Thursday, December 31, 2009

Of Sepia Memories and Maternal Fear

My husband and I have always daydreamed about having more children.  My husband is particularly baby-crazy.  He looks longingly upon newborns he sees in stores and museums and points out all the pregnant ladies. He glories in his offspring, shaking his head in frank admiration.   It is as if he cannot believe his good luck in finding himself so honored by their holy presence.  He giggles in delight at the sound of their running feet or at their goofy facial expressions.  He finds brilliance even in their burps.  "Wow!  Nice one!"  He has even commented to me that he feels pity for other parents who can only feel the sting of their own children's inferiority in the presence of our children's obvious beauty and brilliance.  I think perhaps he was born in the wrong time.  Sepia photographs of our rural country family sprawled across the front yard are more his speed.  The men, with twinkling eyes and hats doffed to expose the pale foreheads above sunburned faces, hold babies and toddlers while more small children sit on their mothers' and grandmothers' comfortable laps.  Older children by the dozen sit in front of the grown-ups, earnestly gazing into the camera lens as a big dog, as obligatory as the broad front porch, rests in the sun.  I can imagine my husband's face beaming earnestly out of one of those old photographs, a grand old patriarch with houseful of children, a yard full of children, an extravagance of children.

But those beloved faces, with snapping bright eyes and twinkling eyes, warm eyes and bemused yet sorrowing eyes, have long passed from our sight.  Apart from the photographs and daguerrotypes lovingly preserved in the old chest of drawers, they and their world are gone.  There is little need to fill a farmhouse with stout-limbed, rosy-cheeked youngsters.  We have no fields for planting, no eggs for gathering, no horses for hitching.  And the world is strained and over-crowded.  No matter how much my husband and I long for more children, there is no room for them here.

No room.  No money.  Limited natural resources.  A lousy economy.  A deteriorating environment.  All of these are the reasons I give myself when I must daily mourn the loss of children never conceived.  None of it really helps.  Some women are content with no children or with their one or two.  I fear I may be more animal in nature.  As much as I convince myself of the rationalism of small families, not a single day goes by that I don't long to become a mother again.  But I know from a place in my heart as sad as it is certain, that I cannot have another child.  For the sake of the environment?  Out of respect for my parents' belief that one is irresponsible to have "more than one's share" of offspring?  Because it is fiscally unfeasible?  All of these are good reasons but the reason that rules them is Fear.

When I look at those old sepia photographs, the faces gaze upon me from a merry moment fixed in time.  But I know that the camera flashed and the babies wiggled.  The toddlers strained to be set back on the ground.  The children all ran back to their games and the women to their conversations and their cooking.  The men ambled over to the wagon or to the barns or the fields to comment quietly to each other about crops and prices and taxes.  And later, much later, another photograph would be taken with fewer faces and those sadder and older. Worst of all, it was not only the old dear faces of the grandmothers and grandfathers that time would absent from the gathered family but some of the children too.

My grandfather's oldest sister died in a fire.  He rarely spoke of it.  We know her clothing caught fire and the family watched helpless as she ran and fell.  "She burned up," was all we ever got him to say on the topic to us younger folks and that only after his inhibitions were weathered by dementia.  I visit her grave sometimes in the cemetery where so many of my family rests.  There are too many little stones there.  Too many lambs.  Of course there are more children's graves in the older part of the cemetery.  Fevers and fires haunted that age but over on the green hill, still untreed, lie two of my cousin's children.  We do not speak of that either.  It couldn't be helped.  She was carrying three.  One was miscarried and the other two lived briefly after their birth.  My grandmother's silence on the topic haunts me.

And then there's the tree in my back yard that marks the place where we stood together after I miscarried my first pregnancy and the fear I had only seen fleetingly in the eyes of my elders began to settle heavily into my own soul.  There it has rested ever since.  A dark and jagged thing is this fear and always with me.  I fall asleep listening to its whispers.  When I wake in the middle of the night to lay a worried hand on my youngest child's rising and falling chest, it stands beside me.  I scarcely dare to speak of the future lest fate take offense.

"Do not take me away from these whom I love," I beg and pray.  Every cough, every ache, every separation makes my heart race.  When my husband shakes his head with delight at his children's words, too often my blood freezes.  Don't tempt fate with the arrogance of happiness I tell myself.  Keep your head down and maybe it won't look your way.  But I am drawn to darkness.  I cannot help it.  Each of us carries death with us though most of us tuck it politely out of sight.  I cannot take my eyes from it.  As each of my children was born I knew I had brought them not only to life but to death as well.  Even so I cannot help it, they make me deliriously happy and I rejoice in them.  I fear that the universe will pay me back for this joy.  So I will not have another child.  I cannot bear it.  My love for them is too exquisite.  My soul would not survive.  I have lost myself to them and fear that if either they or I should pass too soon, only the photographs would be left to show my eyes turned toward their laughing faces, to hint at how my mother-heart broke open with every birth.