Four decades ago, when I was young and stupid and didn’t know a baby from a wormy kapusta, according to my Polish mother, I gave birth to a tiny damaged boy on my kitchen table. Just out of high school, I was working in a fertilizer factory, going to night school, and writing frantically in my spare time to reshape myself in the image and likeness of George Eliot. But she never had children. Nevertheless, I figured since an infant is small and portable, it wouldn’t interfere with my plan for the contemplative literary life. The day I decided to go off the pill, John Lennon and Yoko Ono staged a bed-in for peace in Amsterdam. One thing I knew with missionary clarity: This baby was my olive branch to the universe. Unlike my mother, who produced misfits who could only hobble and crawl, my child would be so loved he would soar. Our bond would heal every rift, every schism, every abuse. My husband, Matthew, an Irish boy who had been dismissed from his religious order at age 20 for chugging brandy in the Christian Brothers winery, was another hobbler and crawler. He wrote me poems, I gave him sex—an elegant but sparse compromise.
I registered at the Chicago Maternity Center for prenatal care: two rooms over a store facing the Maxwell Street Market. Toward the end of the pregnancy, I made weekly bus trips to the Center, where a volunteer palpated my belly to the crooning of Muddy Waters. I prepared my supplies for the time of delivery: a two-foot-high stack of newspapers, a large plastic sheet, a dime for calling the Maternity Center, a strong electric light, and a kettle for boiling water.
Giving birth was like my first accordion lesson. When they put the bellowy instrument in my lap, I didn’t know where to put my hands, how to hold it. I had no idea how to have a baby, so I sat on the beat-up couch in our third-floor flat on Ainslie Avenue, crossed my legs and asked Bernie, a pink-faced intern, “Okay, what do I do?”
“Maybe we should have read a book,” Matthew said, gathering up empty beer cans from the coffee table.
Bernie took one of Matthew’s poems that I had framed from the wall. I read a few lines before he hung a makeshift IV from the nail. A small bright delighting thing / A dark deep beckoning / Embodied twilight turning day to night. My baby, a small bright delighting thing, felt huge inside me: a nuclear fission ready to break upon the world. I pressed my thighs together to hold back the dribble of green water that had been leaking for a couple of days. The baby was still head up and had no intention of turning and preparing for descent.
Oxytocin dripped into my veins. Bernie’s partner, a small Filipino woman, boiled water, spread my stack of Chicago Tribunes over the kitchen table and floor, and swung a 100-watt bulb from an extension cord above the table. Matthew tamped his pipe, composing a poem in his head. “Change into something comfortable and crawl up on the table,” Bernie said, as he unpacked his doctor’s bag on the kitchen sink, clanging shiny tools on paper towels. I grabbed an oversized Beatles t-shirt. The Filipino woman helped me maneuver the IV tubing as I hoisted myself up on the table. Earlier, I had been paying bills there, flipping a penny to decide who would get paid—Con Ed or Ma Bell. Envelopes scattered on the floor. Would Bernie and the Filipino woman ask for money?
Perfect control. Nobody will see me flinch. I lay on newsprint, naked from the waist down. Not a telltale sound or revealing grunt. My belly heaved. Muscles closed around the baby like a slow glacier. I controlled the pain by imagining an advertisement for a Burberry raincoat permanently affixed to my back thigh. Finally, I began to crack open: one centimeter, two centimeters...six, seven. After several hours and a few choruses of “don’t push, don’t push, don’t push, okay push,” two little legs dangled out of me. “Where’s his head?” The kitchen was eerily quiet. I heard the baby cry inside me. He didn’t want to be born.
“You must move bowels in 24 hours,” the Filipino woman said, lecturing me about hemorrhoids and sitz baths. Bernie called for backup to figure out how to get the rest of the baby out.
My son wasn’t exactly what I had expected. A blob of protoplasm, shiny and translucent. But he was my first wonder of the world, my Grand Canyon. When Bernie cleaned him off, his skinny legs twisted around themselves like Gumby. He looked more poultry than baby, but the most exquisite chicken I had ever seen. For a moment, I thought there must be something wrong with him. But what did I know. The only baby I remembered clearly was my youngest brother, and I never really looked at him, just plotted how to dispose of him. My baby was perfect, if a bit crooked.
In the days that followed, I became sweet with curiosity about this new little being, in the larger scheme of things nothing but a speck of dust on the earth, but for me, a reason for living. I nuzzled his swollen belly against mine, cooed over his soft crown and doll fingers, drank in the perfume of yellow diapers. Little caterpillar. It was now my life’s work to protect, honor, and celebrate this delicate creature. Snail without a shell. After two weeks, I was in love. We were a team: I gave him life, he gave me breasts.
The name on his birth certificate was Beckett. Matthew rejected my choice, which was Oliver. Reminded him of olives or liver. But it didn’t matter what anybody else called him. Ollie and I formed a secret bond. At night in bed when he whimpered, I whispered his name. His fish mouth, heat-seeking and hungry, clamped on to me. My mother called in her blessing: “Now you’ll know heartache. May your child do to you what you did to me.” You had only weak tea in your breasts; mine are filled with crème fraîche. I would do motherhood right, and love my Ollie better than all the Polish mothers of the old neighborhood, stuffed into their Goldblatt housedresses.
During our two-week checkup at the Maternity Center, I ran into Dvorah, whose prenatal visits had coincided with mine. “He’s beautiful,” she said.
“You don’t think he looks like a chicken?” Ollie and I were so tightly swaddled in my Madonna and Baby Jesus fantasy that I half wanted a reality check.
“All babies look like chickens.”
When the doctor held him up, his legs didn’t uncurl. “Dislocated hips.” There’s nothing wrong with my baby. Maybe he looks a little funny, but Matthew and I aren’t exactly centerfolds. A common mixed-breed girl: Irish milk skin dinged with acne, Germanic chin, and Polish thighs, too lavish for their petite frame. A dreamy Irish boy, bone skinny and delicate. Ollie’s one of us. “Take him over to Children’s Memorial,” the doctor said. “They’ll snap his hips into place, and he’ll be good as new.”
I zipped Ollie inside my jacket, snuggling his tiny ear to my heart, as the bus dodged potholes down Lincoln Avenue. My mother cautioned me: “When I was eight, Pa took me for my first streetcar ride. I woke up in Cook County Hospital without my tonsils. My sister Josie was supposed to get the operation, but she run away.” A few years out of Poland, they believed they’d be kicked off relief if someone didn’t show up. Does Ollie’s doctor need to fill a spot on his docket? Get a grip, you’re not an immigrant. I was clumsy at nurture. He was my practice case, and I might as well have been in a foreign land....
(for the rest of Brieschke's story, check out PMS poemmemoirstory no.7)