ISSUE 110 APRIL 2008 CONTENTS HOME PAGE
Bette Bottger Simons
What would it be like if we could hold each other in our arms again? Strangely,
I would be old and you would be a young woman, like my Hilary. When she gets
off of an airplane, we hug so tightly. We are so happy to see each other.
Before long I will get bossy or intrusive and she will get temperamental,
but those first few moments of meeting again are so full of something intense
between mother and daughter.
I sent this letter to the doctor that delivered Hilary. I wish I could have had a mid≠wife, like you did, when you gave birth to Jewel and then me.
I never sent the letter. I burned it up. Later, when I studied to be a childbirth educator I learned that birth is a event for a woman that brings up old crisis of the past. Dr. Lusk was not an enlightened obstetrician, but he became a recipient of my strong feelings about how trustworthy the men one depends on in a crisis can be.
Later, I gave birth to two more children and had at least three rebirths of
myself as a person.
Iím, so angry, my jaw hurts. It does that a lot. A dentist says that I grind my teeth in my sleep, from tension.
I donít know why Iím still tense. My little daughter sleeps through the night now. Sheís nine months old, though she did get me up last night. She fussed without ever opening her eyes. I find her bottle and give it to her. If Iím lucky, she sucks vigorously and I tiptoe out, a waitress of the night.
We went to Mexico with friends over the weekend. My husband wanted to do it. I really didnít want to leave my baby, but he said it would be fun to drive down, with Millie, his old camping club buddy, her husband, and their friends. Everyone elseís children are older than our daughter Hilary is. Maybe thatís why they didnít worry.
It was ok at first. We hit the motel room and headed for the bed so fast.
I didnít have time to sniff like I usually do and get used to smells that
arenít familiar. We just rolled around and made love, right in the middle
of the day. But after that I couldnít stop thinking about my little girl,
even though my sister reminded me Hilary loves her kids, who are three and
five. I babysit for her children after school, until she gets home from her
job. Itís just a few hours, but she seems to feel so obligated and grateful
that asking her to babysit the weekend seemed to be a fair thing to do.
I didnít admit that I would rather be home, but the next day at breakfast, the Steinbergs, Milt and Millieís friend, got a call from Richard who was babysitting their daughters in their apartment. They had all been talking about Richard and his problems but they let him babysit anyway. He caused a fire in their place, being careless with cigarettes. The girls were ok, but we all drove back to L.A. right away.
I love it that Richard has problems. I have only been gone from my girl a night and three meals. She is in her cherry corduroy jumper and I bury my nose in her soft neck. She seems fine, but little Katie tells me Tommy threw rocks in the house. I have a collection of small samples of rocks we display. Some day I will study them, because they are all labeled as to what they are. Tommy really gets out of hand and my sister gets so disgusted. My sister is probably glad to get back home too, even though she lives in a small apartment.
She divorced her husband last year and gave up the house she was remodeling for them. I feel so sorry for her. She hardly has any money, but she always gets along. She always did.
But now she has done something so awful. She said the Goodwill came by while we were in Mexico and she gave them the old steamer trunk that was in our garage.
This was the steamer trunk that came with us, when we came to California after
you and our father died. We were just 4 and 6 years old. It had little girlís
clothes in the drawers that you had made. You sewed the same dress for each
of us. Iím not sure what all was in there, but I had planned to look again
one day when I had time.
Itís hard to analyze and Iím so angry, but I know I canít say anything to her.
Iím so glad to be back home with my baby, folding her diapers while she crawls on the floor. If only there wasnít this old soreness in my jaw.
I donít know who else
Thank you for giving birth to me,
Dear Grandmother Hildegard,
I am sitting in the babyís room, rocking our new little Steven, while Don reads to Hilary and Andy. Did I ever tell you that I thought of your name, Hildegard, when we named our girl, and of my fatherís name, Alfred, when we named our first son?
This handsome baby I am nursing is named Steven because his father was adamantly
against Garth, or Matthew, or Timmy. Steven is just right. Iím so grateful
to have three children.
Iím so lucky I have a husband who genuinely loves playing with his children and allows me to tend to this, my last baby.
Sometimes Don is like one of the children too, he doesnít listen if I say itís time for stories, not roughhousing on the floor. I feel like Mrs. Gradler, even though Iím the opposite of what she was. I learned to love little children when I was a first grade teacher. My marriage has been so healing for me, yet there is this spinster mother that wants to organize things and give out Pís and Fís if no one shapes up fast enough.
