by Stephanie Tames
On the Epiphany my father went fishing. It was the day I was born, January 6, the day the Maji reached the Christ child in Bethlehem laden with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. He drove to the Chesapeake Bay to an area he favored with a rock jetty, carefully picked his way along the sharp-edged rocks until he found one flat enough on one side to make a comfortable seat, and settled his gear and canvas bag into various crevices nearby. It was a bright and windy day, neither too gusty nor too cold, a perfect day for winter fishing for striped bass. The surf pounded against the rocks but it was still low tide when my father arrived so the spray from the plumes of cold salt water did not reach him. He kept a careful watch on the tide and the sea’s slow progress as it covered the rock jetty. He had come close many times to being stranded on the jetty as the tide rose and it was too cold that January day to risk getting soaked by the winter sea.
The story has become a family favorite. Everyone thinks it’s funny: as soon as he was told my birth meant another girl - the third in a row - my father gathered up his fishing gear and took off for the two hour drive to the bay. I guess he thought that since family and friends were watching his two older daughters and son he could take advantage of the time. He loved fishing.
I don’t think my mother thought the story was funny. Whenever it was repeated she would set her jaw tight and her lips would thin into what for my mother was neither smile nor frown but the expression she assumed often and which I imagined meant she was somewhere deep inside her head. She would stare at my father who would be telling this story, acting like he was George Burns on stage before an adoring audience.
I can imagine other families with this story: the father, like mine, guffawing, puffing out his chest as he told how it was just another kid, no big deal, the mother interrupting, telling her side like she was Gracie Allen, how she was screaming with labor pains and told him to get the hell away from her and he took her literally; how he’ll pay for that trip for the rest of his life (audience laughs), how he was really only gone a half-day and was back by evening visiting time to take all the children to see their mother and lovely baby sister with long dark hair.
My mother says that she and my father agreed on two children: a boy and a girl. And it happened. My brother came first, then a few years later, my oldest sister. My mother was happy. But just three months after my sister was born, my mother found herself pregnant again. She was depressed. Her health suffered. So when the baby came she asked but was denied a simple operation to tie her fallopian tubes, to wrap the tubes with thread pulled tight like a present so sperm swimming with speed and purpose can not reach the waiting egg. For my mother, it was the only thing she ever wanted.
She knew then she couldn’t take any chances. And she didn’t. But the diaphragm failed her and so did counting the days when an egg floated inside her and she was pregnant again. My father liked the idea of a big family; it was proof of his virility although he would have preferred that his virility made baby boys instead of girls.
After I was born my mother asked again, she said she begged, but the doctor refused to tie her tubes and two years later my brother was born. Whether it was her pleading that softened her doctor’s heart or my brother’s congenital heart defect, my mother finally left the hospital happy: three gifts, a boy and a knot around each of her tiny tubes.
We wanted to be Joni Mitchell’s Ladies of the Canyon. It was the late ‘60s and early ‘70s and we talked endlessly in a fog of pot about giving up our pampered city lives to live in communes, bake bread, reject the values that made our parents complacent and uninformed. We went to protest rallies, experimented with drugs, and took many lovers to beds on old mattresses thrown on bare wooden floors. We didn’t think about birth control. At least at first. But one friend, then another, got pregnant and we realized we didn’t want to be Ladies of the Canyon just then.
They must have sensed my mother as a kindred spirit, these young women, friends of mine but mostly of my older sisters, who always ended up at our house where my mother would help them not have babies. You had to know how to work the system and you had to have money. My mother had both. All it took was a psychiatrist who would certify that a pregnancy would be detrimental to the mental health of the mother and a doctor willing to perform the procedure. In the city it was easy to find both. It took time, however, and once it was too late. It was my cousin and she had come to live with us the year before. She hadn’t been getting along with her mother, my mother’s sister, but she fit perfectly in our big house and big, loud family, until she got pregnant. The other girls came to our house in their flowing long skirts and layers of beaded necklaces, sat at the kitchen table, and gave my mother all the details. But my cousin waited, withdrew. She didn’t want to tell her story. I don’t know why. Her mother came to take her back to South Carolina where she stayed indoors so the neighhbors wouldn’t know what she had done. There’s an old proverb: “a small town is a vast hell.” The next time we saw her she said she never looked at the baby, that it was wrapped up tight in a white blanket and given to someone waiting nearby, that the nurses gave her pills to dry the milk in her full breasts and sent her home. She didn’t come back to live with us.
