“And please, God, send me a little brother or sister”: this was the coda that, as a child, I appended to my nightly prayers for years, with no luck. I prayed as I would have prayed for a dog or a kitten–something or someone that I could relate to on my own level, who would stand with me inside the circle of ever-watchful, concerned, loving adults. Someone, especially, who would distract my mother from her intense focus on me. A fellow soldier in the battle for a separate self.
My parents prayed too, but I\’m not sure they did anything besides praying and exercising their “conjugal rights,” like consulting a specialist. Or did the fact that I slept in their room until I was in school keep that longed-for second child at bay?
Although openly affectionate with each other, my parents adhered to a Victorian standard of modesty. Until his final illness, I never saw my father even in his robe. When I was still sleeping in their room and he got up in the morning, he would say “Don’t look! I’m going to get dressed now.” By using the plural form of the verb, he was ensuring that I believed that my mother wasn’t allowed to see him naked either. At night, in the dark, I would sometimes hear them whispering, and for a joke I would make whispering noises back at them. But I don’t recall ever hearing anything remotely sexual.
Years passed, and I was exiled to the Murphy bed in my own bedroom down the hall, but still nothing happened sibling-wise. After a while I stopped asking my mother why my prayers went unanswered, but I never stopped praying—not through our four years in Ecuador or our move to Birmingham after that. Then, when we least expected it, my mother got pregnant.
We marveled and rejoiced and gave thanks, but, at four months, my mother miscarried. I remember my father, as he walked out the door to rush her to the hospital, turning to tell me not to look in the bucket that was left in the bathroom, which he had hurriedly covered with the lid of the old-fashioned washing machine tub. I obeyed, and while I was in school the next morning, he buried the baby, a boy, in the backyard.
We all gave up hope then. What, after all, were the chances of another pregnancy after fifteen years of sterility and a miscarriage? Apparently they were excellent because, the year after that, at age forty-two, my mother got pregnant again. We held our breath and prayed hard for nine months, and this time my sister, the long-awaited miracle, was born, and all was well.
I had just turned sixteen, and far from being embarrassed, as teenagers are said to be, by this scandalous evidence of sex among the elderly, I was thrilled. Even though she wasn’t the companion I had prayed for, I loved the strangeness of this new creature, and the disruption she created in the household. I peered at my sister with the same intense curiosity as I had watched the chickens and rabbits of my grandparents’ farm—why did she cry every evening when the sun went down? Were her early smiles the real thing? What made her clench her fists and pull up her knees when she cried?
I threw myself fervently into the diaper-changing and bottle-washing routines. I longed to feed the baby, but my mother jealously guarded that function. I wondered at her anxiety that my sister, born at a vigorous seven pounds, would starve to death if she didn’t finish her bottle at every feeding. I was aghast when she pinched her tiny nose to force open her mouth so she could insert the nipple. Surely a baby knew when she’d had enough? It was my first consciously critical look at my mother’s parenting style.
“Weren’t you jealous?” people ask me when they hear the story. Alas, no. Jealousy would have implied a shift in my mother’s attention away from me. But my mother was perfectly capable of continuing to scrutinize my face, my posture, my dress, my sleep habits, my tone of voice, and the state of my soul while she held my sister in her arms. My sister and I were, in fact, two only children, and although my prayers had been answered in the literal sense—I now had a sibling—I was still without the fellow soldier I had longed for in the guerrilla wars against my mother.
But if I didn’t gain a comrade, I did reap other benefits from my sister’s late arrival. All the diaper-changing, bottle-washing, and babysitting I did from ages sixteen until my parents finally loosened their grip and let me leave for graduate school at twenty-one stood me in excellent stead when I had my own children in my mid-twenties.
For one thing, despite the prevailing ethos, I was determined to breast feed them, having had enough of washing and sterilizing bottles and mixing formula during my teenage years. For another, having carried a baby on my hip while I myself was still growing, I had somehow learned to trust that a healthy infant is a sturdy creature, not likely to keel over and expire without warning. Although I had my share of maternal anxieties, compared to the perennial jitters of the other young mothers around me, I felt relaxed and free to enjoy my babies.
My sister is closer in age to my daughters than to me. She and I grew up not only in different eras but in different countries and with different languages. But despite all those differences, when we speak she often shocks me by saying something that could only have come from the lips of one of my mother’s daughters.