What Mother Means by Anne Colwell

empty diner booth

“It was only about six inches long,” Nora said. She had been wearing something loose, maybe a skirt, and Geri, who at eight months old had just started to crawl, played with blocks on the kitchen floor while Nora cooked; it happened in the apartment in Inwood, Upper Manhattan, before they’d moved to the row house in Queens. The pain came and the bleeding and then what there had been of the baby. She stopped cooking; she wondered what she’d been making. She couldn’t remember. “There wasn’t much blood,” she said, “just a little bit and then this tiny thing, just six inches. It weighed nothing.”

This is my mother-in-law’s story.

We got started talking about pregnancies because the girl who’d been playing at her feet that day, her daughter, Geri, who is now forty-three — one year older than I am — wants to have a baby. My sister, one year younger, is trying to have her second. It turns out to be one of the most intimate conversations we’ve ever had, we ever will have. I wish I weren’t driving. I pull into the slow lane and try to concentrate on her voice. I imagine telling James later, “You won’t believe what your mother and I talked about!”

Nora worked as a nurse, brought over from Ireland to England during the Big War, educated only because of the nursing shortage. If it weren’t for this chance, she’d have stayed on their poor mountain farm in Tipperary. She’d never have come from England to New York. I grip the wheel harder, let the trucks pass me, watch the faces of these mountains darken with the scudding clouds. Her Irish brogue is in my ear. I am in Virginia, not Tipperary, but I think that the mountains must darken with the same stoic resolve everywhere. My husband James is an actor at a theater in Staunton and we spend the fall commuting back and forth between Virginia and Delaware. “Call Nora” is on my to-do list as I drive home every Sunday, an obligation. No one could describe our relationship as close, but she is James’s mother and alone since his father, Bill, died. I call to check in and keep her company, and when she answers she says, “Oh, Anne,” like she was vaguely hoping it was someone better.

But this Sunday is different. This Sunday, miraculously, we speak together as women. We say “womb” and “blood,” “nipple” and “milk.” We sound like mothers.

As we talk about the things that Geri and my sister are facing, fertility treatments and fears, Nora apologizes for how little she remembers of the particulars that Geri told her, the treatments – what drugs she might be taking, what procedures they are considering. “You’d think I’d know it,” she says, “but they didn’t teach us any of this back then. You, you girls, understand so much more now about it all, about getting pregnant. We thought it was just God’s will, you did or you didn’t.”

That’s when she starts to tell me the story of her miscarriage. It happened in 1964, the year I was born. Her telling me this Sunday is terribly ironic, though the depth of the irony doesn’t strike me until years later.

Nora doesn’t know that James and I have resolved this weekend that we won’t have “children of our own,” as people say. James had joint custody of his son, Thomas, and his first wife and her husband lived down the road from us until Tom was nine. When they decided to move to Massachusetts, a wrenching blow for us, Tom lived with us summers and came every holiday and some weekends. Other weekends we’d drive there. This weekend, sitting in a coffee shop in Staunton, Virginia, while the rain pelted the plate glass windows and the passing cars crawled by outside with their headlights on and their wipers struggling to clear the torrent, we did not so much decide as acquiesce to the truth that our lives would not include the experience that he had with his first wife, the moment when you both realize that, together, you’ve made a new life. It was like many of the most important moments: quiet, calm. We hadn’t even meant to talk about it. The conversation drifted toward children, friends who were expecting. We were sipping coffee, looking out at the rain falling, and then James said, “I guess we are passed that now.” I said that I guessed so too. We held hands. He said, as he had many times before, “I’d love to have a daughter with you.”

The question comes like this, “Didn’t you ever want children of your own?” Well-meaning friends, acquaintances ask it – this strange question. I’ve thought of all kinds of answers: “What do you know about my life?” “I want peace in the Middle East. I didn’t get that either.” “Didn’t you ever want manners?” But I never know what to say. My chest tightens and my throat. I’ve known my step-son since he was fourteen-months-old. I tell Tom, “I didn’t carry you in my body, but I carry you in my heart.” He will be twenty-one in two weeks; he’s in his own custody now. But, to most people, Thomas counts only for James and not for me; he is my own and not my own. His mother, Celeste, is beautiful and kind and deeply good. He has “a real mother,” and I have sometimes struggled to explain my role as mother. I joked with James that I was an adverbial mother, a “mommly.” But now, as I let go of, or let pass by, my chance of being anyone’s “real mother,” I’m trying to puzzle out, finally, what mother means.