My mother and I didn’t talk about whether or not I was having sex, or whether she approved. All she wanted was to make sure I wouldn’t get pregnant. I guess she didn’t trust birth control pills or trust that I would take them. She talked to her doctor and together they decided I should go to the hospital for a procedure and while there the doctor would place a tiny piece of metal shaped like a “t” in my uterus. There was no need for remembering. Pregnancy would never be an issue.
That night, still groggy from the hospital, I had a dream where I opened the front case of the big grandfather clock in the hall of my parents’ house and out tumbled hundreds of chubby naked babies smothering me under their weight.
It’s barely a twinkle in his father’s eye, that’s what the doctor said to me from his seat between my legs. All I could see were eyes: his head was hidden under a white cap pulled low over his forehead. I could see his mouth forming words behind a mask that came up well over the bridge of his nose and tied high on the back of his head. He was old. It was his eyes, the only thing I could see, that told me how long he had lived.
The waiting area was crowded. There weren’t enough seats, people stood, leaning against walls. Some were so young, others looked old and worn out. Boyfriends and husbands and maybe some brothers looked uncomfortable, out of place. They kept pushing their sweaty palms down the front of their pants like they were trying to wipe away this place and glancing at the clock on the wall, counting down the hours until they’d be out in the pure light of the day away from the oppressive room, outside where they could finally breathe deeply and fill their lungs full to bursting, relieved that for them it was over.
The week before I had come in my Joan & David heels and Evan Picone suit and carried a small jar of pee in my purse. My purse was the same color as my shoes. You had to have a test before they’d put you on the schedule. I walked from the subway station but couldn’t find the office. Now I was late for work and my feet hurt. I was afraid my pee had gone bad but I had to give it to them, hand my little jar to the young woman at the counter and ask please if they would confirm what I already knew. When I walked in everyone shifted, looked up from the magazines they weren’t really reading or stopped their whispered conversations. I felt their furtive gazes. We all knew why we were there. The next week as I sat in the room in those same seats waiting my turn, I looked at every new face that came through the door and watched as unsteady hands held out jars of pee as bright as the sun.
You don’t have to take off all your clothes. Just from the waist down, that’s what they say, but leave your socks on because your feet will get cold. Lay down on the table and put your feet in the stirrups. You’re draped in white. I looked down my sheet-covered body between my legs and could see the doctor’s head, his mouth moving under his mask but I couldn’t hear anything he was saying. I looked at the nurse, she took my hand, said it was alright. That night I dreamed again of the grandfather clock and babies, all plump arms and legs like tootsie rolls, tumbling out and spreading across the floor.
When we got married, my husband and I didn’t talk about if we would have children, or when. There were a lot of things about our lives together we didn’t discuss. I had long since given up the tiny “t” in my uterus, been on and off various brands of birth control pills, used condoms and diaphragms, not used anything. Didn’t really think about it. I dressed in my suits, high heels and matching bag, went to work every day happy with my job, the paycheck, the way I felt. When it happened, I knew immediately and I knew it wasn’t right. Like my mother I did not want it, did not want it in the deepest part of my being.
I don’t remember how we made the decision. I don’t remember what my husband thought, if he needed convincing, if I threatened to leave, if I screamed and cried. I know he didn’t make the decision. It was me. Just me. I knew that it wasn’t a twinkle in my eye. I don’t know if it was in his.
In Japan women visit Buddhist temples to pray to mizuko jizo, tiny statuettes that represent the babies they aborted. It’s not that they brood over whether they made the proper decision to have an abortion but to help the spirit safely cross the river that separates the worlds of life and death. Sometimes women dress the mizuko figurines like newborns and pour water over them to quench their thirst.
My mother was afraid of the water but she went with my father to the bay to fish and after some time she came to love fishing, too, although she never lost her fear, a fear of drowning of one sort or the other.
When I was young I liked to stand at the edge of the surf and feel the pull of the water and the sinking sand under my feet and dream that the earth wanted me and to prove it with each wave I sank deeper as the earth drew me to its core. I wasn’t afraid of filling my lungs with sand and salty water. But before I slipped beneath the surface I pulled myself from the earth’s sucking hold and dove into the waves and played in the surf as my father stood fishing nearby. Later, he taught me to fish and I too came to love standing by the water and casting my line as far as I could, from one world to the next.
Stephanie Tames is a writer, longleaf pine needle artist, and yoga instructor living in southeastern Georgia. Her publications include Self, Parenting, the Washington Post, and the Atlanta Journal Constitution. She has essays forthcoming in the Nature Conservancy Magazine. She is also a regular commentator on Georgia Public Radio.)