airports, Antrim, baby, bookstores, Cancer, children's books, children's literature, Dolly Parton, heroic teachers, Ireland, ironing, Jane Dyer, laundry, life-work balance, Love Actually, Motherhood, Northern Ireland, parting, stay-at-home-mom, Sweet Sorrow in the Wind, The Irish Times, Van Morrison, working moms
I stayed home with my daughter for the year after she was born. It was the best year of my life. With her attached to me in one of those Baby Bjorn carriers without which I would have been completely unprepared for motherhood, as one of those hovering salespeople in Babies R Us had warned me before she was born.
Business was slow that first year. Just the way I like it. Some days I made it out of my pajamas, but that was only if I felt like walking out to the mailbox, unlike Dolly Parton, who apparently checks the mail in full makeup and heels. Fair play to her. Other days, I might even have showered, but mostly, I was a bit like the imaginative little girl I once was, the one who had to be reminded to wash her face or brush her teeth because she was so absorbed in play and a world of pretending. How I loved playing with my very own baby girl, feeding her, dressing her in miniature clothes with impossibly tiny buttons, brushing what little hair she had with a soft toothbrush, and bathing her in the kitchen sink. For twelve idyllic months, with my husband off at work, our girl was all mine, and I inhaled. Spectacularly high on new baby smell, I danced around a house filled with the sunshine and Van Morrison. Almost sixteen years later, a bottle of that new baby smell would go a long way, if only to mask the Teen Spirit.
There were interminable hours spent simply looking at her. Just. Looking. At. Her. Examining every tiny feature and flicker across her face, searching for resemblances to me, her father, her grandparents, and wondering how it was that two imperfect people had made this one perfect thing. She didn’t mind the attention. Or she did, but this was before she had words or discovered those beautiful hands that fly with expression today. I used to call it hand ballet.
Mostly, my baby girl bounced with curiosity and glee. When she cried, it was for food or comfort or just to let us know she was there. I couldn’t bear it. I hovered constantly (and still do, much to her chagrin). I was one of those mothers who picked her up the instant she began to cry at night. My mother made it worse, urging me to do so by reminding me that there would be plenty of times as an adult when my daughter would have to cry herself to sleep without me there to make it all better. Wouldn’t it be great if we mothers could bank all those hours of holding and comforting for such a time, like the night I lay in the ICU following eight hours of surgery while my fourteen-year-old girl wept in bed and rocked herself to sleep? This is why I hate cancer.
When the time came for me to return to work and take her to pre-school, I was wholly unprepared for the crying – mine and hers – that came immediately before and continued after I deposited her in the waiting arms of Bonnie, the cheery classroom assistant at a Montessori school where it seemed that all the other mothers didn’t have jobs outside the home. They loitered in the parking lot in their shorts and Birkenstock sandals, drinking coffee from mugs they had filled at home – this was in the days before there was a Starbucks on every corner. While I was not dressed like Dolly Parton for a turn at the Grand Ol’ Opry, I conveyed a vague impression of adulthood with my Anne Klein suits bought on sale at Lohemanns and my hair on the verge of sensible. But only on the verge – where I remain. I had returned to my career in education as an assistant principal, trying to impress on someone – most probably myself – that I was “A Professional Working Mother.”
Sophie was not impressed at all and showed it by crying, daily, all over my dry-clean-only blouses. In retrospect, I made this a much bigger deal than it was, realizing eventually that there must be some sort of lucrative pact between dry cleaners and the fashion industry. By accident, I discovered that if I didn’t put things in the tumble dryer, the dry-clean only blouses turned out just fine. And, after twenty something years, I have taken umbrage against the dryer, rarely feeding it anything other than towels and jeans. My husband, however, loves that machine. I still don’t get it. We live in a desert, and the clothes will dry if we just hang them on a clothesline, but nobody in our neighborhood has a clothes line in the backyard. None of my Phoenix friends have a clothes line in the backyard. Is this not bizarre, given that the sun shines most days and the fact that “doing a load of washing” is in my DNA, having grown up in Northern Ireland? In the old country, everybody hangs clothes out on the line and then runs like hell to rescue them when the rain invariably falls. Fitting, then, that the first thing I bought for my mother with my first real pay check from Antrim Forum, was a tumble dryer from the Electricity Board. I realize this is fast becoming a bit of a rant, that has nothing to do with where the love is, actually, but is it not illogical to own a tumble dryer. In Phoenix? I once asked Ken about it, and he just looked at me like I had two heads. Clearly, the directions were lost on him – “tumble dry low,” “remove quickly from dryer,” “dry flat,” or “dry clean only.” His favorite setting is Permanent Press, but I don’t think he knows what it means, because he never reads the manual or the labels on anything. To be fair, I don’t know what it means either because it doesn’t actually press anything permanently and more often than not has reduced some of my favorite skirts and shirts to napkin-sized deformities. My husband didn’t do the laundry back when I was pretending to be a grown-up. I did. So all the clothes were safe. And so was I. This is not to suggest that I’m dangerous, but, I am, as you know, on the verge.
