She goes on to tell me all about her daughter-in-law, midwifery, and the births of her many grandchildren, one of whom, a boy of about 14, is sitting next to her staring intently at his knee wishing, I imagine, he were invisible. I could have used some invisibility powers myself…

"…so they froze the placenta!" Mrs. Livingston's voice rose in the small room, bouncing about in its crescendo just as the buzz of conversation around us came to a natural and unfortunate pause, as general chatter has a habit of doing when something inopportune is being spoken. Mrs. Livingston's mother, to whom I'd been introduced earlier, was leaning on a cane across the room. I heard her say softly, perhaps to her friend seated beside her, perhaps to herself, "What is she telling her?" The woman shifted her stance with the authority of one more generation, and the conversations took a tenuous step toward continuing.

Mrs. Livingston hadn't missed a beat, however. "Doctors!" she shrugged at last, "They just come in at the end when all the work is done! Now if you need anything, honey, we're right down the street. I've changed diapers for 11 babies in my life. Eleven babies! Three children and eight grandchildren." She pats her grandson's knee at which he is still staring, harder than ever.

In an emergency, I'm sure I would have no trouble scaring up Mrs. Livingston from her plaid couch and taking advantage of all that baby experience. But can I just come by for tea? What if I want to take off with my journal for the banyan tree?

I'd like to send a thank you to our neighbors who hosted the open house but I seem to have thrown out the invitation and I don't know how to spell their name. I mention this dilemma to Mike. He immediately points skyward, indicating again our upstairs neighbor. "Maybe she'll know." Maybe she will. Of course she will. Doesn't she hold gently to all solutions? They must always know more than us, this gathering of grandmothers. They are a resource I crave, my el norte.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I love this! I love the upstairs grannie! The midwifery conversation! The banyan tree!


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