“You’re my miracle baby,” my mother said to me a lot, the vacuum hose wound around her tweed-covered legs, in reference to the fact I almost died at birth like my brother Bobby. If I was born of trauma–an inducement, a hurried transfusion, and days in a bier-shaped incubator–my earliest memories involve the trance of growing. In the backyard of our house on Orchard Lane, which I discovered just like Admiral Robert E. Peary discovering the North Pole, I planted my butterfly net like a flag at the top of the world, and declared it the center of the universe, which happened to be wherever I stood; I was fed and clothed and bathed to perfection, and left alone to discover the world. The world being, at the time, West Sand Lake, a small town in upstate New York; an arrow’s flight from the Hudson River and Troy.
My mother exerted a bright gravitational pull on my being; filled with longing for her, she’d plant me, out of her way, on the floor with my Tinker toys, then her back receded, her yellow rubber gloves trailing a breeze of ammonia or bleach. She hovered out of sight, in the kitchen, the bathroom, or the bedrooms upstairs. I heard her, though: the flush of running water in the kitchen sink, the scritchy sobs the sponge made on the porcelain tub, the squeaks and sighs of rags on the window panes in the dining room. Often in those early days she’d hum while she worked, her throat opening up to sing high operatic notes over the pitch and whinny of the vacuum cleaner. Her voice contained a natural vibrato, and surely those notes were like leaves falling in the wind; I knew the mother-tree was near, even if I only caught a glimpse now and then of her limbs sweeping by.
In the afternoon she’d orbit back into view and declare our naptime, for she slept as well. I didn’t see the point in napping, especially in summer when the backyard beckoned–in my bucolic memory–with cabbage butterflies, crickets, and Queen Anne’s lace. But lie down we did, every afternoon on schedule. My parent’s room lay under the eaves and had sloping ceilings. She’d take one side of her bed and I’d take the other, my mother lying primly on the white nubbled bedspread, her black bobbed hair curling upwards on each cheek. I recall a vast space between us. She smelled of red lipstick, chewing gum and the pink oil of Olay she used on her face. Sometimes she’d give me half of her gum, biting off a piece with her ivory teeth and carefully placing it in my mouth. Then we lay, side by side, not touching.
She could have been a corpse, with her hands clasped over her stomach, eyes closed, nails buffed and manicured, legs crossed at the ankles. She’d fall asleep right away, and again I heard her: her wintergreen breath canting in and out in long slow rhythms. Her eyelids pale like wax. Eventually I gave up staring at her thick black hair (which she would later color blonde) her exquisite nose, and I’d fall asleep, clutching my thread-worn teddy bear Wer-Wer, on which she had embroidered a new face for me.
Miracle Baby though I was, I would spend most of my childhood alone as it were, in her shadow.