When Ellen was five and in the first-grade at the Catholic school down the hill, two eighth-graders, usually girls, would come to the door of her classroom once a week.
“Religious Articles,” Mother Perpetua, the first grade teacher, would announce in her business-y voice, and those pupils who had money to buy a holy picture or rosary beads went with the monitors up to the store they had in their classroom, which was actually a large closet crammed with all sorts of items bearing religious themes: the Crucifixion (which made Ellen sad), the lives of the saints, the baby Jesus. Ellen loved to go because she got to see the eighth-graders getting their lessons and to imagine what it was like to be so grown-up. She also loved to look at the pictures of all the saints they had there in the store and to think about what it would be like to live a saintly existence. She wondered if she could ever become a saint. She was curious about their lives and always petitioned her father for money before going to school on the days religious articles were sold. He usually gave her a nickel; sometimes a whole quarter. In those days you could get a picture of Jesus for two cents.
One day, while handing over thirty-five cents for a Miraculous Medal (she had been saving up her money for three weeks to buy it), Ellen noticed the most beautiful statue of the Blessed Virgin she had ever seen. Mary stood about a foot tall; a sky-blue plastic cloak over a white gown flowed from her shoulders and grazed her bare feet, the toes of which were the palest pink. Mary’s feet were busy crushing a snake (which Ellen had to dismiss from her mind, since she was very fond of snakes.) Mary was not holding the baby Jesus, but held her arms at her sides, hands (with the tiniest fingers Ellen had ever seen, with nails the same pale pink as the toes) facing outward. She had a wistful expression on her face that made you know she was thinking about her infant son. The entire statue was made of plastic. Its base opened to accommodate rosary beads, which were enclosed—white plastic ones that looked like pearls to Ellen. That statue almost took Ellen’s breath away. It cost seven dollars. A fortune. Ellen had to have it.
While her family sat around the kitchen table that night over supper, Ellen begged her parents to buy her the statue.
“That’s a lot of money,” Ellen’s mother said. “I could buy you a new dress for seven dollars.”
“It’d be for all of us,” Ellen promised. “Not just me.”
“Not for me,” Ellen’s brother Willie sang. Ellen felt like kicking him under the table, but caught herself in time. She looked at her mother.
“No,” her mother said. “I don’t think so.”
Ellen’s father remained silent. He usually liked to mull things over a bit before making any decisions.
After a week of Ellen’s whining, pleading, and promising to be good forever, her father finally relented. On the next religious articles morning, her father slipped her a five-dollar bill.
“Ask your mother for the rest,” he said.
Ellen found her mother in the bedroom. She was ironing the blouse that was part of Ellen’s school uniform. When Ellen asked her for the money, she put down the iron and became very, very serious.
“I’ll give it to you on one condition. You have to promise to be a very good girl from now on.”
Being good meant not screaming her head off when it was time to go to bed, not bothering her mother with her constant questions, and to remember to put her toys away when she was finished with them. Ellen promised she would be perfect. It wasn’t easy to be good but she was going to try harder. She had to if she ever wanted to be a saint.
Her mother gave her the two dollars. Ellen placed it on top of the five-dollar bill her father had given her, carefully folded the bills in half, and then half again, and tucked them into the breast pocket of her navy-blue uniform. She couldn’t concentrate on her lessons all morning, waiting for the monitors to show up.
“That one,” she said, when she finally got to the store, trying to keep the pride and excitement out of her voice.
When the monitors brought her back to the classroom she marched into the room triumphantly, holding the statue up high so the other children could see it.
“Put that in your schoolbag right now, young lady,” Mother Perpetua admonished. “You’re disturbing the class.” Ellen’s cheeks became hot as she slunk to the clothing closet. It was very quiet in the room while Ellen put her statue away. She took little skipping steps back to her seat, hoping to hide her embarrassment. She’d only had her statue a few minutes and already she’d done something wrong.
As soon as the class was dismissed, Ellen plopped her schoolbag on the ground and took out the statue. The plastic rosary beads rattled inside.
“Mommy, look!” Ellen shouted, practically flinging the statue in her mother’s face. She hoped her mother would find the statue as beautiful as she did.
“Put it away,” her mother said. “Wait until you get home.”
