Wednesday, April 30, 2008


When my parents were first married, my mother loved traveling across Eastern Oregon with my dad as he bought wool. Things are always tougher on the dry side of the mountains (in this case, the Cascades) and sometimes she was a bit shocked. Like the time they were visiting with a farm couple and their urchin, unused to company but determined to put the best foot forward, came in lugging a huge cat. The child had wrapped her arms around the cat’s middle under its front legs so it hung -- belly out -- clear down to where its toes brushed the worn linoleum.

This is our old cat!” the kid announced. “He had kittens, he did, he did!” And indeed the cat’s tummy was whorled around each swollen red nipple with wet fur recently removed from the attentions of a kitten. Many years later my mother was still shocked that a farm child couldn’t tell female from male and didn’t have a sense of privacy about intimate acts like nursing. But she didn’t mind repeating the story many times.

When she became pregnant and my father took a lively and anachronistic interest in the whole process, she was a bit offput. In fact, he was so determined to attend my birth that my mother complained to her stern old Swedish ob-gyn, Dr. Nelson, whom she dearly loved and trusted absolutely. “I’ll have enough to do giving birth for the first time without taking care of him, too!” she protested, never questioning the idea that SHE would have to take care of HIM while all the time HE thought he was taking care of HER.

He said, “Don’t worry. We’ll keep him out.” Then came the bad news. For the last few months she should not go off on bumpy trips across rugged terrain. So she stayed in the little Portland house alone with a .45 in the bedside table drawer and at night pushed the bureau drawers in front of the locked bedroom door. She was a country girl in a big city. Daytimes were all right -- except that she finished all the housework by 10AM and didn’t really know people nearby except her in-laws, all of whom were working. Elsie was expecting her second child but kept clerking in the store.

My mother complained that I would occasionally lurch and kick in her womb, sometimes painfully. I suspect that I was reacting to her own emotional chemistry: fear, loneliness, always a little extra adrenaline which is known to have an effect on a fetus. Whether it was because of that or because of genetics, I have a little higher androgen level than most women. My mother and her next sister down were like that, too: a little more passionate and confrontive.

When the labor became too painful, they gave my mother “gas” and she always claimed that it came like mountain air, such a pure relief. But once I arrived, it turned out I had red hair. Neither my mother nor my father had red hair, but my father’s girl friend before my mother had had red hair. She lived on Orcas Island up by Puget Sound and my father had taken his bride to meet the family, since he was really a kind of family friend. The night they stayed over, there was a great crashing thunderstorm and my mother claimed I was conceived in all that rush and crescendo. Now she wondered whether I had somehow been witched with red hair! But it was finally decided that both grandfathers had red eyebrows, so it must just be recessive genes cropping out.

When my mother woke up from delivery, the nurse ALSO HAD RED HAIR! She was big and bossy and insisted that my mother had to nurse me, but I wouldn’t. I screamed protest. (“You rejected me from the first moment!” cried my mother in a quarrel when I was thirty.) No nice lady from La Leche came to explain about “latching on,” and to give reassuring hints. The red-headed nurse and the red-headed baby found my mother totally inadequate, or so she felt. And it didn’t heal, either. Once I asked her about nursing me -- how old was I when weaned? “After months and months and months!” she declared. And then changing to a sort of vengeful voice, “I rubbed my nipples with cocoa butter and that’s why you love chocolate so much!” (Subtext: that’s why you’re too fat as well as red-headed.)

Quick! What’s the acronym for Too Much Information. Had to ask, didn’t I?

When she was feeling kinder, she said that my red hair was like a little copper washboard in ripples on my soft pink head. She put me in the big black baby buggy and parked it in front of the dining room window where the sun came in. She said that even as a tiny baby I played by holding my tiny pointed fingers up in the sun. She could watch me from the kitchen while she worked.

My father wrote out the announcements. This actual object is very small -- maybe three inches by five, opened. The motif of the “family album” is a significant one, because my father did indeed keep a family album and to him a baby was a family event, not a private possession in the modern notion.

He had high expectations -- maybe a bit unrealistic.

My mother’s mother could not come because of the quarrel between my mother and her father. He was hot-tempered, stubborn, bitter and Irish. She was only half that way. The rest was like her mother and could have used a bit of reassurance, which came along in the form of her sister, who was training to be a nurse up on “Pill Hill.”

And then there was Grandma Strachan, so kind and just up the street.

I suspect that when I was old enough to travel, we went down to Roseburg so Grandma Pinkerton (whom I called Mom because my mother did) had a chance to see me. I was her first grandchild. I wonder whether to her I looked like her own first child, my mother.

This is my mother as a baby with her own Grandma Pinkerton, the mother of that fierce Irish father and also the mother of that young man who died of fever as a young man and whose ghost finally came down the church aisle one Sunday morning to reassure her. When my mother was in high school, this grandmother was dying of breast cancer which she had not disclosed to anyone until the lesion stank, too late for surgery. My mother’s job was to sit up with her grandmother, who slept in a rocking chair so she could breathe, and keep her from falling out. She never saw her great-granddaughter, me.


Anonymous said...

Oh, Mary, I know that you did not post to gain sympathy; but, you have mine. I, too, was the only red head in the family; however, no one ever made me feel unwanted. I felt mistreated, at times (who likes being beaten?), but never unwanted. I stand in awe that you turned into the woman that you are. Good show!
Cop Car
P.S. And, great post.

prairie mary said...

My youngest brother also had red curly hair. His problem was that all the old ladies dearly loved to get their hands on it when he was little. He got in the habit of wearing a knitted watchcap and holding it down tightly if any old ladies were around!

My mother's final position, since both her sisters had twins, was that they could have twins -- SHE could have red heads and, if she wanted to, she could have red-headed twins!

Prairie Mary