Thursday, August 25, 2016

Therapy Chicken

My mother opens my nightgown and sticks the thermometer under my arm.  “Hold it tight against your side and don’t move,” she says, checking her watch.  “How long?” I ask. “Five minutes, as always. Be patient,” she says. After an eternity, she takes out the thermometer and frowns at the mercury. “Mare de Deu! Thirty-eight point five!” she cries, shaking down the thermometer.

I know what this means: anything above thirty-seven degrees centigrade leads to what my mother calls “a good sweating.” It begins with my swallowing an aspirin dissolved in a teaspoon of water. Then my mother lays a lasagna of covers on me—a couple of thick woolen blankets topped by a feather-stuffed duvet. For a while my temperature continues to rise, and I lie shivering under the blankets, feeling as if my bones have turned to ice.

 But as the fever drops the shivering gradually diminishes.  The ice in my bones melts away. And then I feel hot, so hot that I start to fling the covers off. But my mother has been watching for this moment.  “No, no,” she says, pressing down the comforter and the blankets. “You must lie still and sweat, or you won’t get well.” “How long?” I ask. “You’re not nearly there yet.  You have to be patient,” she says.

My hair sticks to my face.  My flannel nightgown is glued to my legs so that I can’t turn on my side.  “Shhh!” my mother says, “don’t move.” She tells me the story of  Jordi pastoret , a shepherd boy who lives on a mountain with his sheep and his dog. How I envy him his mountain, his sheep, and especially the dog!

Eventually, I give in to the appalling heat. I stop listening to the story and just go limp. My mother takes my temperature again. “Thirty-six point five, thank God!” she says and draws back the covers. She peels off my sodden nightgown, rubs me down with alcohol and dresses me in a dry nightgown. Meanwhile, the maid has put fresh sheets on the bed. I lie back down, the heat and stickiness replaced by a cool dryness. The ordeal is over.

But only temporarily.  If my fever spikes again, there is another aspirin, and another sweat. If the fever stays down, I nevertheless have to spend the next day in bed, an entire day when my arms and legs seem to take on a life of their own and, like unruly horses, have to be restrained by sheer willpower from leaping out of bed and taking me with them. I spend those endless days practicing patience, making mountains and valleys with my legs under the covers (“Do not throw your covers off.  You’ll get sick again!”) and staring up at the familiar cracks in the ceiling, imagining the outlines of faces and hands, the same faces and hands that will be there waiting for me when I get sick again.
If the aspirins and the sweats don’t work right away, my mother calls Dr. Contreras. He is young and usually in a hurry, and I hate him because every time he sees me he mimics the terrified shrieks with which I used to greet him when I was a baby.  He doesn’t seem to notice my grown-up self control. Impatience radiates from him as he unbuttons my nightgown and puts the stethoscope to my chest and then my back. I recoil at the warmth of his head, the smell and scratchiness of his dark hair. “Be still,” he says. Then he stands up, snaps his bag shut and says to my mother, “She’ll be fine. Try not to look at her so much.”

But what else was there for my mother to do, if not look at me? The troubles of my early months—her failure to produce enough milk, my endless crying—must have shaken her self-confidence as a mother. In addition, she, my father, their families and the entire country had barely survived a bloody civil war. All of a sudden, with peace on the streets and a new husband and a child of her own, life seemed suspiciously good. “I felt as if God were standing over me with a stick, ready to bring it down on my head,” she told me many years later.

It was no wonder that she regarded my existence as a precarious gift, something that could be taken away from her at any moment.  So she watched me day and night, feeling my forehead for the onset of fever and making sure I wore a sweater when the merest cloud obscured the Mediterranean sun. For my part, I accommodated her with an endless stream of sore throats, earaches, flus and indigestions that gave interest and drama to her days.

Of all those early illnesses, one shines out as a time of great happiness. Like most of my generation, I had my tonsils removed. My maternal grandmother came to visit while I recovered, and she brought me a chick from her farm. She had chosen him because he had a defective leg, which meant he couldn’t run very far. He was just past the adorable fuzz-ball stage.  His pale primary feathers were already poking out of his little wings, and I could see his future comb beginning to part the yellow down on top of his head. In chicken years, he was probably about my age.