That evening, Ellen’s next-door neighbor, Janet, came in to play, as she often did when she had nothing to do. Even though she was five years older than Ellen, some of Ellen’s toys still interested her, and she often cuddled up with Ellen’s cat. Ellen’s mother once made a remark that Janet had a crush on Willie, but was quick to note that Willie, at fifteen, “wouldn’t give Janet the right time of day.”
Janet was Episcopalian, but liked Ellen’s new statue very much. She called it the Blessed Virgin doll. Janet was a nice girl and Ellen liked her, but didn’t care for the way she was putting her hands all over Ellen’s statue. She didn’t want to say anything to hurt Janet’s feelings, though, because she had promised her mother she was going to be good, and being good meant sharing.
The two girls sat in the kitchen, Ellen’s cat on Janet’s lap, Ellen’s statue on the table between the two girls. A rubber band lay on the table, as well.
“Watch this,” Janet said, as she picked up the rubber band and put it around the middle section of the statue. Then she lifted it into the air by the elastic and rocked the statue back and forth.
Ellen’s teeth clenched. She felt her stomach churn.
“No, Janet. Don’t…”
“Look! She’s on a trapeze,” Janet said, ignoring Ellen.
The Virgin crashed to the table and rolled onto the floor. Three of her delicate fingers, including the thumb, which Ellen loved most of all, were amputated. The cat jumped off Janet’s lap and ran out of the room.
Ellen fought back tears that were welling like a tsunami in her chest.
“I’m telling,” she managed to say.
“I have to go home now,” said Janet, as she raced to the door, passing Ellen’s parents as she did.
Ellen thought it was unfair that Janet did not have to buy her a new, intact statue of the Blessed Virgin, considering the Very Big Trouble she had gotten into the time she borrowed Janet’s ViewMaster and broke the lens. But, as her father said, that’s just how life is sometimes.
When the shock of the damaged fingers wore off, Ellen still loved her beautiful statue. She put her on the night table next to her bed where, for a time, Ellen received sage advice that she would ignore just as soon as she was old enough to hang out with boys and fall in love. For the time being, though, whenever the plastic got dirty, Ellen washed the Virgin. Sometimes Ellen put her statue on the freight car of her electric train set to see how many times it could go around in a circle without falling off (not even once, to Ellen’s immense disappointment.) In time, Ellen lost all interest in the statue, and it remained on her night table, picked up only once a week to be dusted when her mother cleaned the apartment.
When Ellen got older, she found that the base of the statue was a perfect place to fit one soft pack of Newports. Or a nickel bag.
MOTHER & CHILD REUNION
You’re about to give the baby a bath for the first time. This baby is your daughter. She’s only days old and you wonder how you ever lived before this baby. How did you fill your days before she entered your life? What did you eat? How were you entertained? You don’t regret having made the decision to be a single mother but you can now see the point your mother was trying to make: it’s hard to do this alone. It’s nearly impossible to do alone. Can you do it? You’re not sure.
Your mother. She means well. You know, at least most of the time, she means well. She’s finally gotten used to the idea of the baby, your daughter. Your mother, after all, was the one who thought of hiring the 24-hour nurse to stay with you when you first brought the baby home from the hospital. That was a godsend. You still wonder how the hospital could have entrusted you with this tiny life. Newborns are so fragile and easily droppable. And how would you really know if you were feeding her enough? Of course you read all the books. But being intellectually aware of what to do with a newborn is not the same as actually having this tiny creature in front of you who turns colors as she screams—colors you’re sure mean something, but what? Blue is what you have to watch out for—even though it’s your favorite color, you know blue is not a good color for a baby.
You remember when you called your mother to tell her you were pregnant.
“Mom,” you said. “I have some news.” You were able to maintain an upbeat tone in your voice even as you were pulling off one of your cuticles, causing a geyser of blood.
“What is it?”
You noted her alarm, but continued, in spite of the nagging voice in your head suggesting you make something up—anything, other than what you were about to say. Still, you’d have to tell her sooner or later, so it might as well be now.
“Ma,” you said. “I’m going to have a baby.”
There was a long silence, so you continued:
“You’re going to be a grandmother.”
It was the loudest silence you’d ever remembered hearing in your life as you waited for her reaction. Finally she reacted. At first you tried to pretend she was wailing with joy but, as your heart sank in your chest, it seemed to be wailing, too. You could actually picture your heart writhing on the floor screaming in pain.
