Back then, you started your baby on Gerber’s baby oatmeal at three months, you added applesauce and mashed banana at four, and strained vegetables and mashed potatoes at six.
Sarah was born when Rebecca was 17 months old. Rebecca could walk by then, steadily, although the dog we called Big Dog, a dog-smelling sinuous longbodied half-beagle mutt, mottled black and tan over his white coat, could knock her down if he stood near her and wagged his ropy tail. Breakfast and lunch, I fed Rebecca and Sarah in highchairs in the kitchen. Big Dog stationed himself between chairs. Any food dropped. Big Dog grabbed, delicately, between his front teeth. Spilled soup, spilled milk he licked up with his black-spotted pink tongue. His tongue voluptuously scraped against the linoleum tiles, each of which, one black and then one white and then one black, I knew from scrubbing, on hands and knees.
Rebecca’s mouth kept open house. Rebecca, you could spoon oatmeal into with her baby spoon, down whose silver handle big-footed ducks ran. Rebecca would give you such a smile while she smacked her milky gruel. She showed her baby teeth and the hard nubs of new teeth about to erupt that pushed under the glistening gums. She ate any vegetable, red beet or green bean or spinach that when cooked turns the green of lawns darkened by summer twilight. She ate any of Gerber’s bottled baby meals. She sucked sections of tangerine from whose tight skin I’d popped out the seeds. Meticulously, she dipped toast corners into chopped-up three-minute eggs whose yolk shone out from the hollow of her blue bowl. She chewed her yolky toast and grinned.
She grew round as red apples and beefy in the legs. Even her strawberry-blonde hair grew prodigiously, into an extravagant electrified halo. We called her a Dylan Thomas baby because she had that cherubic Christmas morning look Thomas had on covers of his books. She had Dylan Thomas’s ardent pouting mouth and full cheeks. If between mother and child, food is love, Rebecca and I were joined at the heart.
Rebecca was born at the end of a cold January that got colder through February. Icicles grew long on leafless branches. To look out any window those first months was to shiver and be thankful for the heat pipes knocking. From early morning the sky stayed gray and steepened; twilight lasted a few pink minutes. Blizzard wind from the north rattled window-panes in the second-floor bedroom where Rebecca’s bassinet, next to the double bed where she’d been conceived, reigned high on four white legs. She was sunshine sleeping there. The whole gray world clung to her; she made the short winter days shine.
Outside, where I would go to hang diapers, wind was so cold I couldn’t walk ten steps without mittens. Clothespinning Rebecca’s diapers on the line, even through mittens touching what touched her, my breasts blossomed milk. Out in that Arctic wind, I thought steam should rise from my breasts as if from a comic book Mother Wonder Woman.
Someone had only to say “Rebecca,” and milk bloomed. Rebecca put her lips to my bare skin, milk started. The milk was bluish-white and while she suckled a line of milk foam settled on her lips. My body was all hers, in love with her, more awake to her cries and her mouth than ever with any lover.
Rebecca and I those winter, spring, and summer months lived animals’ lives, lived as I guessed lions lived in lairs, licking skins, or bears in caves, breathing each other’s breath, growing rugs of fur that warmed each other eg over winters, growing shaggy, getting muzzles. We owned a fortune in time, uninterrupted hours of each other. A big rocking chair stood in a corner in the bedroom. I rocked while I nursed Rebecca, the only sounds those of the rocker’s treads against the bare floor and Rebecca’s greedy swallows. I wanted to rock into a new millennium, rock forever. Late mornings, mid-afternoons, we often went to sleep together after she nursed, my blouse still open and her mouth, suckling in sleep as puppies do.
While Rebecca slept I cleaned house, did laundry, fixed meals, changed the murky goldfish water for clear, put Big Dog out and brought Big Dog in, read books, read Family Circle and Women’s Day for household hints and baby hints and menus. I entertained the girlfriends who came by. I was the only girl any of us knew who had both baby and husband. My girlfriends regarded me as an exotic. They said so but did not use that word. I had survived the rigors of childbirth we had been taught by horrendous movie scenes to fear. I had stretch scars across my belly and smelled, I’m sure, of milk and after three months had gotten back my figure.
