This is a re-write of my earlier chapter “I Am Born”.
It was a few days before Memorial Day 1929, the last week in May. My maternal grandparents were out on the town, partying in the rumble seat of their best friends’ Buick Coupe. Mémère loved to dance and sing, personifying the quintessential Roaring Twenties gal. She liked her fashion glitzy and glamorous, and her Prohibition beverage of choice was brandy. She dyed her hair reddish brown and had it cut in a stylish bob. Mémère was also six months pregnant with my mother at the time, and her water broke as the coupe bounced down the pot-holed dirt road into town.
I had just put my knitting down and had risen to take the whistling kettle off the stove for a cup of chamomile tea when my water broke on that warm Sunday afternoon. May 1981. I was wearing my favorite purple heather hand-sewn maternity jumper. Underneath I wore a cozy white cotton turtleneck that had been stretched to its limits with my swollen belly. I leaned back a little, rubbing my lower back as I crossed the room. I brushed a few strands of my long brown hair out of my weary eyes and noticed that my ankles had swollen that day for the very first time. I was a Back-to-the-Land type, a do-it-yourselfer. Gardening, bread baking, quilting.
Mémère shrieked as the cold amniotic fluid seeped onto the seat and soaked the hem of her dress. “Gerrrrald! The baby! The baby’s coming!!”
My grandmother always tended to shriek with emphasis when she was anxious. That night the amniotic fluid and the brandy flowed together to render a potent mix of anxiety.
I remained calm. I hadn’t had a glass of wine since Christmas. It took me a minute to associate the puddle on the parquet floor with the fluid that had cushioned my sweet babe for the past seven months. This was too early. I had just had an ultrasound the week before last. It couldn’t be. But it was.
Mémère and Pépère were hastened back to the triple decker. Pépère helped her down onto the running board and then carefully up the stairs to the apartment before he sprinted off to fetch the doctor.
Roger had just cracked open a Budweiser, turned on the TV, and put his feet up on the coffee table to watch the final game of the NBA Eastern Conference Finals—the Boston Celtics vs Philadelphia 76ers. The Celtics would wipe out a double-digit deficit in the second half and defeat Philadelphia 91-90 in Game 7. A huge game that Roger had been anticipating. I grabbed my overnight bag and called the doctor and let him know that we were on our way.
Pépère and the doctor arrived barely in time to deliver my mother. Pépère wouldn’t be pitching for his local baseball team that weekend. He was their star pitcher, a lefty known in town for once pitching a perfect game. The young doctor shook his head nervously. Mummy weighed a mere two pounds. There weren’t a lot of options back then for a premature home birth. The doctor returned his instruments to his black leather bag.
Roger drove as swiftly as he could on Route 28. Thankfully it was off-season and traffic was light. The two birthing rooms were occupied so I was prepped in an old-fashioned delivery room, but happy to be there. Considering the circumstances, our baby took his time arriving. The transition from initial contractions to delivery took six hours.
In the third floor tenement apartment, the doctor asked Pépère to find a shoebox. He nested Mummy in the box like a robin chick found beneath an apple tree in April, wrapped her with a diaper folded over multiple times and configured into a swaddling blanket. His instructions were simple. “Keep her in the oven with the door open.” It was a gas oven.
He tapped his bowler onto his head, while Pépère accompanied him to the door. “Best of luck to you,” said the doctor.
Christopher was swiftly transferred to an incubator with an IV and oxygen. I waited anxiously for the results of his initial examination and the determination of his Apgar score. Our new pediatrician came in to introduce herself, flipping open her wallet to a school photo of a smiling little girl as she pulled a chair up to my side.
“Don’t you worry about Christopher even a second,” she said, holding the photo up closer for my viewing. “This is my little preemie. She’s in first grade now. Straight A student. Christopher is going to be fine.”
Mummy thrived in the warmth of the gas oven on Old Town Road. She’s never been sick a day in her life, with the except of that gallstone operation back in ’74. She’ll be 87 when the lilacs bloom.
The next day, when the doctor appeared on his morning rounds, I had tiny Christopher unwrapped as I gazed in amazement at the gift of life before me. His color was yellowed with jaundice, not like the pink skin I had imagined. He was as fragile as a newly hatched chick. I explored his tiny toes and fingers, the transparent fingernails, the little chest lifting with each miraculous breath. I gently grasped his tiny hand between my thumb and forefinger. A spray of lilacs bloomed on my bed stand, cut from the homestead bushes where we built our home. It filled the room with sweet memories.
Kim Carnes’ “Betty Davis Eyes” was playing softly on the hospital sound system. Christopher’s eyes were large for the size of his tiny head that was not much bigger than a tennis ball. His knit cap was loose. I lifted him and stroked his hand as he sucked at my breast.
“It looks like you two are doing fine. You’ll be on your way in a few more days,” said the doctor.
We drove home on Mother’s Day 1981. Christopher is now a happy healthy 34-year-old. The little bird has fledged.