My mother hadn’t known she’d been pregnant for very long. She had bought the test on a whim. It was normal for her to miss a period, but two was a bit excessive. Two was a shotgun blast. Mom watched the slim white stick play with fate as my father drove home from another day spent at the University of Warwick. My sisters and I played in the backyard the size of a postage stamp. There was a twain of ivy that dabbled in pale blossoms up the side of the flat, and a rosebush. Melissa pricked her thumbs picking Daddy a bouquet. Before my mother’s eyes, a blue plus-sign appeared upon a small band of white.
My parents had uprooted us an ocean away from a familiar hand or shore, to the small town of Kenilworth, situated in the heart of England. It was fifteen kilometers away from the university my father had taken up a chair position, some sort of research detail I was never quite clear about. I was ten. They had whisked us away with vague explanations and two respective philosophies in mind. Dad had seen it as a fair trade; he had come to the States roughly fifteen years previous, a poor boy from North London on an academic scholarship. And now it was my mother’s turn to make a forfeit for once, a Jewish princess from Miami who, it was safe to say, had no real conceptualization of sacrifice. My mother saw it as exactly that — a sacrifice — and wasn’t it a testament to true love, as unadulterated and pure as a rare strain of platinum? She would follow my father to the ends of the earth, she would birth his children along the way, she would one day live up to his ideal, bathe us all in time for dinner, make that very same dinner with the proper ratios of spice and salt, she would have a night wherein everything worked perfectly, there would be no kinks or cogs in the flawlessly machinated wheel, her husband would not scream and she would not need to make excuses (he’s tired, he’s adjusting at work, he just wants things to be nice) and everything would sail smoothly, as if a sailboat gliding atop a waveless sea.
There was an hour between when my mother knew and when the news first rolled itself around the curve of my father’s ear, like a penny in a pie dish. Within that time, she made sure the goulash, Dad’s favorite meal, was simmering thickly in the crock-pot, and that the dumplings weren’t too heavy (they looked like cumulus clouds floating in the large pan). She kept an eye on Melissa as she in turn bathed Amanda, who was five and still liked it when people doted upon her, the youngest of our clan (but not for long, thought my mother). Lastly, Mom made sure that I set the table, forks on the left, spoons on the right, not like last time.
She told him as we three girls sat with our backs straight in the other room, waiting, ears pricked. We were all suckers for family secrets, for the faint notion that things went on behind our backs, after bedtime, like mice behind the walls and under the floorboards. We heard nothing. She told him in the garden — I could see them out of the kitchen window — next to the twined pale flowers that peaked tepidly towards the pane, as if looking inside at us. They came back in after a minute or five, sat down, and my father gave us permission to eat.
I cannot recall any extraordinary pleasantries, though I am sure my mother was glowing with her secret; I’m sure she was thinking of how many weeks in would it be appropriate to explain to us that we were to have a small new addition, as she would pat her newly-rotund stomach, budding with life.
Dad refuses to answer any questions I have about my mother. Their acrimonious divorce makes it hard to believe that for a time, they were in love, and that for a time there were the two of them, Linda and Simon, and the rest of the world. A defined partition. But there are a few facts I have collected over the years that can give me a rough idea. My father had realized that he had wanted to leave my mother at least a few years after Amanda was born. Her high-strung histrionics and constant questioning of my father’s loyalty incited his petty outbursts, which only served to distract from the bigger picture. He had, in fact, cheated on her years before; it was an act that could not be forgotten, something that could never be repaired, something that, despite its mend, still left a faint crack. Mom stressed the taut thin tightrope. Despite her perfectionism and persistence, her husband would never be happy with her. So it is safe to say that this was another constraint, something to make his ultimate decision harder (and it was coming, a year later, boy, was it coming). It was the reason that, unbeknownst to my mother, Dad would turn down the position at the University of Warwick; that in three months, we would be back in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and I would be starting my fifth grade year a month or so late. But could she see this, through the blinders of her happiness, the pregnancy that would explicably set everything right? For those two days, did she lose all peripheral vision? Did she have a feeling, harder than the knotted ball in her womb, a dark, dark child of an inkling?
Two days after my mother had cradled a small piece of happiness in her hand, her body performed its most treacherous act and unraveled that knotted ball of chromosomes. Mitosis taught her an important lesson: to become whole, you must at first be broken.
My Aunt Ruth and Uncle Peter lived an hour and a half away from Kenilworth, with its clock tower in the village green and a ruined castle the color of sandstone. Ruth was my father’s sister, and we would drive to Milton Keynes every weekend to spend it with them, for raucous dinner parties and boxes of wine. There was a weekend, however, only one, wherein my mother did not accompany us. She said she needed rest. And she did, after the hospital visit, after she awoke in the middle of the night, the back of the long T-shirt she wore, probably one of my father’s throwaways, colored in a dangerous thick blood. She didn’t need the hospital visit. It was a very early miscarriage. The bleeding, despite the color, was relatively light. It was only a matter of protocol, really. My mother didn’t scream or do anything my father would have expected (he was prone to her hysterics), but was instead gently roused by her calm but urgent shaking, whispering Simon, Simon. It was early enough in the night that my father could go over to the neighbors’ side of the house — we shared a duplex — and ask Edna, the lovely fifty-something housewife who smelled of lavender and enjoyed macramé, if she would please watch over the children, there’s been a bit of an emergency, Linda has had an accident, and if you don’t mind, please, if it won’t trouble you too terribly. The British are never the kind of people to impose.
And so they performed this switch, between Mom and Edna, and my father drove on the wrong side of the road with my mother in the backseat, arms around her empty belly, so quiet and patient. Melissa, Amanda, and I woke up the next morning, none the wiser, and were told that Mom would have a weekend all to herself, a couple of days without her wouldn’t be so bad. Everyone needs time to themselves, once in awhile.
It happens more often than you think, you know. A lot of women just don’t talk about it. My mother told me all of this one gray evening during a winter break from college. Once, twice, even. When you’re older…
She trailed off, unsure of how to continue. And maybe I conjured it up, maybe it was a fitting contrivance of my imagination, but I could have sworn that my mother touched her stomach, lightly, and in her eyes, I could see that for only a moment she was back in that faraway place of excited, bright happiness, when everything was hopeful and every day was new, in a country miles away in distance and time.
There are certain things that my mother has told me are my legacies and my obligations. And what she imparted to me — the story of her loss — was an attempt to convey these sentiments. The gifts she took for granted are what I take for granted as well. I throw my birthrights away. I had told her I would never have children, that I would one day adopt instead, and she told me her secret. A story I was a part of and never knew.
And then she was with me again, her eyes resting on my face, her mouth twitched, because she knows I will never know what it’s like to miscarry; because it disappoints her gravely that I will never love a man and that I will never carry a child, that the price for my living and loving honestly are the cost of her greatest hopes and happiness; that her grandchildren will not have the almond eyes she gave me, nor her cheekbones, nor her olive-undertoned skin; that she would have gladly had her miscarriage if it meant I would never have one, how she should have worded her wishes more carefully, because life is funny and above all things fair; because the only way we can survive from day into the long night is through children, children, children; because the greatest conduit of past to present to future are the bloodlines that connect and bind; because things and chromosomes unwind and fall apart, because we can’t always trust the promises that we make (even with ourselves); because I hold my mother’s hand and, for a moment, promise to not let go.