Heileen - Ch. 7

Chapter Seven

As it had happened with our bodies, we had to discover each other little by little.  Paul and I had been dating for over a year and had become lovers, but living as man and wife was a totally different thing.  Married life is sharing intimacy at different levels.  It has to do with the little things – the toothbrush on the washbasin in the morning or the discarded pair of socks in the evening, for instance.  That’s how two individuals become a couple, and we had to get acquainted with each other.  Moreover, I loved to get to know particular things about him that I hadn’t had a chance of noticing before.  Like what kind of food he preferred (which turned out to be duck roast), or which one was his favorite shirt (and woe betide who ruined it on washing day!).  He could get up very early in the morning for instance – didn’t mind doing it if there was work to be done – but needed some time to wake up.  He had to linger in bed for five to ten minutes, slowing drawing back the curtains of sleep, to face the day with renewed energy.   Wake him abruptly, and you’d find yourself regretting it all day long, with him going about his work grumbling about the unfairness of life.  In the evenings then he enjoyed spending some time sitting on the sofa.  It could either be reading or watching television – that wonderful apparatus that had so taken our imagination – as long as it was on a sofa.  It was his way of relaxing his body prior to bed.  
Looking at it from the outside – in particular from Trisha’s perspective – it was all very romantic.  To her, I had achieved all I had wanted, and she proudly looked up to me.   It was after all what girls our age expected to find in life: true love and marriage.  And I had been stubborn enough to fight for it and wise enough to find the right man to fight with.  If that involved missing part of the fun of teenage life, it was no big price to pay.  Even at the end of the fifties, when the world was beginning to look smaller and television to deeply influence our lives, the expectations of young women in our rural neighborhood had not changed much.   My husband was handsome – dark and strong – and had readily accepted his responsibility as a father, rescuing me from a future of gossip and unhappiness.  And he might not be rich, but he had a starting point in life – that being the farm he was working on and that would one day be – at least partly – his. 

A few days after our marriage Mother sent me a letter.  She had never done that – had never needed to in fact – and it was with a strange feeling that I opened it and read it.  I was of course very happy for it.  There was a phone in our house that we used only for emergencies – because it was uncommon to talk on the phone, and because it cost.   So we had to rely on letters to exchange information.   She did not speak of the new house or her new life.  It was rather heartfelt mother-talk. 

Wednesday, August 20, 1958

My sweet Heileen,

I have so many things to say I don’t even know where to start. Sentences keep drifting through my head, and it’s difficult to sort through them.
I sit at home and marvel at the many things that have happened in so short a time, You have gone from being the carefree young woman I used to know – and whom I keep seeing in my mind – to being a wife and future mother. If it’s true that your generation is living faster than we used to, then you seem to have broken a couple of records!

Not that you’re the only one in your condition. Passion alone has produced more children than we care to count. It’s just that – as your mother – I see the speed of events and am baffled by it.

I see the two of you and feel your love for each other. I’ve seen the resolve in Paul’s eyes, and wish you both strength and determination, because you’re going to need both of them in the near future.

Don’t get me wrong. Having a child is a wonderful thing and the fulfillment of a couple’s life. It’s just that I wish you had had time to do other things – all the things people your age generally do. I would have liked to see you finish high school and think about College – getting an education is very important, you know that. And you would have gotten together with the girls in the neighborhood, like you used to do. You would have dated boys – of course – or the relationship you and Paul have would have eventually evolved into marriage. But enough of that! I am sure you’ve been thinking these same things, and you must have come to your personal conclusions.

And I also wish our respective families had gotten to know each other better. I have deep faith in the love Paul’s family is giving you – I trust they’ll be wonderful grandparents and uncles to your child, and that they will help you when you need it most. The more I think about it and the more I grow fond of your husband. I have a special place in my heart for him – he has shown strength of character uncommon in men his age. I am sure he’s worth of you as you are of him. You’ll make a wonderful couple.

I wish I were near you in this moment of change. Mothers are supposed to stand by their daughters and help them. And I do stand by you – at least in spirit. I’ll always be here for you, and – if you look well – you’ll see a friend as well as a mother.

As the days pass you’ll notice changes in your body, of course. What will be harder to see – and you’ll realize it little by little – is that those physical changes help shape the mother that’s in you.