 The moment my grandmother put him on the bed, my sore throat and my boredom disappeared, and an inexpressible contentment came over me. I no longer felt the least desire to get out of bed. Instead, I wanted to spend the rest of my life lying in that quiet room, with my hand on those soft, warm feathers, and those thrilling cheeps in my ears: my first experience of the mysterious power of an animal’s companionable presence. (To be continued.)

Monday, August 15, 2016

Mother Bear

The ancient Greeks believed that bear cubs were born as formless blobs, and it was their mothers who, by diligent and careful use of their tongues, licked them into proper bear shape. As soon as the midwife put me in her arms, my mother got down to her version of the bear’s task: to shape me into the best possible specimen of humanity.

Like a bear cub with its mother, I was seldom out of her sight, or out of her arms. Even after I could sit up by myself and would normally have begun to crawl she held me, because setting me down on the floor even for a moment would have been dangerous and unhygienic, something that only “gypsies and peasant women” did. Inevitably, however, there came a day when my increasing weight and my desperation to get free of those loving arms became too much for my mother. But instead of putting me down and letting me figure things out on my own, she decided to teach me to walk. Bending over at the waist to support my hands and keep me upright, she matched her steps to mine as I tottered up and down the hallway of the apartment. Fueled by months of pent-up energy, I clamored to walk whenever I wasn’t sleeping, and after hours of “walking lessons” my mother’s back hurt almost as much as her cracked nipples had when I was first born (see preceding post).

Years later, when my sister was a toddler and my mother was in her forties, I would come home from high school to find my mother on the sofa, a hot water bottle under her sacrum. “I’m exhausted,” she would say. “I had to spend the whole afternoon teaching Nuria to walk. You can’t imagine what this does to my back!” From my sixteen-year-old vantage point, I wondered why she was always so tired, and whether caring for an infant need be such an all-consuming task. But my mother’s intensive approach to childrearing had more to do with the needs of her temperament than on the real needs of the child.

Her thirst for adventure and her impatience with the ordinary, combined with her parents’ progressive views, had given my mother an education very different from that of her peers, who were expected to learn little more than fancy embroidery and perhaps the piano. At a time when girls were kept close to their mother’s skirts until they married, my mother went away to school in Valencia, Pamplona and Barcelona, places that in the early 1930s seemed as strange and far away from her village as Tibet. She studied law, and then Greek and Latin. She was attending university in Barcelona when, on a whim, she decided to learn to play the violin and met my father, who was her teacher. And when they married, the consensus of an entire culture about the role of women, the advice of the two families, and her own unconquerable dread of examinations led my mother to give up her studies.

After her marriage, despite the five flights of stairs that she had to manage daily on her way to and from the stores, the need to watch every peseta, and the Spartan conditions of the apartment, my mother’s life became less demanding.  My father adored her, and expected little more than that she have lunch ready when he dashed home between rehearsals. And she had a maid to scrub the tile floors and do the dishes and wash clothes by hand in the little laundry room next to the kitchen.

While my father careened—by metro and streetcar but mostly on foot--from rehearsals to performances all over the city, she read books, prepared my layette, went to lectures and art openings with her sisters. But the days seemed long, and she was afflicted with an inner demon that gave her no rest. There had to be more to life, more meaning, more urgency, more work. She had dreamed of becoming a trial lawyer, defending the innocent from barbarous injustice, and now here she was, ironing pillowcases....

I was born a year after the wedding, and at my first cry the demon was banished: my mother now had a project, a life-or-death task at which she had the chance to excel, a job more exalted than any career in the courts, and one requiring utmost vigilance, willpower and self-sacrifice. Here in her hands, in the guise of a baby to lick into perfect shape, was the challenge she had waited for. And she rushed to meet it with all the force of her young body and her restless mind. (To be continued)

Monday, August 8, 2016

Saved By a Vet

If my mother had confined herself to embroidering baby clothes during her pregnancy, all would have been well.  Unfortunately, she also read books about baby care, and at the time these were rife with behaviorist principles. New mothers were instructed to pick up their infant only for feeding and diaper changes, at strict four-hour intervals. This was supposed to result in a well-disciplined baby who would lie quietly in her crib, entertaining herself with her own thoughts and not relying on other humans for company or comfort.

But, for my mother and me, things did not go as the books promised.  Long before the next feeding was due I would begin to mewl and grouse, progressing to ear-splitting shrieks that went on for hours. My mother would hover over the bassinet, watching my face grow from red to purple and my arms flail in distress. Longing to comfort me, but determined to do things properly, she would only allow herself to stroke my fist with one finger. She was probably even more miserable than I.

