Fifty years

A daughter turns 50 this Groundhog Day

I have no concept to fit this.  50?  The other daughter is very soon 49.

I have an overstuffed memory.  Shrink.  But I forget too much.  Stretch.  Personally I’m sure I’m not older than 35. Maybe not even that.  In every fat man there’s a thin man, dancing.  In every grown-up, a child, who wants to play.  In every blended woman/man, some who chase and some who chase after. And some giggle and others sob. That’s normal. But a 50-year-old daughter?

Not a Canadian clergyman!  This was taken in our loft on Whitehall Street by Lynn St. John.
Basil drawing  on Whitehall Street in 1959. Photo by Lynn St. John.
Martha smokes a cigarette in North Carolina
Martha smokes a cigarette in North Carolina, 1961

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I do remember a despicable doctor in Grand Haven, Michigan chastising me for using a toboggan “at your age.” (I was 35.) I do remember a nice neighborhood yoga teacher telling her class that people can do yoga in their fifties! (I was 61.)

Yesterday is tomorrow’s face. Shrink.

I’m only 28 years younger than my mother, who died in 2000 at 92. Stretch.

Accordians wheeze and are music simultaneously.

Our two children have children – the most normal thing in the world. But their dad and I are now their last bulwark. Everyone in the generation before ours has passed into the dark. Too many in the generation almost ours have done the same. I have no concept to fit this.

Except for an upwelling of gratitude, so acute as to be almost absurd. Stretch.

Except for a deep pinch of fear, so sharp as to need immediate denial. Shrink.

Withall, here is a section from my (unpublished) memoir about birth adventures fifty years ago…:

Births

1963-1964

Mallory was a tiny, skinny 17-month-old with a firm sense of herself the summer Hetty was born. Mallory is from the smaller order. She had weighed in at just two ounces over five pounds. The young nurses at New York Hospital solemnly and wrongly assured me she’d catch up. She was physically mature. She had exquisite blonde eyelashes and binocular coordination.

“Probably over-carried,” a young resident said, wowed by her ability to follow his finger with both eyes. He also assured me her small size hadn’t anything to do with the tumor she was born with, that walnut-like aberration, poking out of her mouth. It was attached by a thick stem coming out of the ridge in her jaw where her bottom teeth would be.

They were very clever in the delivery room; I realized later that I had heard the OB–his name was Dr. Mortimer Risk–kick aside the standing mirror positioned so a laboring mom could see her vagina. It hadn’t mattered to me: New York Hospital insisted I couldn’t have my eyeglasses in the delivery room. Without them I could barely see to the end of my arms, let alone something in a standing mirror four feet from the end of table. After the kick and the clatter, doc and nurses went right on with their “Push, push, now really PUSH….” enthusiasm as if everything were perfectly fine.

There was a thunderous crash of water on the delivery room tiles; “It’s a girl;” and a round of applause.  But immediately the nurses had me concentrate on expelling the placenta, which I took to be standard procedure. The OB had Mallory on a side table, his back between us. He had no idea how poorly I could see. I didn’t twig to anything. I thought they were doing the eye drops, the Apgar test, whatever.  Consultants who had been surreptitiously summoned filed in and by the time a nurse handed Mallory over to me, the delivery room suddenly had many people in it.

She was obviously breathing. In fact she was howling and kicking furiously, very definitely awake, and highly annoyed. The little tumor was so alien I couldn’t take it in. She looked as if she had tried to eat a flesh-colored walnut that had become wedged in her open mouth. Her lips were stretched thin around it. Obviously, she couldn’t nurse with that thing in place, but in a few minutes she was pronounced hale and vigorous by New York Hospital’s head pediatrician. He introduced himself to me. I was lying flat, but he was very courtly and shook my hand. I could almost see him.

An anomaly, he said.

Later, when Baz phoned my parents, my mother gasped, “I’ve never heard of a baby born with cancer!”

My parents offered to help, if we needed it. They’d get a loan they said. But I was a clinic patient, rated for maximum assistance. I had paid $5 at every prenatal visit and I think a final $50 was all we owed. Mallory’s extra care would cost a great deal more, but the United States was generous about health care then. Or New York Hospital was. At any rate, no one mentioned money. 1963 was another world.

A team of the hospital’s top pediatric docs agreed: Remove it now before feeding difficulties damage her good health. Fine by me, I thought, holding her. I didn’t need to talk this one over with Baz. Don’t wait was my idea too. Snip it off! Toss it in the trash! She’s beautiful. She’s perfect. She’s mine. I could not entertain the idea, very gently offered to me by one of the specialists, that there might be more to this alien thing than what we could see.

Out in the hallway, Baz was trapped by a different expert who detailed to him the large number of other things that might be involved. He was one of those doctors-in-training who is totally oblivious to anything but the medical puzzle a patient presents, plus his own marvelous knowledge of the problems, and his exciting opportunity to be in on it.

Why Baz didn’t hit him I don’t know. He was probably too stressed, too tired, and too hurt.  It was two o’clock on Saturday afternoon.The ice storm that had started Friday afternoon was finally over — the sun was out and the glaze on streets and sidewalks was disappearing. Although my labor had lasted less than four hours, I’d been at this since Friday morning when I’d had a gush of blood. I was told to come up to the hospital for a checkup. I had phoned Baz at work, told him not to worry, but to meet me up at the New York Hospital clinic just in case.  I got my little bag and took the First Avenue bus.