Itís hard work being a mother and I donít have help, the way my neighbor, Doris across the street does. She has housekeeper after housekeeper after housekeeper. I wouldnít neglect my children like that and give them so many losses. Even with all the help she has, I am usually the one who has her children and mine, playing here. I love it, but I wish she would help more. I donít say anything, but I am jealous of her a lot, even though two of her children are adopted and mine were all delivered by natural childbirth, which not too many women do.
I was going to have Steven, the way the hospital wants it done and not argue anymore, but when it came time to turn over for a spinal, I said, ďI canít, itís ok, Iíve had two other children without it.Ē
Iím glad I learned not to depend on a doctor for any kind of support, because this one was really mean, in his manner, that is. If I were a mid-wife or OB I would be so caring to a woman during pregnancy and labor. Iíd never try to make her ashamed of getting fat, and Iíd say supportive kind things during labor, not ďdonít push, in any angry voice.Ē I didnít let him take my thrill away. They put Steven on my stomach when he came out and I saw the umbilical cord. It was so strong, shiny and slippery-- twisting and curling-≠such a miracle, that my body made that to allow him to be formed. They put him aside and had him wait what seemed like such a long time, to get circumcised. He cried and I longed to hold him and when I finally got him when I was back in the hospital room, I held him close and kissed him. Itís going to be wonderful to have another baby and his labor was so much easier than the others.
Nursing is easier than with the others too. Iím really an experienced mother. I wish we werenít going to San Francisco for the weekend in four months. Don has a conference and I donít know how to say ďno.Ē But I donít want to leave this baby. I donít want my children to ever feel abandoned. Yet I canít abandon my husband either. I guess being a mother isnít so easy after all, but this is a beautiful, handsome baby who has fallen asleep in my arms.
a contented mother
I have learned how to have a baby without getting mad at the doctor, how to make bread and how to have a good vacation. Let me tell you about the worst vacation I ever had.
I remember standing in the bright sun up in the mountains, breathing rapidly from the altitude, I was already angry that USC was so disorganized about the way they were handling the registration for our family vacation at the Idlewild School of Arts. It seemed to take forever to get our campsite and the locations of the childrenís day camp areas.
Don and I would be taking recorder lessons, maybe we would get better for the chamber group that met at our house each week. All four of us in this group always started out sessions saying we hadnít practiced. This week of vacation Don and I would get good.
But what about the baby, Steven? How could I leave him with the Bluebird group and be in my recorder class at the same time? I didnít like the way things were organized at all.
I imagine the tent didnít even go up well. I got my period. The children wouldnít listen to Tom Sawyer that I brought to read to them and Don beat me at chess. The mosquitoes bit and I had a headache. Things did not get better for me that week. But our oldest, Hilary, took to the Eagles group with aplomb. Andy, eager as always, jumped right into his compound of little campers, the Squirrels or something, and got involved.
Steven and the Bluebirds where another matter. He was only two and even though the teacher, an experienced nursery school person, seemed so soothing, I left him crying and felt awful about it. She said he would be ok, but I knew Steven was a shy child, so choosing to go to my class was not pleasant. I didnít consider an alternative. I thought I would do what my husband wanted.
One of the first things we learned in the class was that we were going to put on a performance at the end of the week. Now the work was really grim. Donís recorder was out of tune. We seemed to spend a lot of class time with the teacher trying to do something about it. Memories of piano recitals and Steven crying tugged at me.
At noon, after we retrieved all the children and went to our campground. Things should have gotten better, but Don decided to pout. He used to do that. Get silent and not talk. I would jabber away and get more and more miserable.
The trash in the community bathroom never got emptied. Our campsite was in
the hot sun. The vacation continued like this. My daily quest was to let my
husband know how miserable I was because he wouldnít talk to me, and to note
that the trash wasnít getting emptied every day. Steven wasnít getting any
happier and the concert at which we would perform was getting closer.
The week had gone too slow. I felt miserable about looking forward to that performance and worse about Steven.
We took pictures during the week to remind us of the vacation. When I look at them now, I am still angry, but I see that I am angry at myself. I was thirty- seven years old. Why was I such a helpless woman? Why was I so unable to assert myself.
