Wednesday, August 25, 2010

vigil

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There is a brown vinyl looks-like-woodgrain photo album propped on the bottom shelf of Bean's bookcase. It is filled with small squares of photos, the kind no one makes anymore, pictures of my childhood. There are images of me eating cake and picking kittens up by their tails and my grandparents - all four of them, now gone. There are little snaps of Life With Whimsy: funny sleeping poses and too-big ballerina tutus and standing naked as a jaybird in the kitchen sink. These pictures represent every bit of documentation from my childhood, notes from my mother in the margins, a few bits of ephemera floating free at the back of the book. The love and tenderness is palpable in each snapshot. When you sit down with this book, the love escapes the book binding and rises in a cloud of comfort. Occasionally I will sift through the book, and in doing so I live my childhood in fast forward. I watch myself grow from scrunchy-faced newborn to pixie-haired schoolgirl in just a few turns of vinyl page. My first few months on the planet represented in a handful of pictures and nothing more. Time and camera film as editor for my life experience.

I've asked my mom a few times about offhand memories not living in the photo book--- things I said or my first steps or my favorite game to play when I was two. I don't blame her for it, but she doesn't remember these things. Time and four children do that to a person, and besides, there's a book--- myself living on in perpetuity as a chubby-cheeked toddler and the one-year-old with the long brown curls. I satisfy my curiosity by looking at Bean, knowing that she and I have so many similarities. I wonder how much of myself is mirrored back at me when I look in her sweet face.

The same sweet face that is cataloged and categorized and documented with painstaking detail in these virtual pages on the internet. Where I have a single book, a small smattering of photographs dedicated to telling the Story of Whimsy, Bean has this diary of her life represented at The Creamery. Her smiles and laughs, her foibles and funnies. The times she has driven me crazy and the times she has singlehandedly caused my heart to explode beyond my ribcage for the joyous love that I feel for her. There is such a dramatic difference in the two biographies. Not just in sheer volume, either, but the raw things I say here of inadequacy or worry or bald-faced irritation... I can't imagine coming across something like that scrawled in the margins of my photo album.

And then there's this: the tedious bits of daily life caught here in full digital beauty. I turn the pages of my brown book and am whisked from zero to eight in a few short seconds, but here---- here where I agonize over feedings and sleep issues and doctor visits in painstaking detail, the sheer volume of a child's life is here on these pages and I can feel their weight piling up as she reaches milestone after milestone, birthday atop birthday atop birthday and so on.

Late Monday night I was thinking about all of this, thinking about my experience of motherhood and Bean's simultaneous experience of childhood. It was dark in the bedroom when I burst in on Bean, her face red and her breathing ragged. She was standing over the edge of her crib, doing her level best to throw up in a single spot on the carpet (bless her heart). Damage was done, of course, with bits of it collected in her hair, on her sheets, her blanket, her stuffed buddies. I helped her through the worst of it with towels and blankets I snatched quickly from her closet, then we headed to the bathroom for a warm tub and a hair wash.

As I threw bedding and buddies and any hope of sleep for myself in the washer, I considered that brown photo album and all the things that aren't caught on those pages. The nights my mother spent doing this exact chore, the moments of time for herself that she blew away with a single sigh as I climbed into bed between her and Winston. I thought about the quiet words of comfort she would whisper when I was feeling terrible and sick, how she was able to convey perfect confidence and I never worried that things wouldn't just magically feel better in the morning. She said it was so, and so it was. Every time.

Because it's not in the book, I have no reference to my mother's daily life with me or her reaction to me when I was, um, less than picture perfect. I have no proof of her worries or frustrations or the times she might have wanted to chuck me out the window. I have no idea how it was for her in a house with four children--- each of them so different, each of them with demands of their own, each of them needing the whole of her attention and love and nurturing influence. Without the ability to read these stories in a book or see their photographic evidence, I can only imagine and try to recall my dusty experiences from memory. The things I do imagine, and the memories I am able to resurrect tell me she was (and is) a wonderful mother. Attentive and kind and comforting and so very soft--- her voice, her skin, the way she would rock me on that orange floral chair in the living room.

There is so much here at The Creamery for Bean to visit one day. When she is old enough to read these archives, she will visit those precious few days when she was very much brand new. When I wondered over her milky breath and her perfect skin. When I could get drunk on her paper thin eyelids and listen to her small grunts and snorffles with delight. When Bean is old enough to read these pages, she will visit herself from my perspective. She will see and hear and feel the wonder and beauty of Alice---- and hopefully she will come to know, and be reminded of, how much I adore her. The archives will be hers one day to know what was and what is, and I can only hope that she will feel the love here, palpable and knowing.

But just as my photo album has holes, bits of time and experience missing, there are things that I live in my days with Bean that will never fully be represented here in these pages. Like bringing Bean back to bed in the early morning hours, and my simultaneous delight and irritation at having her get pretzel crumbs in our bedsheets. Like the simplicity of our days together and the fun we have running errands or being in the car or saying hello to the balloon man. And the darkness of a sick little girl, her body limp and exhausted, brought back to sleep in bed next to me.

There is a universal truth about the mother's vigil: no matter how it is captured or conveyed. She worries silently in the dark over the restless body of her child. She runs through the possible solutions, the potions she might provide for relief, the things she needs to gather for her arsenal. She stands tired at her child's door, listening for coughing. She presses a cold cloth to a fevered forehead. She prays for comfort. She watches for morning. And the night is never so long as the night she's living through in that singular moment.

It's the vigil of motherhood that will never be fully represented in words or pictures or any medium you can name excepting one--- deep inside a mother's heart. I could devote a thousand pages to telling you what it's like and never get it right. I know why there aren't any pictures of my mother caring for me when I was sick, or notes about how long it took her to make my Halloween costumes: because these things are part and parcel of that vigil of motherhood. And there are no words for such things, no picture to tell that story.

Just the love that remains, the cloud of it rising above our heads and hearts, circling the planet.


3 comments:

Beths said...

This was just beautiful, mama. I know just that woodgrain album. And the square photos with the yellowed tape.

It's funny because, when I think about my own life, I have snapshots in my mind of these memories that are captured in photographs, but the memories are mostly the photographs. And then I have these other memories that weren't captured at all. Some good, some bad, some mundane. But they're somehow more real because they're not limited to that one visual image on paper. Does that make sense?

So, thinking of Bean, I remember this one time in a doctor's office when I was so sick and just ragged. I was probably just two years old (I have really really early memories). I remember sucking my thumb and rubbing my mom's thumb nail back and forth over and over with my middle finger, and it was so soothing. It brings tears to my eyes just thinking about it. I felt so bad, but there was my mom, and she was taking care of me and making things better, and I didn't have a silky blanket edge, but her thumbnail was just as soft. That's something you can't capture in a photo - or even in words, really. There's a reason I tear up when I think about it, but there's no way I can convey that, ever.

wandering nana said...

Beautiful.

Sarah said...

I love this post. I lost my Mom 3 years ago and I have so many of these memories that you so beautifully described. Feeling of happiness, comfort, and love that you can't specifically describe but remember the feeling of. I forwarded this to my sister because it was so beautiful.