“I always knew,” she said between sobs, “that you were going to do this to me.”
She told you about the options, as if you, at thirty years old, didn’t already know them, hadn’t already been that route before. But then you patiently explained to her that this baby was not an accident, that you had willed it. You set out to have this baby. The baby’s father went along with the idea, agreeing to the situation, in spite of the fact that both of you had no intentions of ever being a couple. You tried to make your mother understand how you had been trying to get pregnant for a long time and went to a doctor to find out why it wasn’t happening, even though you were fooled by the fact that you hadn’t gotten your period for several months. The doctor told you she thought you were too skinny, that you needed to gain some weight and build up your fat cells. So, on the way home, you stopped at a diner for breakfast—buttermilk pancakes with that Aunt Jemima syrup that has nothing at all to do with maple—and, after that, still stopped in for ice cream at Carvel. You needed those fat cells. At that point in the story, your mother stopped crying long enough to offer a new thought:
“How are you going to take care of a baby? You can’t even take care of yourself.”
Well, that was your mother for you. A negatively-charged particle. Something you lived with all your life until you left home at twenty-two to venture out on your own. A free spirit was how some of your friends thought of you, and how you always liked to think of yourself, although lately you realize the term might not accurately describe you, after all.
And now, here is the baby. And here is this special bathtub, filled halfway with tepid water, situated in the middle of your small kitchen table. The whole operation reminds you of how you place your parakeet’s tiny yellow bathtub into his cage every other day. The parakeet hops onto the rim of the tub, takes a few swigs of water and plunges right in, wetting himself thoroughly, then hops back onto his perch where he shakes off the excess water until, now presentably groomed, he shimmies over to his little mirror, where he will flirt for the next hour or so with the bird he sees there, regurgitating his breakfast as a love offering.
If only your daughter could do the same. Without the regurgitating, of course.
It’s the soap you’re afraid of. What if, after you soap her up, she slips through your fingers? Suppose she slips under the water and you can’t get her back out. Suppose she drowns. You know this is silly—how can she drown in that tiny little tub, proportionally not much bigger than the parakeet’s tub? Besides, the baby’s bathtub is portable, so even if it happens that she does slip down under the water, you could theoretically—in the worst-case scenario—tip the tub, fish her out, and save her. That’s a comforting thought, and you feel much better after you think it.
Everything you touch, you break. There’s your mother’s voice again, coming from nowhere. She used to tell you that repeatedly when you were a child. And it did seem to be true. Remember how you took all your mechanical toys apart because you wanted to see how they worked? You struggle to get this thought out of your head. It doesn’t belong there now. You take a broom and swat at it, then sweep the pieces right out of your mind into a blue plastic dustpan. You throw all the broken pieces into the wastepaper basket and breathe a sigh of relief. The thought has vanished, for the moment.
But then the drowning theme returns to flood your mind once again.
You nearly drowned when you were six. You still remember that day so well. It happened at John’s Beach, the beach on the river near your summer home, the one you went to every year from the time of your conception until your father’s sudden death when you were seventeen. You can still remember how the sun was shining so brightly that morning when you woke up and how you knew it was going to be a beach day. You remember your mother smiling when you walked into the kitchen where she was squeezing fresh orange juice for your breakfast. She didn’t always smile when you went into the kitchen; sometimes you found her crying. So you just had the feeling that it would be a good day.
“Good morning,” your mother said. “How are you on this beeyu-teeful day?”
She had set up your little table outside near the morning glories so you could have breakfast there. She had picked one of the lilies-of-the-valley that grew near the garage and placed it on the table in a bud vase. The scent of the lily-of-the-valley was one of your mother’s favorites, and it was one of your favorites, too.
“Sit here,” she said, pulling out the chair. “I’m your waitress. What would you like to eat this morning?” She stood there, imaginary pad and pen in her hands, pretending to be ready to write down what you were about to say.
“Frosted Flakes,” you said. Frosted Flakes was what you ate every morning, in a bowl of cold milk.
“Be right back,” she said. She left, but came back immediately with your cereal and juice on a tray. She’d already had everything prepared.
