If my mother had confined herself to embroidering baby clothes during her pregnancy, all would have been well. Unfortunately, she also read books about baby care, and at the time these were rife with behaviorist principles. New mothers were instructed to pick up their infant only for feeding and diaper changes, at strict four-hour intervals. This was supposed to result in a well-disciplined baby who would lie quietly in her crib, entertaining herself with her own thoughts and not relying on other humans for company or comfort.
But, for my mother and me, things did not go as the books promised. Long before the next feeding was due I would begin to mewl and grouse, progressing to ear-splitting shrieks that went on for hours. My mother would hover over the bassinet, watching my face grow from red to purple and my arms flail in distress. Longing to comfort me, but determined to do things properly, she would only allow herself to stroke my fist with one finger. She was probably even more miserable than I.
When it was finally time to nurse, I latched on so fiercely and was so reluctant to let go that my mother developed cracked nipples. This caused her such pain that the only way she could bear to feed me was to bite down on one of her lace-bordered handkerchiefs. The pain did not make it easy for her to let down her milk, and the slower the flow, the more savagely I sucked…Forget those placid Madonna-and-Child nursing scenes. Ours was more like the Martyrdom of Saint Agatha.
(My mother was not the only one to suffer under the influence of behaviorism. Across the Atlantic, my future mother-in-law, on her doctor’s advice, would leave my husband-to-be shrieking in his crib and go out for a walk, to avoid being tempted to pick him up and “spoil” him. It must have been as compensation for this draconian upbringing that our generation morphed into the love-obsessed flower children of the 1960s.)
My mother’s parents lived in Ivars d’Urgell, a village in a fertile plain south of the Pyrenees, west of Barcelona. As soon as she heard of my birth my grandmother packed her suitcase and a basket of autumnal home-grown provender—dried figs, almonds, raisins, and the last of the year’s butifarras (sausages). My grandfather hitched the horse to the covered wagon and drove her to the train station, but he declined to go along. Having a grandchild–I was the first, my mother being the eldest of his children—made him feel old, he said.
He was in his fifties, one of the last generation of large-animal veterinarians who cared for the horses, mules, and donkeys that plowed the fields and brought in the harvest. His car had been requisitioned during the Spanish Civil War, and for the rest of his career he visited his patients on a bicycle, wearing a black beret on his bald head and bicycle clips around his ankles, and smoking endless roll-your-own cigarettes.
It took him a month to get over his fear that the sight of me would turn him into an old man. He got on the train, arrived in Barcelona and, as he climbed the five flights of stairs to our apartment, he could already hear me screaming. He kissed my mother, handed her another food-filled basket from my grandmother, and followed the howls to the bassinet. He picked me up, lifted my dress and inspected my abdomen. He had seen enough calves, foals, piglets and lambs, in addition to his own four children, to know what a thriving infant looked like, and I did not look like one.
“This child,” he exclaimed “is malnourished! Why haven’t you been feeding her?”
“I think perhaps I don’t have enough milk, because she cries day and night,” my mother answered.
“Of course she cries—she’s starving! Forget about nursing. She has to gain weight right away, or she won’t last long,” he said.
Then began the search for something to feed me. In the years following the war infant formula was practically unavailable, but, as it happened, a relative of my paternal grandparents owned a factory that manufactured powdered milk. He let my parents have as much as they needed, and I was put on a diet of powdered milk thickened with bread crumbs.
For all his initial reluctance to accept my birth, by the time he boarded the train back to Ivars my grandfather and I were firmly bonded, probably helped by the fact that he had saved me from dying of hunger. During my summers in the country, and in his letters after we left Spain, he repeated to me the Catalan saying: els fills dels teus fills son dues vegades fills (your children’s children are twice your children). I didn’t understand then the depth of affection that he was trying to convey, but the saying became as much a part of my grandfather as his beret, his cigarettes, and the bicycle clips that he put on before he set out on his rounds.
Despite the vast amounts I consumed, the powdered-milk gruel did not kill me. “You were so ravenous,” my mother used to say, “that it took two people to feed you—one to put the spoon in your mouth while the other filled the next spoon. If there was the slightest interruption between spoonfuls you would fly into a rage, choke, and vomit. And then we’d have to start all over.”
Luckily for me, my mother’s younger sisters, Maria (whose name I changed to “Xin” as soon as I could speak) and Pepita, periodically shared our apartment and helped with the mealtime dramas. But their influence went far beyond those early feedings. Until we left Spain when I was ten, my aunts were treasure troves of entertainment—they made up stories, played dolls, and let me watch them put on make-up. Xin recited Lorca poems to me (“Huye luna, luna, luna…” and “Verde que te quiero verde…”) long before I could understand them, but the pure music of the language engraved itself in my brain. And she taught me to read when I was three.
As an only child surrounded by adults, I sensed in my aunts’ youthful presence a secret sympathy. But many years later I realized that their most valuable gift was to help dissipate my mother’s intense focus on me.
(To be continued)