Evenings, while Rebecca’s father leaned over his living room desk, drinking black coffee and learning science, I shopped for groceries, I went to the library, I looked in windows of stores closed for the night. I studied the mannequins, dressed in those days in Jackie Kennedy pillbox hats, and thought about dresses I would buy when I had money. I always came home sooner than I needed. I missed Rebecca.
That second time I did not want to be pregnant. We were too poor. I was not yet 21. When our family doctor, the same woman who delivered Rebecca, looked up and told me, my heart sank. I felt lost and alone. I did not know how to tell her father, who had ahead years of school. I did not know how to tell our parents, who would think me careless. It would be my fault, someone so busy with our happiness that I forgot.
September was when I found out. I remember lying alone in the middle of the Indian summer afternoon in the hot bedroom, from which Rebecca’s bassinet had long been moved. I remember wasps seething against the ceiling. I remember I had not yet that day made the messy bed. I cried, then I cried some more.
Evenings, all fall I was sick to my stomach. Downstairs in the bathroom, while Rebecca sat in her highchair and my husband at the table finished his dinner, or, after dinner when I was in the middle of washing dishes, and Rebecca, who was beginning to crawl, thumped across the kitchen floor, her diapered bottom high in the air, I would go into the downstairs bathroom and be sick. I tried to do it quietly. I sounded to myself like a cat when a cat has fur balls stuck in its throat. Afterwards, I rinsed out my mouth with Listerine and mopped my face with a cool cloth and leaned against the cool lavatory rim. I saw my face in the mirror, chalk white and eyes gone huge with terror, and thought, “I will never forget this.”
After the fourth month passed, I opened the lid on the hope chest I’d kept in bedrooms since I was 12 and unfolded the maternity smocks I’d last taken off the year before. They smelled of mothballs and brought back memories still new enough I knew them day by day. I washed and ironed them. By then we had a dryer my father had bought me for Christmas. I did not have to go outside where during Rebecca’s second winter, rough wind again blew down from the north, rattled windows on which sow settled along the ledges and hungry birds pecked at seed Rebecca and I, she riding my hip, tossed out, birds whose names for years I would not learn. I pointed to the ice formed along the window-pane and said to Rebecca, “Jack Frost has been here.” She smiled and put her hand her mouth against the cold window. She had passed her first birthday. She could not yet say “lack Frost.” She could say, “Mama,” "Dada,” “dog,” “cat,” “bottle.”
My stomach got larger. I became slower. I limped under the huge ship my belly became. Late afternoons I was tired. Nights I slept so deep I dreamed I climbed stairs, tumbled down, was dying. Rebecca crawled, then walked. She cut teeth and drooled down her checked gingham dresses and cried unceasingly; I carried her back and forth on my hip, 25 or so pounds of her, across the living room while Big Dog followed, wagging his big tail. I began to dream my new baby. Son or daughter, I did not care. A boy we would name after my father and a girl we would call Sarah because we thought the name was pretty. When I was pregnant, women passed on old wives’ tales about how to determine the sex of a baby. If you carried high, you carried a girl. If the baby kicked a lot, it was a boy. Or, perhaps all that was the other way around. A baby still in the womb seemed to me like the Christmas gifts shining beneath the tree, gift-wrapped boxes I was not to pick up and shake, whose contents I was forbidden to guess at.
When I was alone I put my hand over my stomach and touched hard knots I guessed were elbow or knee or shoulder. This baby, more active than Rebecca, stirred rapidly, surprising me so that now and then I’d put a palm against a wall to steady myself and I’d flinch from the sudden pain.
By April, afternoons were warm enough that I sat on the porch and knit while Rebecca, who could walk by then, pulled her wooden Playskool truck by its dirty rope through thick grass dotted with dandelions I hadn’t dug. Rebecca crawled up wooden steps from the lawn — the risers were too high for her to step up — and stood next to me and put her head on my knee and pointed to my huge stomach and said, “Baby.” I put her hand where the new baby kicked. “Baby, baby,” she said and she smiled, showing many teeth.