So the irony is deep that it is this weekend that Nora tells me about her miscarriage as I drive home, and I wonder now how she knew what she could not have known? Was it something in my voice? Something in her mother’s brain that knew without entirely knowing the words we’d spoken?

In 1964, the doctor told Nora that her miscarried pregnancy was not viable, that there was some terrible problem with the fetus or the miscarriage wouldn’t have happened. He told her not to grieve, that it was better the baby didn’t live. “Too soon after Geri,” she said, though she wanted another and quickly, too. She hadn’t been young when she and Bill married. The painlessness of the miscarriage surprised her, and so did the pain of the loss. “There’s no one to talk to about it,” she said, “there’s no funeral or even special prayer.” Maybe because Nora is Irish Catholic, this is the hardest thing, a loss without a rite. She worried – her biggest worry – about the afterlife; the baby wasn’t baptized. She went to confession and told the priest her story and he said she should have baptized the baby. In such cases, he said, an emergency rite would have counted. But no, he told her, no, there was nothing she could do now.

I picture my mother-in-law forty years ago, kneeling on the tiles of her kitchen floor, bleeding, trying to lift the infant girl who crawled where the bloody mass that would have been another child had just fallen. She should, she thinks, have lifted them both and said, “I baptize thee in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.” But what name could she have given? She says she has wondered this many times.

Just months before, she and Bill had named their girl Geraldine after Saint Gerald, patron saint of pregnant women, whom Nora had prayed to when she’d had difficulty and fears, prayed to because she wanted a girl. What saint to invoke here? Can you baptize something, someone, who’s already gone? And if she had given this child, who came and fled in the same instant, a name, would she be a mother again? Are you a mother when life passes through your body, no matter what? Is that, in and of itself, miracle enough?

When you become pregnant with a child, the cells of that child remain in your body until your death. So, mothers who bear sons have cells with XY chromosomes, a revenant, a continuous physical connection to the child who passed through them.

Tom’s real mom, James’s first wife, Celeste, adopted her two foster daughters, Katie and Kelsey. The “real mother” of these two blonde girls, a crack addict and an alcoholic, neglected and abused them. Katie, whom her mother had named Destiny, came to Celeste first — underweight, eyes sunken, never smiling, never speaking. As Celeste and her husband cared for Katie, day by week by month, she began to speak, to smile, to eat. Later, Celeste got a call in the middle of the night; Katie’s natural sister had been brought to the hospital. The child had been shaken and abused and Social Services would remove her from her mother’s custody. “Do you want the sister?” they asked. Celeste said, “There was never a question.” Kelsey suffers still from the effects of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, but the therapists all say she makes amazing progress. In Celeste’s house, there are pictures of the girls everywhere. If you spin in a circle in the center of the living room, you can watch them grow before your eyes. Their pictures stand beside Tom’s, and, in those pictures, dressed in their matching green velvet Christmas skirts or their white Easter hats, they are smiling, beautiful, loving, and loved.

For me, this is more than Solomon’s question. My own mother, like Katie’s and Kelsey’s, suffered from addiction and alcoholism. I am lucky; my mother was different. She tried hard to recover, had long periods of sobriety. My father and our middle-class upbringing shielded my siblings and me from the worst of the horrors that Katie and Kelsey faced as infants and toddlers. My father did everything he could, finding expensive facilities and borrowing money for them, caring for us and working. I am lucky, too, because, like Katie and Kelsey, I had the good fortune to find loving people who served as “substitute mothers” when I needed them most in my life: my grandmother, my best friend’s mom, many kind teachers, and especially my sister, and my brothers.