You sat there alone, happy to watch and hear the tiny creatures of the woodland of which you were a part. A fly came buzzing about your bowl. You loved—as you still love—the swarmy sound of flies. You wondered if the fly was a child fly, and if he was hungry. You saw nothing wrong with how he sat at the edge of your bowl, right next to a droplet of milk, and seemed to take a drink. It was as if he and you were friends. He rubbed his front legs together when he was through—you were positive it was his way of thanking you for sharing your food with him.
When you were finished eating and the fly was gone, you brought your empty bowl back into the kitchen where your mother was sweeping the floor.
“It’s hot, Mommy,” you said. “Can we go down to the river now instead of after lunch? I want to go in the water right now.”
“Don’t be silly,” she said. “Who’s going to do the housework?”
“I will. I’ll help you later. After lunch.”
“You know we always go to the beach after lunch. Anyway, that’s when your friends are there.”
By the time after lunch came that day, the sky had completely clouded over and it wasn’t so warm anymore. Your mother suggested a drive to the bakery in town where you could get a milkshake, but you stuck to your guns. You weren’t going to let her get away with not taking you to the beach.
On the way there, your mother kept squinting up at the sky.
“I don’t like those clouds,” she said. “It looks like rain.”
“We should have come this morning,” you said. “It was nicer.”
There wasn’t a soul on the beach when you and your mother finally arrived.
“We’ll wait and see what happens,” your mother said. The sun did manage to peek out a little here and there among the dark swirling clouds. “We didn’t come all this way for nothing.”
You skipped down to the river, leaving your mother to fuss with the beach blanket herself.
“Don’t go in the water,” she called after you.
But when you stood in the shallow water you glanced back at your mother. She was applying a coat of suntan oil and not paying any attention to you. In your mind’s eye, you saw the big kids who were allowed to swim out to the raft. You wanted to do that, too. Now you remember how you cautiously went step by step farther and farther towards the raft. You knew you could do it; it looked so easy. You were sure you could swim, even though you had never actually tried it. You turned around again to look at your mother. She was lying on the blanket face up, using her hands to shield her face from the sun, even though there wasn’t any. You walked out a little more. And a little more. Suddenly your feet lost the bottom and you felt your body bobbing up and down like a piece of driftwood. You still remember flailing your arms trying to get your mother’s attention. You could see her lying on the beach, not looking at you. It was hard to breathe. You tried to call out to her but your cries were lost to the river. You never took your eyes off her.
Eventually your mother sat up to check on you. She must have been alarmed when she didn’t spot you on the shore where you were supposed to be. In seconds she was there pulling you out of the water to safety on shore. You were coughing and sputtering; she was angry.
“How many times have I told you not to go in the water without an adult? Why can’t you ever listen?”
You and your mother left the beach immediately. Your mother held your hand, but not in a friendly way. Even today you can remember how it hurt when she squeezed it. Even today you can remember tugging at her when you passed by the store where you got ice cream every day. Even today you can remember how your mother put her face very close to yours and pointed her index finger in your face, just in case you didn’t understand the meaning of her words.
“You. Don’t. Deserve. Ice-cream. Today.” she said. And you didn’t argue with her because you knew it was true. You didn’t even want it anymore, anyway.
You’re taking your baby daughter’s stretchie off now. You have everything ready for her bath—her towel, a new diaper, a fresh stretchie. You’re aware of a breathless quality in your voice that usually isn’t there when you talk to your daughter. And your hands are sweating. Maybe you should put the baby’s clothes back on and call her father. Or your therapist. No, you can do this. You’ll get through this—you know you will.
Your normally cheerful baby is starting to cry—she must feel your anxiety. You take deep breaths, like the ones they taught you in your Lamaze classes. On the third deep breath you start to cry, too. You’re standing there with your baby daughter in your arms, and you’re both bawling.
You bring your daughter over to the couch where her towel lies waiting to receive her. You position her in the middle of it and cover her body with the flaps of the towel. You’re not going to give her a bath tonight. Tomorrow you will call the baby’s father and ask him for the help you know he’ll be happy to give.
Your baby daughter will live tonight.
Kathleen Crisci received an MFA in writing from Sarah Lawrence College in 2008. Since then, she has been published in Many Mountains Moving and Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood, as well as in an anthology, DIRT, published by Seal Press in 2009. She is a co-founder of Uptown Writers, a venue for writers of all stripes in northern Manhattan. Currently, she is working on a novel.