By our third anniversary we had two daughters. An instinct to mother directed all that I did. I was, by then, the lioness.
  • By our third anniversary we had two daughters. An instinct to mother directed all that I did. I was, by then, the lioness.
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This morning I opened two eggs over toast. I remembered twenty years ago — when I opened soft-boiled eggs for two daughters. How careful I was, pushing my reading glasses back up onto my nose to better see shards of jagged eggshell did not slip onto the toast.

What hurt them hurt me. A topple onto concrete, then the yowl, then the bright blood down her narrow shin: I felt it.

With my head in my hands I sat down and stared toward the floor. I cried, without tears, and retched.

I had been so careful. I put up poisons. I tucked electric cords behind floorboards. I picked up skates and the bedroom slippers with floppy bunny ears from where they had been tossed. I striped jackets with fluorescent tape, double-tied sneaker laces, updated immunization lists, checked sore throats, hourly, with a flashlight.

They were fragile. Their skulls were no sturdier than the eggshell. That fragility made me vulnerable. Their existence opened me, wider, to what the world could do.

They got hurt in unexpected ways, on objects I would not have suspected of offering injury. A head cracked on an innocuous red brick. A lip torn and a tooth chipped on the trusty wheelbarrow. A wrist shattered on a bedroom windowsill. The elder ripped her kneecap during an easy family hike. The skin spread slowly open, a terrifying mystery plot unfolding that exposed pulsing gristle. She whistled with pain. The younger, riding her new bike, ran into a ’48 Plymouth abandoned in the alley. Pea gravel scraped one side of her face, left a white scar.

This morning I counted back. Each year spots with a blood wound, crashes percussively with screams, shimmers with high fever and sour stomach sickness under pallid nightlights, fibrillates through otherwise calm moments with high-speed emergency. I had been glad when it all ended.

I was young when we married, and only six months after the wedding, in the era before the pill, I became pregnant. I did not want children. I was too young. Not only that, I was enrolled in college and liking it, and my own mother was so chilly, even cruel, that I feared I would be arctic like her, and as distant.

When I try to locate the moment that maternal instinct “took,” I cite my seeing the umbilical cord. My obstetrician, an Austrian woman who took pride in “delivering Mutter awake,” asked, “Do you want to see the cord?” and plopped the kidney-shaped aluminum pan on my still-quivering belly. As thick as velvet theater cord, red and purple, what had nourished and fostered R, in utero, coiled atop the liverish placenta. The cord said something to me that did not come in words.

By our third anniversary we had two daughters. An instinct to mother directed all that I did. I was, by then, the lioness: snuffling out danger, blocking the den against predators, tenderly cuffing babies back into sleep.

S was born scrawny, always hungry. I did not make enough milk. Her cheeks never turned rosy and hot as R’s had after suckling. Her hunger dizzied me.

Poor R, jealous, confused, angry at losing her mountaintop, rubbed against my legs, pulled at my arms, scratched at my hands. She whined. She wept. My love for two stretched me on a rack, torn two ways.

We survived. By the time both could walk we were planting immense, ambitious garden plots. We were digging our own Eden. We planted raspberry canes, apple trees, flowering bushes. We raised ducks. We drew, painted, cut and pasted. We played hand after hand of rummy. We bought pups. The pups ate our socks, chewed ears off the bunny slippers. Even I, who grew up cold and alone in dark apartments with a frowning mama and an absent father, began to glow. I, who for years looked sallow and hugged mechanically, grew apple-cheeked and comfortable with embraces.

This morning, when I sat at the kitchen table, my head in my hands, I was not regretting those days passing. I was only aware again, by its recent tug on me, of our old instinctually forged connection. Specifically, I thought about S. “Ugly duckling’’ was what she was. For years. Strabismatic, her huge deep-brown eye drifted to her nose, stuck a moment before wandering back to center. Her brown hair fell in lank sections. Her chest was concave. She ate so much and stayed so thin that more than once her pediatrician tested her for intestinal parasites. “Worms,’’ she would sob. The unfairness her body did her, the blight of the drifting eye, her sister’s fair plump beauty — all weighed me down.

S was a “good child, the perfect child,’’ she once said proudly and with irony. When she helped out in the kitchen or garden, she was determinedly thorough, the kind of person who does not sweep dust whorls under a rug. She was egalitarian. She shared toys and welcomed new youngsters to the neighborhood. She was compassionate with younger, smaller children. She was heatedly loving. No one popped a cheek with hotter, more perfectly dried kisses. No one bound you as tightly with hugs.

At night I was always glad for the respite and for their safety, health, their wholeness. I slept rich deep sleeps of satisfaction. Years passed.

Adolescence altered them. R bloomed early, grew a bosom and acquired mystery and distance, fluffy auburn hair, and hips. In what became terrible days, S would stand watching while her older sister pulled on a sweater. A look of betrayal passed her wandering brown eye (which, with glasses, began to stay still). And then one day S went downtown and bought a white cotton training bra. “What,” R said, “are you going to do with that?”

“Train them,” S snarled, “to jump through hoops of fire.”

Then S turned twelve. Every beauty-producing gene for generations back in both families fired off and exploded in her face, limbs, frame. “She is gorgeous,” friends would whisper to us. “Gorgeous.” Once homely, the new beauty was a mantle she wore with simple dignity. She knew what it was to be laughed at, pointed out — “Ugly.”

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