She would not be smiling soon, I thought, and went through again what little I’d heard about helping the first child adjust to the second. I was an only child. I tried and could not imagine what Rebecca would feel when the new baby arrived. I asked friends who were from big families. “Oh, I hated him” or “Oh, I loved her” was all they said. I didn’t believe it would be that simple.
That last month, I withdrew. My attention focused on Rebecca, for whom I no longer had any lap, who had to sit on my knee, and on the mysterious baby whose arms, legs, knees fattened under my heart. I read to Rebecca from one after another of her tattered Little Golden Books. I prepared tiny delicate sandwiches — slices of bread cut in quarters — for her and her growing doll and bear family. Evenings before she went to bed, I got down on my knees by the bathtub and rubbed shampoo in her soft turbulent curls and scrubbed up bubbles. Her yellow rubber ducks bobbed atop her bath water. She splashed and laughed. I soaped her husky arms and legs, big ribs, tight stomach. Water pooled in her stomach’s deep nook where we’d been attached. I admired her the way people who have stood in line all day outside the Louvre, when they finally get inside, admire the Mona Lisa.
My private joy clashed with realities of no money, a big ancient house that increasingly I had trouble keeping clean, a refrigerator that needed defrosting, a husband getting ready for final exams, disapproving parents. I kept being happy anyway. When I pushed Rebecca in her stroller along the bumpy neighborhood sidewalks and graveled alleys on our daily walks, walking as I was, slower all the time, my stomach a galleon, I wanted to write on walls of the old garages that stood open in the alleys. I wanted to write in letters even bigger than I was. I wanted to write a song on those walls, boards weathered down to gray wood. 1 wanted to write words that made music played by trumpets and French horns and violins and deep vibrating cellos and 1 didn’t know how.
My bag for the hospital was packed. Lamyra, my best friend then, and I arranged that when the new baby started coming, I could call her. She would come to our house and take care of Rebecca.
Contractions started after midnight on the third day in May in the middle of a thunderstorm that broke an unseasonable heat wave. Through a wide window in the delivery room, I watched the storm move toward us. Lightning bolts struck on the far side of town, flared across the darkness so that for a moment the town’s skyscape stood naked under harsh light. My doctor, the same woman who delivered Rebecca and who was our family doctor, had left Austria in 1938 and come to the United States. Her husband was a physicist and pacifist. They had six children. She was an early practitioner in America of natural childbirth. All her patients called her “Dr. Gertrude,” or simply, “Gertrude.” She gave you your choice. Her white hair tucked under a funny, old-fashioned cap around which a lace ruffle had been sewn, she sat on a stool at the end of the delivery table. We were alone, she and I. She didn’t like nurses around until she needed them. I asked if she thought the storm would make the hospital power go down. “No,” she said and added, “You aren’t going to take long. By the time the sun comes up, you will have your baby, I promise.” She was 70 years old that year. She said I seemed very relaxed and asked if I minded if she took a little nap. 1 didn’t. She let her head fall to her chest and
began to snore.
The storm moved closer. Any minute I knew the world would change.
I winced and pressed down and grunted. Gertrude’s eyes came open and she was all business. In a mirror set high above the delivery table, I watched the head, wet with dark hair, slide out. I pushed again and Gertrude smiled, saying, “A girl. A big girl.” Sarah howled. Lightning hit so near the hospital that canisters on a metal stand next to the delivery table rattled. Sarah howled louder. I heard nurses saying how good she looked, how strong, how healthy. I heard the rain start, hit against the wide window. 1 pushed again and delivered the placenta. From the corner of my eye I saw an aluminum basin, big as a dishpan, the shining florid placenta filling the pan and the umbilical cord curled atop the placenta. I asked to touch the cord. I did. Then the sunlight split through the clouds and streaked the sky all the colors you see in an old bruise. I was so calm.