We’d been held hostage ever since. The clinic had pronounced my gush unimpressive and I clearly wasn’t in labor yet, but by the time Baz arrived the weather was rapidly worsening. I was certain to be in labor sometime in the next twelve hours. By Friday evening, the city, hammered by sleet, high winds, and snow, had come to a near standstill.  At midnight bus service was cut to a minimum; sidewalks were like skating rinks.

“Walk!” said the clinic resident.  “It’ll get you started.”

Baz and I walked. For hours. Through the network of underground tunnels that connect New York Hospital to Payne Whitney Psychiatric to Memorial Sloan-Kettering to Cornell Medical School. I came to know those halls by heart eighteen years later, when I worked at Sloan-Kettering. We went through the passageways that ensured privacy for high-profile patients, like Hubert Humphrey or the Shah of Iran. We trotted through the short cuts to emergency evacuation routes, and the back alley routes to three institutional cafeterias.  Nothing happened.   The best cafeteria was Payne Whitney’s. The scent of their lasagna and spiced meatballs made me nuts. I’d been forbidden to eat anything. Baz, who was just as starved, didn’t want to leave me.

“Walk some more,” another resident insisted when we turned up at the clinic again. But finally, they gave in. I was admitted, given a bed on a Gyn floor below Maternity, and Baz walked through the storm to our old friend Lynn who was living with his wife Irmgard in a flossy 72nd Street apartment.

Mallory’s growth was excised early Sunday morning. It was a wad of squamous cells run amok, the pathologist said. Just anarchic skin cells, nothing worse. To this day I don’t like to think too much about how it was removed. I do know it was done with miniaturized surgical instruments, under a large magnifying glass — and much later I learned that a Dr. Pines, the father of poet Paul Pines, who lived in our building on Second Avenue, had pioneered some of the miniaturized instruments and techniques for successful surgeries on newborns.

Well, it was over and there was Mallory.  Her shirtsleeves were fastened to the side of her shirt with two large safety pins to keep her from touching her mouth. Just for a day or two, I was assured. The mouth heals amazingly fast. They were giving her glucose by mouth with a dropper. She didn’t even have an IV line.

Even so I didn’t want Baz to see her that way. Restraint horrifies him. I didn’t want Baz to visit the postnatal ICU, either. It was a small ward at the back of the maternity floor, where white cribs sheltered ghastly infants. There were some with huge heads or mottled scarlet growths. The crib next to Mallory’s held a marble-white three-month old on a respirator.

But of course Baz came, white-faced and swathed in a sterile blue gown. Mallory was new-born yellow, a rich Devonshire cream color, with a long sloping forehead from pressure in the birth canal. Drips and tubes were everywhere in that ward but only the safety pins indicated her ordeal plus a small blob of scarlet where her bottom front teeth would be. She looked like something Memling would have painted. She was Northern, delicate. Her lower lip had been stretched by the growth and it pouched out even when her mouth was shut. It was almost cute. The hospital staff were calling her Jiggs.

 

After twelve months, she had perfect teeth, top and bottom, a brilliant smile, and had tripled her birth weight exactly, just as baby books said was normal. That made her at one year, a shade over fifteen pounds, smaller than most six-month-olds. There were no fat rings around her legs. There was no excess anywhere. She began standing at nine months, and by her second summer, she had muscles on her legs like a much older child.

She was mature about Hetty, too, who arrived that July. I offered Mallory my other tit. It seemed more than reasonable to me. Have some, I beckoned smiling. She’d been so cheated by the tumor operation. She had not been allowed to suck on anything for her first two weeks. For two days at home, Baz and I took turns feeding her with an eyedropper. She did more screaming than eating because the eyedropper ran out after six drops. In the time it took to refill, she’d be purple with frustration.  We were all in a haze of exhaustion.

“To hell with it. Let’s try the turkey baster,” Baz said. “They don’t know everything.”

This method got formula splashed everywhere, but we managed not to drown her and to get enough milk into her stomach to calm her down. Enough for her to sleep about two hours before she was howling again. She was healthy all right. When I finally got the medical okay to give her a bottle, which had to have an x slashed in the nipple so she wouldn’t suck very hard, it was heaven.

After that, we gave her bottles all the time, including a bottle in bed at night, as a comfort toy. In the books I was reading, “deprived of sucking” sounded like a major a crime against her psyche. But here was Hetty, and a magical second chance. Mallory was only seventeen months old. If she’d taken to nursing for six months or so, no one would call it regression. “Come on,” I smiled, offering a tit.

Mallory was completely disgusted. If I’d picked my nose at Lady Astor’s dinner table I couldn’t have been given a deeper look of social disapproval. Instead, she set herself to her new work–folding diapers for her dolls, and stacking clothing for them in cardboard boxes for elaborate wordless games. She took her place standing on the back axle of what had been her stroller and hung on expertly with both hands while Hetty lay on the flattened seat.

 

 

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