Only when we become mothers ourselves do we really understand what it means, and what it has meant to our own mothers.

The warmest of hugs and thousands of kisses,

Your mother.

I was very happy to receive it – as I have said – but did not know exactly what to make of it.   Most of all I did not know how to answer.   I have never been good in writing letters and have felt much better in later times, when it became much more common (and so much easier!) to talk on the phone.  So I did not answer at all, keeping to myself any comment I might have.   Maybe it was just as well.  I suppose all that Mother wanted was to make me think.  And to let me know that she was thinking of me.

After our weekend in the wood life went back to its normal slow pace.   September was drawing near and – with it – school.
Given the happenings of the last days in June, I was somewhat worried as to the kind of reception I would be met with.  True, I was married now, and many of the people I would see at school had come to my wedding less than a month ago, but still…  Some of the teachers I had – men mostly – had acted very coldly and had looked embarrassed in my presence, as if unable to determine what to make of me.
Paul accompanied me on the first day.   I was entering the last trimester of pregnancy, and it was showing all right.      We walked in hand in hand, saying hallo in passing to our friends.   He kissed me good-bye then, and left me in front of the English class, where I had to spend my first hour.  
Mr. Bartlett, the English teacher, was short and tubby; tidy in the gray suit he used to wear at school.  We used to tease him about that (not in his presence – of course!): it looked like his only possession as far as clothing went, and I don’t remember seeing him in anything that was not gray.   His hair was gray, too, and he used to comb it from time to time, even in class.  He was in his fifties, but was still unmarried, and lived alone in a small house close to the school.   He was the most fastidious man I’ve ever met – always careful of appearances – both his and his belongings’, as well as other people’s.  That must be the reason why he asked me to sit at the back as soon as I entered, and I found myself sitting in that corner every day for many months.  I was happy with it, as it allowed me to observe the people in my class.   I knew all of them already, with the exception of a small girl.
Upon inquiry I found out she was exactly my age, but her low height made her look much younger.   Her name was Paula, and she had moved to town with her parents less than a week before.   That meant that she did not know anybody yet, and she kept looking around the room shyly.   Apart from her height – which had struck me as odd as soon as I had seen her – she was rather plain looking.  Her hair was light brown – almost blond – and she had brown eyes.   She did not look stunted, though; her body was well proportioned – she was just small.
Among the other students was Trisha, who was looking for me and smiled as soon as I entered.   Knowing she would be there, I had looked forward to seeing her, because I knew she was on my side.   She was sitting closer to the front, but rose and came back to the desk next to mine.   We began chatting in a low voice – as everybody else was doing – until the lesson started.
This pattern repeated itself during the day.  Trisha and I would always sit close to each other, of course, and – although it was common for the students to drift into small groups – it soon became clear that many were unmistakably keeping away from us – whispering surreptitiously and casting severe glances in our direction.    After a while also Paula came closer and smiled at us.   She probably hadn’t even noticed what the matter was – what with the excitement of her first day – but felt reassured by us.  So we welcomed her into our group, and we became very close in a matter of days.
The only class I would not attend was P.E., because of my pregnancy.  I did not mind missing it – I had never gotten used to the idea of working out in a closed room.   I would practice some kind of sport after the baby was born.  I liked volleyball for instance and had been part of the school team in the past years.  
Paul would always accompany me to school in the morning, and be there at the end of classes.  Frank would lend him his pick-up, which he also used to run errands or carry products.  I would then spend the afternoon at home, studying and helping Ann.  Trisha would come to our house once in a while, and we would study together; sometimes I would have lunch at her house, and Paul would pick me up later in the day.   As time passed and I became heavier, I tended to stay at home.  The days were growing colder, and it was nice to sit by the fire in the evenings chatting and sewing.  
Since I liked to stay at home, we invited friends at our house over the weekends.   Trisha and Mark were regulars, together with Brenda and Mike’s family.   Mom and Dad came once or twice in those months, and had invited us to visit them.  I hadn’t seen the new house yet, but now I didn’t feel like driving the three hours it took to get to the city, and so I kept putting it off.    Paula was less of a regular, but became more so as the months passed.  She was very shy and felt awkward in the company of other people.  Her parents had invited us to their house once, since she had talked so much about me and our friendship.  Being newcomers, they did not have many friends in our community, and they related well to Paul’s family, who had encountered the same situation a few years earlier.  They were nice people – as small as their daughter was – and very lively.  It was good to be in their company, and our families grew closer as time passed.

