Sunday, May 11, 2014

in mother words

a few weeks ago we had a wedding. my nephew, Sam, married the girl of his dreams in a beautiful, sweet ceremony followed by pictures and lots of music and dancing. the evening did not end with the fact of my mother in a viking hat, but that was part of it. this, from a woman who keeps her linens pressed and her bed made in crisp hospital corners. (i will blame her temporary debauchery on my nephew, who was her date for the evening, but maybe she is more like me than i imagined.)

i'll spare her and you with picture, because my mother is a woman of substance and  decorum. though i can't help but think that my father was laughing in the margins somewhere, marveling at the beautiful woman who for moment, claimed the girl he probably once knew. 

it's mother's day. a day fraught with expectation and much joy and sometimes disappointment for what is expected and not delivered. i have thought much about my mother today, though i was not with her, wondering if we as children delivered what she had hoped (meaning that my father had read her mind.) i remember mother's day azaleas that still bloom in the yard where she no longer lives, trips to Farbers for nightgowns and petitcoats, some of which she probably still has. she was always thankful, happy, gracious. was she ever disappointed? I never knew it.

(for the record, my own children did just fine.)

i wish i were more like my mother every day.

i have found myself today wishing i had been a better mother. had been wise and quiet like my own mother, (and yes, you can read that as i was fumbling and screaming much of the time), had everything in order so that (to this day) i can go into her closet and find exactly what she needs. 

my own children will not be able to do that. they will find files of papers they don't understand and an underwear drawer they will (i hope) just toss to the curb. my mother would be mortified at both of these facts.

more than 10 years ago i published a little book about mothering, knowing even then, as a mother of a college and a high school student, i knew pretty much nothing about how to do it. or do it right. it seemed like i was making the whole thing up as i went along... because by then, new problems experiences were presenting themselves to me at a swift pace. i couldn't help but think back to a time when all things seemed so foreign, so scary and yet, so simple...that time when you are just beginning to be a parent... maybe the mothers of you out there will find a bit of yourselves in this. i wish (both) of my children would read it. 


When I gave birth to my daughter on a frigid morning in December almost 20 years ago, I thought that meant I had become a mother. A baby to rock and coo to, that’s what I’d wanted for so long. But it wasn’t until a few days later that my transformation occurred. It happened when my own mother, who’d come to take care of us for awhile, walked out my front door with my husband and said: “Give her a bath while I’m gone.”

Now you have to know my mother to understand the power of these words. Take a bath, she was always telling me while growing up, and make it scalding. It’ll serve to scrub away whatever ails you, be it headache, splinter or broken heart.
She’d been right, of course. I’d even followed her advice not four days before. Tired of being swollen and perpetually in wait, I lowered my nine-months’ pregnant body into a scalding tub and sat, knowing this was exactly what my mother would advise me to do. And believe me, it soon cured what ailed me and my baby. A few hours later, in the middle of the night, the baby who would be named Meredith told me it was time to come into the world.

A week later, when Mama handed my daughter over to me before heading out the door, she knew full well that “Give her a bath” was code for me — her own baby girl — instructing me to take my place among the mothers of  my family. It was time, not to take the bath, but give it.

Of course I resisted. I’d watched her give Meredith a bath on the giant sponge on my tiny bathroom counter, but aside from wringing a dripping washcloth over her squirming body, I’d never been in charge. I had no idea how much baby bath to use or if I should wash her hair. Where would I put her while the water was heating up? What if it got too hot? How would I, with only two hands between me, find all the soiled places between her folds, hold her slick form without dropping her on the floor?

I heard the door slam behind me and pondered all these things in my heart. Then at stared at the pink form in my arms, realizing for the very first time, that my mother would be going home soon, and this baby was mine to keep.
As I remember this, I think about the time we’d been studying the Chinese culture in 6th grade, and I asked my mother if I could take one of her china bowls for show and tell.