When it was finally time to nurse, I latched on so fiercely and was so reluctant to let go that my mother developed cracked nipples. This caused her such pain that the only way she could bear to feed me was to bite down on one of her lace-bordered handkerchiefs.  The pain did not make it easy for her to let down her milk, and the slower the flow, the more savagely I sucked...Forget those placid Madonna-and-Child nursing scenes.  Ours was more like the Martyrdom of Saint Agatha.

(My mother was not the only one to suffer under the influence of behaviorism. Across the Atlantic, my future mother-in-law, on her doctor’s advice, would leave my husband-to-be shrieking in his crib and go out for a walk, to avoid being tempted to pick him up and “spoil” him. It must have been as compensation for this draconian upbringing that our generation morphed into the love-obsessed flower children of the 1960s.)

My mother’s parents lived in Ivars d’Urgell, a village in a fertile plain south of the Pyrenees, west of Barcelona. As soon as she heard of my birth my grandmother packed her suitcase and a basket of autumnal home-grown provender—dried figs, almonds, raisins, and the last of the year’s butifarras  (sausages). My grandfather hitched the horse to the covered wagon and drove her to the train station, but he declined to go along. Having a grandchild--I was the first, my mother being the eldest of his children—made him feel old, he said.

He was in his fifties, one of the last generation of large-animal veterinarians who cared for the horses, mules, and donkeys that plowed the fields and brought in the harvest. His car had been requisitioned during the Spanish Civil War, and for the rest of his career he visited his patients on a bicycle, wearing a black beret on his bald head and bicycle clips around his ankles, and smoking endless roll-your-own cigarettes.

It took him a month to get over his fear that the sight of me would turn him into an old man. He got on the train, arrived in Barcelona and, as he climbed the five flights of stairs to our apartment, he could already hear me screaming. He kissed my mother, handed her another food-filled basket from my grandmother, and followed the howls to the bassinet. He picked me up, lifted my dress and inspected my abdomen. He had seen enough calves, foals, piglets and lambs, in addition to his own four children, to know what a thriving infant looked like, and I did not look like one. 
“This child,” he exclaimed “is malnourished!  Why haven’t you been feeding her?”

“I think perhaps I don’t have enough milk, because she cries day and night,” my mother answered. 

“Of course she cries—she’s starving! Forget about nursing. She has to gain weight right away, or she won’t last long,” he said.

Then began the search for something to feed me. In the years following the war infant formula was practically unavailable, but, as it happened, a relative of my paternal grandparents owned a factory that manufactured powdered milk. He let my parents have as much as they needed, and I was put on a diet of powdered milk thickened with bread crumbs.

For all his initial reluctance to accept my birth, by the time he boarded the train back to Ivars my grandfather and I were firmly bonded, probably helped by the fact that he had saved me from dying of hunger. During my summers in the country, and in his letters after we left Spain, he repeated to me the Catalan saying: els fills dels teus fills son dues vegades fills (your children’s children are twice your children). I didn’t understand then the depth of affection that he was trying to convey, but the saying became as much a part of my grandfather as his beret, his cigarettes, and the bicycle clips that he put on before he set out on his rounds.

Despite the vast amounts I consumed, the powdered-milk gruel did not kill me. “You were so ravenous,” my mother used to say, “that it took two people to feed you—one to put the spoon in your mouth while the other filled the next spoon. If there was the slightest interruption between spoonfuls you would fly into a rage, choke, and vomit. And then we’d have to start all over.”

Luckily for me, my mother’s younger sisters, Maria (whose name I changed to “Xin” as soon as I could speak) and Pepita, periodically shared our apartment and helped with the mealtime dramas. But their influence went far beyond those early feedings. Until we left Spain when I was ten, my aunts were treasure troves of entertainment—they made up stories, played dolls, and let me watch them put on make-up. Xin recited Lorca poems to me (“Huye luna, luna, luna...” and “Verde que te quiero verde...”) long before I could understand them, but the pure music of the language engraved itself in my brain. And she taught me to read when I was three.

As an only child surrounded by adults, I sensed in my aunts’ youthful presence a secret sympathy. But many years later I realized that their most valuable gift was to help dissipate my mother’s intense focus on me.
(To be continued)