We had readied everything for the baby, but I liked to sew or knit for her.   We had decided it was going to be a daughter.   Obviously we could not know the sex – there were no such things as ultrasound scans then – and we would welcome our baby anyway – boy or girl – but we liked to think of it as our little Wanda.  She was doing well.   She had finally begun to kick vigorously, to Paul’s delight, and liked to do that often.  There was a rocking chair in the living room that I found particularly comfortable, and that Frank kindly relinquished to me; I would be sitting in it – resting my feet on the small table before me – and all at once my belly would start moving, its shape changing.   Everybody in the family would then look at me mesmerized, and Paul would run to get his hand on mine and feel the movement.    The men had finished working in the tool shed, and Wanda’s little crib was waiting to find its place next to our bed.   They had built it from scrap – the crib Paul and his brothers had slept in had been given away long before – and had carved the wood on the sides and at the headrest with tiny hearths.  Ann had sewn small sheets and blankets, and we had embroidered them with small animals, flowers, balloons, and – of course – little red hearts. 
In the few moments I was able to keep for myself  – what with the school and subsequent schoolwork, and then the housework – I would sit in my chair and silently talk to Wanda.  I would tell her of myself and her father – describing in profusion of details what we looked like, what were our interests, what we had done the previous day, and so on.   And I would make plans for the future, envisioning my dark sprightly daughter running around the house ready for mischief.
    As if on cue, other letters from my mother arrived.  She was writing – as always – exactly what I was thinking or needed to hear, and I felt again the unique connection that existed between us.    

Wednesday, September 17, 1958

…I remember the surprise of feeling you inside me for the first time.   It was like the quiver of tiny waves, or maybe more like a butterfly finding its way under my skin. And I knew the sensation was mine only to behold, until a later moment when such movements would become apparent to others, too.   I also remember that I was reluctant to speak to your Father about them – I knew I would have never been able to explain exactly what I was feeling.   How can you explain to your man how it is to be a mother?  More or less in the same way he can tell you how it feels being a man, I guess!  And so I did keep it for myself, until my belly became bigger and movements were clearly visible.   He would then come to me and rest his hand on my midsection, marveling at the strength in those movements...

  Thursday, October 2, 1958

…Do you ever speak to the child in you?  I used to do it when I was expecting you.  It was soothing in a way, and it established a connection, that I felt was very important.  I would sit on the porch or by the fireplace – depending what month I was in – and put both my hands on my belly.  I would then close my eyes and words would come to mind.   I was probably speaking to myself, rather than you, and the words were silent words – I never spoke them out loud.   But I felt you could hear them in a way, and I imagined silent answers to my questions.   It was always words; I did not sing child songs to you then – I kept them for later, when you would ask for them.   They were thoughts about life and nature, or the description of a particularly remarkable natural object or sensation.   That’s when I began scribbling my notes, the ones your father collected a few years ago and had printed.    I think that was a nice idea – it’s good to go over them now and relive past experiences.   I haven’t stopped taking them since, putting on paper my feelings and my emotions, always thinking about you and the family in general – keeping that connection alive…

            And so the months passed.  Summer turned into fall, and the fireplace in our house was kept all the more busy.   We did not have to rely on it to heat the entire house, of course, but it was still the best way to keep our living room warm and cozy.   I suppose it’s because of the sweet memories I have of that particular fireplace that I keep one in my house even now, in a time when technology has made them obsolete.   There’s nothing better to me than sitting in front of the fireplace with a warm drink in my hand – and maybe a book in the other.    Halloween came and went.   Mary Ann being still too little to go from house to house playing Trick-or-Treat, it went by with little notice on our part. 