You stayed in the hospital then for at least three days. Children were allowed in only for deathbed goodbyes. So Rebecca and I could not see one another. Friends and my husband who came to visit me and to see Sarah I hardly dared ask, “How is Rebecca?” Tender and empty, I was desperately in love with this new baby who with her dark hair, dark eyes, looked so entirely different from her sister. I felt guilty. I felt the way years earlier on a Christmas morning I felt as I unwrapped a new doll and loved her fresh-painted cheeks and clean clothes and the little white socks that matched and her dolly shoes that buttoned with cunning jet buttons. I thought of my old doll in the doll bed in my bedroom, of the days she’d sat with me through scarlet fever and measles when my grandmother said I’d go blind if I so much as looked out a window, and of all the afternoon boredoms when I was supposed to sleep and instead my old dolly helped me devise games. How could I give over my heart to this new shiny creature and leave my old baby with her matted hair and both her socks lost and her toes stubbed so that you saw through their ends the material from which she was made?
We brought Sarah home, Big Dog and Rebecca following up the stairs, and settled her into the bassinet. Rebecca peered in at the face that would be her sister, then turned and put up her bare round arms to me, her hands bean vines ready to catch hold. I sat in the rocker, pulled Rebecca up onto my restored lap, and nuzzled the halo of her wild hair, lifted the hair and admired and sniffed her white neck. We kissed and kissed and rocked and rocked. I hugged the big-ribbed barrel of her body. Big Dog thumped his tail hard and arrhythmically, against the uncarpeted floor. He drooled.
Everyone we knew bought presents and hurried to our house to admire her, to say who she looked like and didn’t, say how dark her hair was and how much she had, how big her eyes, how brown. Everyone remembered to remember Rebecca.
Sarah was born with two teeth budded through her gums. When she suckled she suckled hard. From the first day she nursed as if she knew I would not offer enough. She nursed hastily, brutally, as if she suspected my body was a continent that any moment famine would overtake, where streams evaporated, locusts chittered, buzzards’ shadows tarred barren hills. Sarah looked up at me from huge brown eyes set in a narrow baby face. Her gaze seemed skeptical. She seemed older than any baby should seem.
I loved her. When I went into the downstairs bathroom where all fall I’d thrown up, I’d smile at myself in the mirror.
Nursing didn’t go well. Given Sarah’s teeth, first two on the top and then two more, my breasts were always sore. Gertrude, when Sarah was three months old, said switch Sarah from breast to formula. Sarah seemed relieved.
So did Rebecca. How difficult it must have been for Rebecca, at 17 months, from reigning in her mother’s heart, being always the first thought, to waiting for the baby to nurse, for the baby’s diaper to be changed, for the baby to be dazzled quiet with sleep. I don’t think there’s any doubt that for the first child, the second is paradise lost. She seemed hurt, but not unendingly. She tiptoed, she whispered, so the baby wouldn’t wake. Big Dog the first few weeks seemed unhappier than Rebecca, drooping about behind me, wanting the old pats on his head and the old red balls tossed I had no time for. He slumped, a tragedy on four legs. While I took to the rocker or couch or my bed and nursed, Rebecca stood by or sat next me, her mouth spilling the music of singular nouns a 17-month-old loves to hear: baby, dog. Big Dog, fish, Mama, doll, house, grass. While Sarah slept, Rebecca and I returned to our old games. Now, when we played or I read to her or we cuddled, I was always listening for her sister. We lived then
on people’s rather than animal’s time. We were no longer only each other’s.
Sarah liked her bottle. Food, she didn’t like. Back then, you started your baby on Gerber’s baby oatmeal at three months, you added applesauce and mashed banana at four, and strained vegetables and mashed potatoes at six. Sarah didn’t like the oatmeal, didn’t like the applesauce. Six months, seven, eight, nine, she would eat almost nothing. Bring her silver spoon to her mouth, she clenched her small face, pressed her lips so hard her lips turned blue and wrinkled like lips of an old woman who smoked all her life. She gazed out at me from brown eyes that seemed to have lived other lives before hers. She screamed as the spoon came toward her. Her scream hurt my bones. I was afraid she hated me. I was afraid she would starve.
