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All Her Life or: Can You Spot the Southern Lady in This Picture?

Posted Sep 11 2008 8:07pm
My mother came in last weekend to Cancer Bitch World HQ. (See photo take by L on porch of CB World HQ.) My mother would have flown in for every chemo treatment, but I wouldn't let her. I asked if she would help me with my clutter, and she agreed. So we spent most of Saturday and Sunday going through the carved wooden buffet I inherited from my grandmother. That's where I keep photos. We filled some albums and threw a lot of pictures away. At first she tore them in half (no going back) but then we just threw them out. It is hard to throw photos out. That's why I needed her there. We pasted some pictures in my baby book, which she'd apparently lost interest in after my first full sentence. She's been diligent about collecting pictures in albums, though--I don't mean to imply that she ever lost interest in recording moments of my life. The book cover is puffy white moire taffeta. I think that's what it's called. It has those whorls and stripes like planks of wood have. The cover says: All Her Life, in pink script, and there's a painted rose with a painting of a little blonde baby sitting inside the flower. It was copyrighted in 1955, the year I was born.

The first thing in there is a congratulatory card for "that basket of joy/The stork just delivered to you!" It's from the local alumnae of my mother's sorority at the University of Texas. This was before sex education in college. Or high school.

My mother didn't fill in the details of our trip home from the hospital, so that page is blank. On the next page is space to put the names of visitors. I filled this in probably in junior high, when I found the book and asked my mother for information. Nine people are listed. Two are alive: my mother's older sister, and an uncle on my father's side. The very first person listed is my mother's friend who died about six years ago of ovarian cancer. My uncle came to visit with my aunt (my father's youngest sister), and she died a few years ago of lung cancer, the kind people get when they don't smoke or haven't smoked for a very very long time. My father's only brother died of lung cancer, the kind that smoker's get.

My baby book expects women to play sports, to go to college, have a philosophy and a career, get married and have a home and children--all reasonable, even progressive assumptions for mid-century. It doesn't necessarily expect the baby to be Jewish. The first clue is a page with an illustration of a baby on it. She's wearing a long white gown edged in pink. There are spaces for my name, its meaning, date, place, officiating clergyman, godmother and -father, notes and those present. What was the occasion? It doesn't say, but I think it's safe to assume it was something that starts with c-h-r-i-s-t. The book finally declares itself on page 22, asking for notes on the baby's first Christmas.

My baby book tells me my first road trip was to Dallas in 1957. My first bus ride was to the San Jacinto Battleground with my kindergarten class. (I remember that. I remember kids chanting, Nixon, Nixon is our man, let's throw Kennedy in the garbage can. And vice versa.) My first train ride was to Dallas in 1958 and my first airplane ride was to New Orleans in 1974. Notes: "Very good traveller, doesn't need dramamine-is very cheerful." That's in my own handwriting.

I discovered my own hands at about two-and-a-half months. I first smiled at about six weeks. I first recognized my mother at about three weeks. I first sat up at about six months. Do I spot a trend? There's more than a whiff of retrospect here. Apparently my mother mother didn't run to the baby book when I reached these milestones.

I had chicken pox in 1959, measles in February 1963, mumps (both sides) June 1964--all this in my mother's hand. In my own: "Pnemonia [sic]-Feb. 1969-was a very good patient." Should I add "Breast cancer, Jan. 2007, very good patient"?

Listed pets:
Gregg, 1963- dachshund
Whitie-goldfish
2 Goldie-goldfish
Blackie-goldfish
Tater, Latke, Sherice, Squeaky-hamsters (I got the original two for Chanukah)
Pretzel, Prince-dogs
April- 1/2 beagle

It does not say that my mother, in one of her worst days in the 1960s, backed her car over Prince. (Didn't your mother kill your dog? my cousin S asked me the last time I saw him.)

As I said, the baby book expected me to have a career. On page 46 there's a picture of a young woman in a blue dress, red hat and white gloves, pondering five gift boxes. They are labeled: Secretarial, Creative, Selling, Manuel [sic], Scientific. Should she go for the guy, Manuel?

Three pages later I'm supposed to be a bride. Then have (in this order) a honeymoon, first home, sports, club activities, first baby. Then have 50 wedding anniversaries. If a parent and daughter were to diligently fill out the pages of this book, they would create a record of a whole life, some kind of whole life. The pages peter out after marriage. Life no longer revolves around the girl-child. It's time for her to start filling out others' baby books, in which she'll have a supporting role.

The reason my mother didn't fill this book out, I think, is that we don't normally think in large blocks of time. We put the photos of the first birthday party into an album, and next, the pictures from the beach two months later, and then of the family trip to Dallas. We don't think to take one photo from each event or year or decade and paste it into a baby or any other kind of book.

But what if we did? What if every New Year's Eve we printed out a couple of representative photos from our desktops and put them in a book, a book with a finite number of bound pages? Is that too frightening to contemplate? This book is called All Her Life. When you get to the end, you're daid. Or sitting in the nursing home, with no one thinking to take your picture or record your first dentures, your first wheelchair, your last meal cooked for yourself, your last wisp of short-term memory. No, there's your golden anniversary, a page for notes, and then it's curtains: "This little book--a happy souvenir/Of all my life--is ended here."
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