If I could relive those days. This is what I would do. I would stop asking the office when they were going to empty the trash in the community campground. I would get a large trash bag, put the trash in it and take it to them, asking them where they wanted me to put it. I think I wouldnít even be sarcastic. I would say, ďI donít mind helping, since someone keeps forgetting and this is important to me.Ē
I would stay with Steven in his nursery. Iíd have fun with him and the other twos. I would even go over and visit his brother with him. Thatís what would have made him happy.
Iíd forget the recorder class, even though it was paid for. Iíd let my husband decide if he wanted to stay with it. And I certainly wouldnít be in the concert. Iíd sit and hold Steven and listen to the poor suckers who had ruined their vacations practicing all week.
Iíd take time to read Mark Twain for myself. I might even buy an umbrella for shade and tell Don if he didnít want to talk to me, I was going to go look for some USC Professor that wanted to discuss Mark Twain. I might even have asked him to tell me what made him miserable, besides his lousy recorder.
You can see Iím old now, because Iím saying ďIf I had it to do over again...Ē Hindsight, without the hormonal fluctuations of the menses, is easy. Besides, I had to be this person I was for a while, in order to be who I am now. I had all these rules in my head about the way things should be and I couldnít obey them all and neither could anyone around me, especially the trash pick up boys. No wonder my husband clammed up.
That sun helped to wrinkled me up the way I am now, and that week at Idlewild helped me learn, eventually, how to have a real vacation.
Julie and I were about to give up looking for our birth home in Highland Park. She was convinced that Abbott Street had been cut off for new construction. Both of us had an old childhood memory of the house coming right to the edge of a sidewalk that went up a terraced cement hill. We didnít remember there being a street next to the sidewalk. I didnít want to give up. The letter carrier had said the address still existed and it was on an ďalleyĒ, so I drove around anyway, ignoring the feeling that a big sister usually knows best.
I thought I would remember this house on the hill by the big pepper trees that were in the yard. We played there under the pungent smell those ferny leaves could make, among the purple iris that had so many snails, the wooden frame house towering above us.
Clara told me that our father was angry I wasnít a boy. If itís a fact, itís something I neglected to worry about consciously most of my life. My memories of the house are dim. But the sun coming through the trellis into the window upstairs, in the big bedroom, the one where you labored to give me birth, that is an image that stays with me. And the picture of your mother sitting on the front stairs of the house, with Jewel in the wicker ďstrollerĒ. Thatís what we looked for.
We found the address eventually. It was on a mailbox in front of a shack. We said nothing. Then we realized the site of the old house was across the walk and a different house stood there. We walked up the stairs, to the street above. Surely this was the walk we took to school. It was a sunny day and the neighborhood was deserted. I picked up a bunch of plant material, some kind of fronds that looked like giant paint brushes, that had been dipped in orange. When I got home I washed off some of the smog and put them into a basket vase. They look quite nice, mother.
Before we came home, we went to the elementary school. It is an old one and hasnít changed, but nothing seemed familiar, except that the school is full of children learning English for the first time.
Itís a rainy day in Sherman Oaks. I just mended the roof of our old house, the one where I live with my good husband ó the house where I had three babies, who have grown up and left home. Iím old now. Iíve skipped a lot of what happened to me since your death, but I feel Iíve said enough for now.
I love this old house. I had so many houses and many rooms to live in before this one, that I love staying put here.
Did you once tell your Jewel to look out for me? She lives not far away and on many weekends helps me with chores in my child care center. Did I tell you sheís been called Julie most of her life? We are both hard working women, we werenít close for many years, but now we have put aside the childhood hurts that come from feeling thereís little enough love, and certainly not enough for two. Sometimes we still talk about you. ďWhat was she like?Ē I ask her.
I look at your pictures. I think you were shy, but loved to laugh with friends, like she did with her Elizabeth. The letters Iíve written you here are often sad, but I donít feel like a sad person. I feel grateful for what Iíve been given. Iíve stopped feeling sorry for the little girl who never saw her parents again, after that cold New Jersey winter. It has occurred to only recently, me how painful it must have been for you to leave two little girls and not finish out your life. Iíve lived a long one, already.
Thank you dear mother for being a good mother. I feel the way you nurtured me lasted for a lifetime. The pain of having lost you, taught me how to care for little children separated from their parents. I have run a child care center for many years.
So now I have told you most of what happened to me after we were separated.