In spite of my safe clothes and my sensible job, Bonnie wasn’t impressed with me. Mortified and avoiding eye-contact with her, I handed over my wailing, flailing girl, and Bonnie would try to placate me with reassurances that Sophie would be just fine as soon as I was out of sight. If only I would just leave . . . Although she had to say it three times, Bonnie showed amazing restraint and never once rolled her eyes as I stood there wild-eyed and fretting about the impending separation from my daughter. Irrational and crazed, I know, but I was mad that Bonnie would not be spending hours staring as Madonna (mother of Jesus, not of Lourdes) at my beautiful girl or cheering with delight and recording on film and in writing when she did something for the first time. Anything. I was mad and sad that I would miss the first time Sophie watered a plant in the school garden or threw a rock or cracked a nut or blew bubbles. I would miss telling my husband, my parents, my friends – just falling short of alerting the media – that she had experienced another developmental milestone as when she had spoken her first word, or clapped her hands for the first time, or let go of my hand and stood straight like a little warrior to my ovation, “Sophie’s standing! Sophie’s standing!”
I was insanely jealous that it would be the magnanimous Bonnie – not me – who had the magic trick up her sleeve that would distract my inconsolable daughter and make the damn crying stop. Walking away from my little girl writhing in the arms of “the other woman,” cleaved me in two. I’d pretend to leave, but I sat in the car with the air-conditioning on and the window down so I could torture myself by listening to the unmistakable sound of my child’s crying, and I would wait until the wails gave way to worn-out sobs, and she finally stopped. Then, I would reapply the makeup that I had cried away until my face matched the boring business suit and not even a glimmer of guilt-stricken working mother remained. Mind you, at the same time, all the other mother’s children were crying. It always amazed me that out of that early morning cacophony, each of us could pluck out the unique sound of our children’s specific anxiety. Mothers know the cries of their babies.
Around this time, I discovered a book by Kathi Appelt. Like me, Appelt knew the anguish of leaving a child. She experienced it again when her son was 12 and going off to summer camp. Bracing herself for how she would feel as he prepared to go off to college and inspired by the lovely Sweet Sorrow in the Wind sung by Emmylou Harris, she wrote “Oh My Baby Little One.” I found it on the discard table in a Borders when we still had a real bookstore where I could also get The Irish Sunday Times albeit on a Wednesday.
Every night, I read to Sophie the story of Mama Bird who reassured Baby Bird that every day when she was off at work, her love would still be with him. Magically, it would slip inside his lunch box or sit on his shoulder during playtime or nestle on his pillow at nap-time. At the same time, it would curl around Mama Bird’s coffee cup as she went about her daily business.
And every night, before closing the book and kissing her goodnight, I would ask Sophie, “Where’s the love?” and she would tell me as though it were a secret:
All around, mama. The love is all around.
How it eased those goodbyes every morning when I left her with Bonnie and numerous other teachers throughout the years. And there were lots of them. Never satisfied with her teachers because they never seemed to understand that I was her first teacher, that I knew her best, we kept switching schools. By the time she was in 2nd grade, my daughter had become a veritable tourist in the public education system, hopping from school to school, becoming ever more resilient, while I kept searching for that one teacher who would change her life as Mr. Jones had changed mine. Incidentally, we are still looking, and maybe, just maybe, when she enters her Junior year at yet another high school in the Fall, the superhero teacher will be waiting to turn her on to literature or art or history.
This summer, she is taking a college class, and as I watch her stride onto a college campus to study art with students who are ancient – at least in their twenties – as tall as me but infinitely more brave, I know she knows I am watching and waiting for her to turn around and wave. Poetic and perfect that I am now in need of Kathi Appelt’s rhyming verse:
So blow a kiss and wave good-bye – my baby, don’t you cry. This love is always with you Like the sun is in the sky.
She never lets me down.
Thus the day begins, each of us released to our respective distractions and mundanities, finding therein both delight and difficulty, the way we all do. Sometimes, in an unguarded moment at work, between emails and meetings, things that matter and things that don’t, I’ll wonder what she’s doing at school, and I’ll find myself smiling as I recall her as a three-year-old, fighting sleep with all her might and poring over Jane Dyer’s watercolor illustrations, searching for the love – a tiny red heart – cleverly hidden on each page.
And sometimes, I wish this book had been available to my own mother, given all the goodbyes and the sweet reunions we have shared at airports on either side of the Atlantic. I love that my baby girl knew that the love was all around long before Hugh Grant’s Prime Minister told us so in one of my favorite movies, Love Actually.
In the end, if you’re looking for love, you are sure to find it at any airport, where those who stay and those who go are often telling the only truths that matter:
Whenever I get gloomy with the state of the world, I think about the arrivals gate at Heathrow Airport. General opinion’s starting to make out that we live in a world of hatred and greed, but I don’t see that. It seems to me that love is everywhere. Often, it’s not particularly dignified or newsworthy, but it’s always there – fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, husbands and wives, boyfriends, girlfriends, old friends. When the planes hit the Twin Towers, as far as I know, none of the phone calls from the people on board were messages of hate or revenge – they were all messages of love. If you look for it, I’ve got a sneaky feeling you’ll find that love actually is all around.