I wooed her with applesauce stewed from the Golden Delicious picked from our tree. I romanced her with mashed pale slivers of poached Dolly Varden trout only hours from a high mountain stream, courted her with butterscotch pudding made from scratch and so tender a breath left it trembling. She frowned while she nibbled abstemiously from my hand; when I walked away to answer a ringing telephone, she pitched her toast strip to the floor where Big Dog worshipped at her highchair, fattening on what she tossed.
Gertrude checked and re-checked her. “She’s fine,” Gertrude would tell me. And no, I wasn’t giving her too much milk. Babies are all different, she’d remind me, just as adults are. She said “Bosh” to my worries and told me to mix Sarah’s Gerber’s baby oatmeal in the blender with banana and milk, pour this mixture in Sarah’s bottle, poke a bigger hole in the nipple and give her that for breakfast. “Then relax,” she said, “relax.”
I tried. All across town, I’d think, babies sit upright in their highchairs happily eating, mouths open, tongues awaiting the next delicious bite. Not at our house.
Sarah’s refusal to eat left me feeling refused. I felt pushed away with each push away of the spoon. What was wrong was wrong with me. I was untasty to her, not the food. Hadn’t, didn’t Rebecca eat everything I offered? Was it because that second time I did not want to be pregnant? Had my terror and “Oh, no,” and tears that followed, stirred deep a bitter taste in me that only Sarah could taste? “At best,” I would say to myself, “she can only choke me down.”
Rebecca had been a placid baby and outgoing. Sarah showed wary, sparing interest in others. Rebecca was colicky, was quick to catch colds, quick to whimper. Sarah went through her first year without a sniffle. She never spit up her milk. As Sarah’s teeth broke through gums, she did not cry or even fuss. She was stoic, self-contained, courageous in the bathtub where her sister at first had been frightened. She seemed almost feral, as if any moment she might revert to a life in the forest. You could imagine that nights, after we were all sleeping our dumb domestic sleep, she flew from her slatted crib out over fields outside town and hunted mice that ran between rows of corn.
I was afraid Sarah hated me, afraid that my troubled relationship with my mother would duplicate itself. Hadn’t my mother disapproved this second child, hadn’t she said, “How can you take care of two?” with the emphasis on “you”?
When Sarah’s father fed her, I was sure she ate more. When Lamyra fed her, I was sure she ate more. When they spooned mashed carrot or Gerber’s peaches into her mouth, she seemed to open wider. She seemed not to scream as often. I sat nearby and watched avidly. My hurt must have shown.
She would come to me in dreams, in her baby clothes, turned to skeleton. I would see her gaunt. I would hear her bones clatter when she turned in her bed. I would lift her from her bed and she would not weigh as much as a nickel, she would not weigh anything at all, she weighed so little that in my dream her Carter’s two-piece pajamas, across which lambs played, were empty of her. She was down to all soul and no body.
I made the mistake of telling someone who was in his first year as a graduate student in clinical psych about my dream and he, drinking coffee at my dining table, looked at me and said, “It’s all wish fulfillment, your dream. You want her dead.” He was only five years older than I was, and I was so young that five years older seemed old enough to be wisdom. I did not feel anywhere in myself I wanted her dead. I believed my feeling.
One Saturday at lunchtime, mid-summer, Sarah began to eat. I don’t know why. I had made chili, the regular old American hamburger, tomato sauce, garlic, kidney bean way. I offered her a bite and she took it. She took a second, third, fourth bite. I handed her a dill pickle slice. She ate that. She has been eating ever since, hugely, gratefully, as someone breathes deep who’s been starved for air. Never fat, never even chubby, she still eats more than anyone at any table. She is a mother now. When Nick was ready for solid food, he too evaded the spoon, twisted away his mouth, frowned, screamed. So I told Sarah this story.