Tuesday, November 4, 1958
…I was never sick during pregnancy – not even in the first months, when it is so easy to feel nausea or heartburn, and those movements – however strong in later months – have never bothered me.   Oh, I did feel shapeless and very plump in the end – finding it hard to move around the house, and bumping into the furniture.   But I treasured every moment of it, and I would have loved to repeat the experience.   I wanted to have many children, and it was only fate that hampered me…          

Soon it was time to think about Thanksgiving Day.  It was of course a big occurrence, and all the family started well in advance to get ready for it.    The first thing we did was to buy a nice big turkey.   That was accomplished by going to the Connelly’s, who had a farm on the other side of town and raised them.  We wanted to keep it with us for a while, feeding it on our farm next to the geese and chickens we owned.  That’s how it had always been done.  Ann would kill and pluck it herself – teaching me the art of it for future occasions.  Secondly, the women of the house – and that included Ann and me, of course, together with Laura and Brenda – started chatting about it on every possible occasion, bringing up the subject whenever it was possible, in the intent of discussing a particular recipe or finding out a new one.  In the evenings then, we would share our discoveries and talk at length about this or that particular change in the menu, that would make this year’s Thanksgiving lunch better than the last.   Ann kept a regular flow of letters to Mother – even writing once every two days if necessary – so that everything would be ready and she could do her part.   And third, the house was swept from top to bottom to make it ready for the several guests who would come.   There would be the five of us, plus Brenda, Mike, Laura, Mary Ann and Mary – Laura’s mother.  She was a widow and didn’t have close relatives except for her daughter and granddaughter.  Mother and Father would come, of course, and then there were Paul’s grandparents – all four of them.  They lived a couple of hours away.  I had met them on our wedding day and had fond memories of them.    Since there was no room left in the house, they would stay at aunt Jeannine’s house – she lived in town by herself and was, of course, invited to lunch. That brought the total up to…seventeen.   I couldn’t believe my ears the first time they told me!  There used to be very few of us on Thanksgiving Day, and then my grandparents had died and my aunt had gotten married and moved to another state.  This was going to be the first big Thanksgiving lunch in my life.
As with our marriage, we must have started cooking a week in advance, making preserves, for instance.   It had been decided it was going to be a lunch, rather than a dinner, for several reasons: Mary Ann was little and would not be able to stay awake till late; the grandparents were old and didn’t feel like staying up too long, either, and I was tiring easily lately.   But it was on the day before that the bustle of activity became more apparent, with the baking of bread and of the numerous cakes and tarts, and the killing and plucking of the turkey.  On Thursday Ann and Brenda stuffed it with the filling they had prepared the day before.  Mom and Dad were leaving that same morning with the car, so they wouldn’t be at the farm much before lunchtime, but they had taken Friday off from work, so that they could spend the weekend with us.  As for me, I did my best to be of help and – at the same time – to keep out of everybody’s way.  
I was huge – well, on second thought maybe I wasn’t so big, but I thought so at the time.  I must have put on about twenty-five pounds, and there was more than a month to go yet!   I felt bulky and unattractive, and kept bumping into the furniture.  I had had to ask for a particular desk and chair at school, because I couldn’t fit in those the school provided – the ones with the chair connected to the desk.   I did not feel depressed – mind.  On the contrary, pregnancy seemed to give me energy, but now I also had to contend with backache and swollen ankles.   All in all, I was happy to be left to myself, and contemplated the proceedings at a safe distance, keeping an eye on Mary Ann, who looked very interested in the goings-on.
While the women were working in the kitchen, the men moved the furniture in the living room to the sides to make room for a big table in the center.  Since the kitchen table was needed in its place, they assembled a number of smaller tables – more or less as it had been done for our wedding – lining them side-by-side.  They also took the couch in the back and carried it to the living room in the front, so as to have enough sitting accommodations for our guests.   Paul’s grandparents arrived at mid-morning and settled down to it, chatting and admiring little Mary Ann – and relieving me from my duty as baby-sitter.  
