4 kids in 3 years: reflections on motherhood, art and life.
Part I. My Mother
It always begins here.
My mother was a librarian.
Let me clarify. My mother was a librarian for about as long as I bagged raw chicken wings for a bar specializing in hot wings when I was eighteen and for about 1/15th of the amount of time I spent as a full-time teacher. And yet it was one of only two paying jobs she had in her life, each lasting only a couple of years. She says those years were some of the best years of her life.
It was 1960, and she was in her early twenties. She’d just moved to California, a newlywed, soon to be a new mother. But in the halcyon interlude after marriage and before giving birth to her first child (who would be severely retarded and forever sickly), for those years she was a librarian.
I can picture my mother walking in the California sun from the army base to work, up the stone steps into a brick library with a cool interior, where she would wander in her sweater set and circle skirt, reshelving books, checking them out for patrons. If she had spare time and no one was around to catch her, she would type unbelievably long letters home.
Here’s one of those letters and another.
For my mother, working at this first job, growing in this new marriage, all in this utterly foreign land, it was both the picture of simple, boring, redundant life and the possibility of anything to come. She is a story-teller, writing a letter almost every single day, about the “real east coast hoagies” they drove an hour to eat, about the woman at work who “got that cancer cut out” and how she was beginning to feel “whoosey” with being pregnant, but still “no weight gain.”
I wonder if she ever cracked open a book on the Taj Mahal and imagined a love that grandiose and romantic in a land that smelled of spices she couldn’t name. Did she pick up Thomas Hardy and imagine herself as Tess? Did she pour over the stories in the newspapers of the world that was on the verge of combustion? She says my father would complain that the headboard of their bed was covered with books, but when I ask what she read she says she can’t recall.
Part II. My Childhood
After moving back east, after four more children, some miscarriages, exhausting days that still make her shudder at the memory, my mother never worked outside the home again.
But she would take us to the library regularly.
I remember the children’s room at the library, the early readers, the chapter books, the little filmstrip machine where I could turn the knob to look at each panel of The Little Red Hen while I listened with over-sized adult headphones to a crackly recording of someone reading the story.
Each time we went, I would select a pile of books larger than my arms, piled up past my chin, every Dr. Suess, then Nancy Drew and Bobbsey Twins, or Madeleine L’Engle and S.E. Hinton I could manage, anything with a Newbery Award medal stamped on the front.
When we’d get up to the checkout desk my mother would look at my stack.
“You know the limit is six books, Jennie. If you get eight, I can only get four,” she’d say in a stern voice.
And I know my siblings must have been with us, too, but to me there was only the shifting balance between my mother and I in the stagnant air-conditioned, 1970’s-era library as I waited. If I got more, she got less.
I remember the ticking of the huge mod clock over the desk. Tick. Tick. And she would always acquiesce.
By middle school I was reading Thomas Hardy’s Tess, crying at the hideous ending I’ve always hated. By high school I was writing about Sylvia Plath, searching for more women poets, for someone like me.
In college I won an award for a story I wrote about my family.
Part III. My Children
Our party one-liner now is that when they offered my husband the job in Massachusetts we had one child. By the end of his first year, we had four (ba-dum-BUM.)
I was in a foreign land, far from my friends, far from my family, with two preemies who needed weekly therapies of various kinds and oh, by the way, I was pregnant.
With no friends, no pre-school parking lot to make friends, a handful of playgrounds where I tried to pick up mutually lonely Mamas (mostly to no avail), the library became a sanctuary. We’d attend every music hour, every story-telling opportunity. I’d go to the children’s librarian who I grew to adore: “What do you have with trucks?” and “Holiday books?” and “How do I teach a child about Martin Luther King? Leonardo da Vinci? Stephen Hawking? Ella Fitzgerald? Ancient Greece? Mummies?” And on and on.
And each time we leave the library we carry a huge shopping bag fully packed with books.
Library day is always a good day at my house. We get home, set up a pit of blankets and pillows in the living room and they cuddle up, page through the books, read, or beg to be read to.
When I asked what the limit was for checking out books the librarian replied, “I guess 100? I mean, there is only space on the computer for two digits? But there’s probably a way around it…”
There are enough books in my huge, gorgeous, classically modern library for everyone.
My mother loves going to our library with us. She gets upset when she comes to visit and finds that we’ve just gone.
“You know I love libraries, Jennie,” she’ll say petulantly.
Strangely, I have no recollection of my mother ever reading growing up, not to me and not to herself. She always had a stack of books on her nightstand that hardly seemed to change. What with the care of my brother and keeping up with the rest of us, and the care of my father, she never had the time.
Throughout high school and beyond though, she talked about me writing the story of my family’s history, maybe someday writing a book. When my father died, she asked me to write something for a newsletter for people suffering with his health issues. When Butchie died, she asked me to write his eulogy.
And yet, I have found it is those letters that she wrote, sitting in that library fifty-four years ago, that hold me tight, that bowl me over, that move me to tears every time. I am sometimes a writer, but it is my mother who cherished the words first.
[This was inspired by the WordPress Weekly Challenge on Writerly Reflections and the origin of the word.]