“Only if you don’t break it,” she said to me. So I wrapped it carefully in newspaper, put it in a paper grocery bag and set out. That afternoon I triumphantly walked the mile home, juggling my mother’s bowl and an armful of books. I made it all the way to the back door, then paused, the books and the bowl in one arm, trying to open the door handle. Need I say more?  If I couldn’t be trusted with a china bowl, how on earth could I be trusted with a baby?

I thought about not giving her a bath at all and just saying I did. I mean, she looked clean enough to me. But after 20 years of living under the roof of the master of bath giving, I knew full well she’d find me out.

Poor Meredith. I tried to be gentle. Her wide eyes watched as I tested the water and soaped the soft cloth. She was tiny, slippery, not six pounds, but to me she weighed 16. I was as careful as I knew to be, and after a minute or two, my heart slowed a little, and I began singing to her, marveling at the very idea that this tiny form was so much a part of me.

When my mother came home that afternoon, Meredith was not only clean but fed and burped, and I’d finally begun my journey as her mother.

Soon enough, though, you learn that when you are out in the world with your new baby, everyone becomes your mother. They are well-meaning when they tell you you’re holding her the wrong way, offer advice on how to properly burp her or what to do if she won’t stop crying. Sometimes their advice is worth keeping.

I learned this lesson on my first trip out of the house with Meredith when we paid our first visit to the pediatrician office, where the waiting room is command central for mothers who claim to know more about how to raise a baby than the mother sitting next to them.

This was January, middle Georgia, and though that part of the south is known more for its gentle winters, 1984 began as the year before it had ended, biting cold and blustery.

I had dressed Meredith for her first outing, first in t-shirt and diapers, then in tiny white tights and pink sailor dress. Next came a hooded sweater and socks. After that, a quilted snowsuit that was so big her feet didn’t reach the toes. Then came a blue toboggan, bought when we thought sure she’d be a boy. The final layer was made up of two, mind you, two soft blankets.

So tightly-bound was she that you could barely see her tiny face. Her body wouldn’t bend in the car seat, not doubt, since she’d doubled her weight in the 10 minutes it took me to dress her. Never mind. My baby would not be catching cold in this weather.
When I reached the doctor’s office, the nurses gathered around to see her. I beamed, at this most perfect creature I’d created, almost by myself.

“Take some of these covers off this baby,” said one of them, surely a mother of 10. Could she tell that I’d been at it less than two weeks?

I stood back, mortified, as she began to peel the layers away from my newborn, revealing the face of a child who has loved hot weather ever since.
 “Always be sure that you give her space to breathe, ” the nurse told me.

(If I’d tried to take Meredith out of the house when my mother was still visiting, not doubt she would have been the one to give me this advice. I related this story to my sister, and she admitted that though her daughter was born in the middle of August, the first time she took her outside, she wrapped her accordingly. My mother, who was a witness to this folly, was quick to remove the layers from my niece, lest she have a heat stroke. )

Give her a bath, give her room to breathe. I think of my own mother, and how many times she bathed me, not only in scalding water to scrub my ills away, but in the love she showered me with while I was growing up. I had no other model and surely I didn’t need one. She gave me room to breathe too, to learn the ropes without her looking over my shoulder every minute.

When I look back on these almost 20 years of being a mother myself, I know I’ve tried to follow these two rules. Meredith knows all about the power of the hot bath, and though she may think I’ve suffocated her with my questions about her life, I hope she can appreciate those times when I’ve given her some needed air, allowing her to shape her own future the way she feels is right.

There may be times for each of us, when as daughters, we are asked to mother our mothers. When my turn comes for that, I hope I can heed my own advice, for even mothers sometimes need to be bathed, not only with water, but in love and understanding. And I can tell you for sure, we will never outgrow our need for space to breathe.

writemuch.blogspot is the original work of author susan byrum rountree. all written work and photography is copyright protected and can only be used with written permission of the author.