So I had time to go and find Dad.   He was reserved by nature – relying on very few words to express his opinion.   I had had little occasion to talk to him since I had run away, other than the occasional greeting or exchange of words at table.  I recognized it was my fault.  I knew how possessive he felt about me – and how hurt he had been by my running away – and I hadn’t had the courage to go and talk to him before.   He had tried to lighten the mood the day I had come home, and I was very grateful for that, but still…   Now that the table was ready and that the men didn’t have much to do, he had walked around the house, finally settling down in the armchair (the only one left!) in our sitting room in the back.   He rose when he saw me, and asked whether he could be of any help – maybe Mother was looking for him?   I said no, and I drew closer, slightly caressing him on the cheek, like I used to do sometimes when we were alone.   Since there was but one seat, we moved to our bedroom and sat on the bed.  And I started talking, telling him how it had happened and apologizing for what – I knew – must have hurt him a lot.  We must have lost track of time, deep as we were in our conversation, because at a certain point Paul came looking for us.   The door was open, but we were sitting with our backs to it, so that he had to knock on the doorjamb to make his presence known.
“I was worried.   It’s late and the table’s all set already.   Will you come to lunch, Heileen?  Sir?”
Dad stood up and moved to where Paul was standing.  If words between us had been few up to now, there was much more left unspoken between them.   He turned around to wait for me and – as I stood up and approached them – he put his left hand on Paul’s shoulder.  Passing his right arm around my waist, he started forward.
“You’re right, son.  Let’s not keep the others waiting, shall we?”
We went back to the table to take our seats.   I was sitting next to Paul, with Mother and Father on my right.  On Paul’s left was his mother, and – next to her at the head of the table – his father.   On the other side were Kevin and Brenda, and then Mike’s family, who thus happened to be in front of my family and me.   If I mention this it is because this same pattern would repeat itself with little variation in the years ahead – the table growing longer or shorter as new members were added to the family or older ones died.
The lunch was a success, and it went on until well into the afternoon.   The atmosphere in the house was alive with chatter and laughter, and everybody had the time of their lives.  I must admit I felt really tired after the first two or three hours, and had to go and put my feet up for a while.   Paul accompanied me to the back, but did not stay long.  He was very happy about my father’s gesture of affection, and did not want to miss the opportunity to be close to him.  So I lay on the bed for a short nap.   I must admit I was sleeping quite a lot lately, nodding off at intervals whenever I had some time for myself.   True, I had trouble sleeping at night, and would awake every couple of hours, either to go the bathroom, or because my back ached.   So I couldn’t rest well, and I needed – obviously – to make up for lost sleep during the day.   I was beginning to wish my pregnancy ended soon.  I couldn’t wait to hold the baby in my arms. 
I went back to the living room about an hour later.  Lunch was over for good, and people were lounging around – sitting on the couches or taking a stroll outside.  Mary Ann was on her grandmother’s lap, and was doing her best to charm everybody in the vicinity.   Mom was helping Ann in the kitchen; Dad was nowhere to be seen, and so was Paul: they must have gotten out together.   I went to the kitchen to offer help – which was kindly but firmly turned down – so I sat on a chair.   Although we were not far away from the living room – there was actually no real wall between the two, just a low counter – it was much quieter here – the voices somewhat softened by distance.   It was calmer.  It must have been around six o’clock in the evening.  The table had been cleared, so that now a lot of dishes lay on the small table in the kitchen.  Mom had Ann had washed many, though, and were getting ready to set the table again to offer some dinner – should anybody want any.     Talk fell on the imminent snow.  We were at the end of November and it would snow soon.   To the farm it meant less work to be done – the animals had to be fed and tools repaired if need be.   Mostly, though, the months ahead would be quiet and easy.   If the weather kept fine, and snow wasn’t too abundant, I would have no trouble going to school.   Our truck could handle it quite well.  Besides, there was less than a month to the Christmas vacations, and then Wanda would be born soon.   We had made arrangements for my teachers to assign me more work over Christmas, and to show what lessons would be covered in the weeks after, so that I could study at home and be able to catch up with the others.   And then I had Trisha and Paula, who had promised to come in every day and help.  
Paul and Kevin had found work in town.   As there was less work on the farm, they used their free time to earn some more money – which was always welcome.  Although at the end of the fifties we were living in an age of unprecedented prosperity, this was slow in reaching rural areas like ours.   It was better in the towns, where people  were moving – and that’s why my parents had decided to leave, too.   There the shops were full of the new products, that were so much advertised on television.   Even the small town where Mike and Laura lived enjoyed the new boom.  For us, though,  life was as it had been for years, and it was hard to make ends meet.   The family needed every extra dollar – and Paul needed to save for our future.  He worked downtown as a delivery boy in the mornings, and at one of the soda shops in the afternoons, Mondays through Fridays.    He used to come home at seven o’clock in the evenings –  hardly in time for dinner!   This also meant that he could accompany me to school only in the morning, and I had to ride the school-bus back home. 