When my mother talked about her life before she had us — had me really because I’m the oldest — she told happy stories, told and retold them with relish: dates with popular boys, parties on the beach, how well she did in college, her happy mornings teaching eighth grade, each year a new sea of eager faces. Her advice on marriage: “Wait as long as you can.” When she spoke of her life as a wife and mother living in the suburbs, the words tasted of ash, the bitter irony of a dream achieved at great cost that turns out to be worthless. “Big moments in little lives,” she’d say, right after telling you that she’d bought new shoes on sale or that Clementine oranges were back in season. “Another Saturday night in the big city”: this when we’d gather after dinner to watch TV. She went from being a woman with some measure of independence, with a career she cared about and the feeling of confidence that gave her, to having four children in five years: three in diapers at once. Cloth diapers. No Huggies or Pampers; no diaper service.

My father later told me that my mother had always been a heavy drinker. I don’t know when he first knew that her drinking was a problem, that she suffered from the disease of alcoholism. I do know the first time I saw her drunk I was six or seven. All four of us children had spent a Friday night with my grandmother while my parents were painting the kitchen. On the phone that Saturday morning, my mother had promised to come and take us all to the zoo. She’d sounded happy, elated even; we would have an adventure, ride the monorail, see the giant turtles and the big cats. But when she arrived that afternoon, she sat in the corner of my grandmother’s yellow kitchen, her hands dangling between her legs, slurring her words, the muscles of her face strangely loose.

“You sound funny,” my brother said.

“Your mother’s very tired,” my grandmother explained; then she said, “It must be the paint fumes.”

Then, amazing as it seems now, we got in the car to go to the zoo, my mother behind the wheel, my grandmother in front in a blue pillbox hat, the four kids tumbling loosely around the back seat. Fortunately, we got just a block or two before she drifted into the median and hit a stop sign. How she had made the hour drive from the suburbs to my grandmother’s house in the city I’ll never know. The police came, and then my father. Though everyone but the children must have known she was drunk, no one in those days would have accused her, given her a breathalyzer – not a woman driving a car full of kids in the middle of the day, not in that neighborhood, not in those years. My grandmother said something about paint fumes again. My father treated my mother as though she were sick. I didn’t realize what had happened that day until I was in my early thirties.

Maybe the first meaning of mother in the dictionary of our lives will be whatever our own mothers write there. For me, mother means deep yearning. I yearn for the day at the zoo we didn’t have, a day that represents the unfilled possibilities of my own mother’s life. I yearn to be able to accept myself as a mother, to accept the fact that I won’t be a mother, that this is a kind of miscarriage. A life that might have been is gone. It is painless, but there is loss.

I yearn to find other meanings for the word, to mother in different ways, to add or create meaning for the word mother by the way I mother Tom, my students, or by the mothers I have found and keep finding by mutual adoption. I also know that, in that rainy coffee shop, I lost something real. In the center of me is a cradle that I will not use. A possibility that has emptied and renewed itself every cycle of the moon since I was eleven-years-old. My mother told me that to fulfill that possibility, to be a mother, was death, a stultifying hell that she used booze to escape from. Children, we – I – stole her youth, her looks, her joy, her purpose in life. She both meant and didn’t mean what she said, and, like our failed zoo expedition, I lived through the wreck without understanding it.

Now, at forty-two, I’m trying to write my way toward the words “real mother,” to know if I’ve been one, to know if I’ve had one. I feel like I’m rowing a boat against a storm current. Each stroke that should get me closer keeps me only in the same place. What does it mean for a mother to miscarry? Can you be a mother if you’ve never been pregnant? Never born a child in your body? Can we consecrate absence and loss, forgive it, name it, hold it, and give it up?

Anne Colwell writes poetry, fiction, and nonfiction. She has published two books of poems, Believing Their Shadows, (Word Poetry 2010) and Mother’s Maiden Name (Word Poetry 2013). She received both Emerging and Established Artist Awards in fiction, poetry, and nonfiction from the Delaware Division of the Arts. Her poems, short stories, and essays have appeared in several journals, including:  Bellevue Literary Review, California Quarterly, Southern Poetry Review, and The Madison Review. She has been a member of the staff at Bread Loaf Writer’s Workshop and a visiting professor at the University of Granada in Spain.

STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr Creative Commons/Miss April NYC

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