Saturday, July 30, 2016

Champagne and Lace



When she felt the warm liquid run down her legs and splash onto the tile floor, my mother didn’t know what to think.  What was this?  Probably not urine, since it wasn’t yellow, but it came from down there, so who knew? Her father was a vet and she had grown up on a farm, but she had always been sheltered from the spectacle of animal birth.  She had an idea that having a baby--which, according to the doctor, would happen any day now--had to do with pain followed by great happiness. Could this clear puddle between her feet have something to do with that?

As soon as my father came home from afternoon rehearsal, she whispered that perhaps they should go to the doctor.  Was anything wrong? he asked, putting down his violin case.  Probably not, she said, but still...

They made their way in the October dusk over the near-empty streets of Barcelona to the office of my father’s school friend, an obstetrician who had offered to be on hand for the birth.  “In Spain, by the 1940s,” my mother told me years later, “babies were usually born in the hospital.  But your father and I were so terribly romantic that we wanted you to be born at home, and Dr. Sala said he would come.”

Dr. Sala took one look at my mother, told my father to get her home immediately, and said he’d be along as soon as he could. My father’s first problem was to find a taxi.  The Spanish Civil War had ended in 1939, but five years later the country had barely begun to recover.  Bread was scarce, electricity was rationed, and taxis (few people owned personal cars) were hard to come by. But he managed to flag down a cab, and after helping my mother up to their fifth-floor walkup, he ran back down to find a phone (private phone lines were expensive and hard to get). Fortunately the cafĂ© around the corner was open and he was able to call the midwife and his mother, who had agreed to act as sous-chefs to Dr. Sala.

The midwife and my grandmother set water to boil on the kitchen’s tiny wood-fired stove; then they dragged a cot into the master bedroom and covered it with newspapers and an old sheet. Finally, the doorbell rang and Dr. Salas entered, carrying his leather bag.  It’s hard to imagine what followed, since neither of my parents had been given any details about what to expect.  Fortunately my mother had wide hips and was in great shape due to all that stair climbing, and by nine o’clock the commotion was over and order had been restored.

Clean sheets—one of the half-dozen sets on which, the year before her marriage, my mother had embroidered her initials--were spread on the four-poster bed.  She was sprayed with lavender cologne and dressed in her best nightgown, the one with a yoke of tiny blue and pink flowers centered in drawn-thread squares.  Since there was no central heating, and October nights by the Mediterranean are chilly, my grandmother draped a powder-blue angora bed jacket on her daughter-in-law’s shoulders.

Once the midwife had cleaned and dressed me, there was a discussion about my hair.  I had arrived with a sort of fierce black wig on top of my head. “You even had some fine dark hairs on your ears, like a little donkey,” my mother used to tell me when I was small.  Certain that a spacious forehead was a sign of intelligence, she told the midwife to tie back my mop with a couple of narrow satin ribbons—white, to match the ribbons on my hand-knitted angora sweater and booties, and the ones interspersed among the yards of lace flowing from the long skirts of my dress. This marked the beginning of my mother’s lifelong struggle to keep my hair out of my face: on my last visit to her, when she was well into her nineties, she reached out a spotted hand to push my bangs off my forehead.

They laid me in a lace-enshrouded bassinet, and my father went to fetch the  bottle of champagne that had been cooling on the kitchen windowsill.  In those years, my family didn’t have a car or an icebox, a telephone or central heating, but we never lacked for fancy linens or celebratory champagne. My grandmother dipped a finger in her goblet and put it on my tongue, so that I could join in the toast to the happy event. This was the first of many sips of special-occasion bubbly that I was offered at Christmas and Easter and on various saints’ days throughout my childhood.

Soon the midwife packed her bag and departed, and the doctor drove my grandmother home (he had a car!). “The room was suddenly very quiet,” my mother would say years later, “but I was so excited from the champagne and the hormones that I talked for hours, despite the fact that your father—exhausted from all the emotion, poor man!—had fallen asleep on a chair.”

Every year on my birthday, my mother used to call and tell me narrative of my birth.  I used to joke that it was her version of the gospel according to St. Mark, with the anxious trek to and from the doctor’s office instead the trip to Bethlehem, my grandmother and the midwife instead of the shepherds, and a lacy bassinet in place of the manger.

My last few birthdays have come and gone without a retelling of that long-ago saga, and it’s been a long time since anyone pushed the hair off my face, but I can still hear my mother’s youthful voice saying in my ear, “your father and I were so romantic, that we wanted you to be born at home...”