Paul and Dad walked in through the back door.  They smelled of straw and animals – they must have walked to the barn.   They retrieved some chairs from the living room and we all sat down to a cup of tea – careful of the many items still on the smaller kitchen table.   There was a lot of food left.  Ann had placed it neatly on different dishes – to be eaten later or stored in the refrigerator for the next days.   The turkey had been huge, and I knew it would last for days – we would have to devise every possible recipe to recycle what was left.   The sweets – four pies, two tarts and three cakes, no less – had been mostly eaten by our ravenous guests, and I now helped myself to a slice of the apple-pie Mom had made.   Having retired before lunch was over, I was now enjoying what was left.   And of course I did not plan to eat dinner!   I failed to understand how I could start all over again, having finished only a couple of hours before.   True, I liked to eat and was very fond of Ann’s cooking.  Moreover, even if I had already gained a lot of weight, I felt reasonably free to eat as much as I liked – didn’t I have a baby to feed beside myself?  Today, though, I had amply taken advantage of all the food prepared for lunch – tea and apple pie was all I needed to feel at peace with myself.
So it was that I did not join the others at table for dinner, preferring to sit nearby or help Ann and Mother.  At about ten o’clock the guests started to leave, and Kevin relinquished his room again to my parents.  When everybody had left, Paul and I retired to our rooms.  Since there was no couch, we sat on the bed, as we used to do sometimes before going to sleep.   He was silent, and it looked like he was ruminating on some particular thought.   He did not look serious, though – on the contrary, his mouth twisted into a smile.
“Today your father and I took a walk together and – since it was cold – we ended up in the barn.   We were talking – we talked of a lot of stuff – and he didn’t notice that Kevin and Brenda were there already.  You can imagine for what purpose…   It took all my self-control to steer him in another direction while they hid in the straw.   They must have remained there for the whole time – and we did chat a lot!”  I smiled too, hoping that my pregnancy had at least taught them to take precautions.  “While we were there we saw something move from under the straw in a corner.   It was a small dog.  It must be a puppy.  It was scared, and looked terribly hungry, so I fetched some milk for it.   I’ll show it to you tomorrow.”
“Oh no, I couldn’t sleep knowing it there!  Let’s go an fetch it now”.
We went out from yet another door – there was one that from our sitting room opened on the porch.   We turned around the house until we got to the main entrance, and from there proceeded to the barn.  It was very quiet; the animals were all sleeping, but stirred at our entrance.  The puppy was next to the milk bowl – now inexorably empty.  He was a male, and terribly skinny.  His fur was light brown – the hairs slightly curly, as those of a golden retriever, but he was one of those crossbreeds that wander around the country, begging for food wherever they can.   I must have mentioned already that I love animals.  It did not take me much to feel pity for him.  I picked him up and held it close to my bosom.   He was warm, and smelled of curdled milk.  We walked to the house together.  This time we entered from the front door, going straight to the kitchen to look for some food – no difficult task on a Thanksgiving night!  We fed him leftovers from the turkey, and even a small piece of pie for dessert.   He looked so full at the end that he barely had the strength to follow us to the back and collapse at the foot of the bed.  We undressed and got into bed ourselves, kissing goodnight before turning the light off.
“Broomstick”, I said.
“What?” enquired Paul.
“That’s his name.  He’s so skinny; he looks like a broomstick.  Let’s call him that.”
And so Broomstick became my inseparable companion.   He had the run of the house, once he was properly trained – and I must say that did not take long, fortunately – and slept in our room at night.   He went wherever I went – jumping on the back of the truck in the morning when Paul drove me to school, and riding back with him later.  We were never able to turn him into a guard dog.  He would persistently frisk around people, familiar and unfamiliar alike, and he was good – even too good sometimes.   And I was very happy with him.   I had had a dog when I was younger – I used to play with him after school.   He had died two years earlier, and I had missed him a lot in the following months.   Now I was happy to have a four-legged friend again, and I was sure little Wanda would love him, too.

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