Reflect for a moment on the harvest king, whose annual agony haunts The Golden Bough. Chosen in the darkest days of winter, when the whole world has died, he is feted and feasted until spring brings its promise of rebirth, when he is killed and his body scattered across the newly greening fields, ensuring that the harvest will be a good one, enough to feed the village for another year. We who were young, who had no fear of consequences, who believed our lives would last forever, could read Frazer, write term papers on him, and still not comprehend, as now we do, that the harvest king is not merely the sympathetic magic of a naïve and savage time. He lives and dies, over and over, for all of us. He is all of us.
And so today, knowing all we now know, we write bravely about births, our own and others’, both metaphorical and actual. No one understood the inevitability of life, the dewiness of the newborn, the sadness and beauty of the cycling down of days, better than Venie Holmgren – mother and grandmother, ecology and peace activist, occasional bookshop proprietor, traveler (who insisted to the end that she had no sense of direction), feminist, and poet – who died this winter at 93. Venie was a friend, and quite apart from that, a member of the Persimmon family; one of her poems appeared in the Fall 2012 international poets issue.
Here is one of her last poems, written in late 2012 as she waited for construction to finish on her new, no-carbon-footprint, passive solar home, summing up what the Short Takes in this issue are all about:
I look in the mirror
the deeply furrowed field
that is my face
and smooth of skin
wrapped his arms around me
said he loved me
[from The Tea House Poems (Lulu.com, 2013)
Orson and Me
October 30, 1938 8:00 p.m.
ANNOUNCER: “We know now that in the early years of the twentieth century this world was being watched closely by intelligences greater than man’s … We know now that as human beings busied themselves about their various concerns they were scrutinized and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinize the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water.”
Two things happened that evening: CBS broadcast Orson Welles’ dramatization of H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds – the most notorious hour in the history of radio – and my 22-year-old mother went into labor. While the rest of the country panicked, my mother – who, as she tells it, was a big fan of the Mercury Theatre – refused to go to the hospital until the program was over. I was born the next morning.
“Good heavens, something’s wriggling out of the shadow like a gray snake. Now it’s another one, and another. They look like tentacles to me. There, I can see the thing’s body. It’s large, large as a bear and it glistens like wet leather.
“… those strange beings who landed in the Jersey farmlands tonight are the vanguard of an invading army from the planet Mars.”
So, two myths. The first, that the entire country went crazy, took to the roads and tried to flee to safety, was fanned immediately by newspapers and, later, by testimonies before the F.T.C. and threats of punishment for Welles. My whole life, my mother has circulated the second.
Researchers and biographers have largely discredited the first of these myths. Apparently, no more than two or three percent of the radio audience were tuned to CBS and many of them later wrote letters about how much they enjoyed the program. If radio and police stations were “flooded” with phone calls, one has to wonder just how many phone calls constituted a flood given the equipment available in 1938. And traffic in the Northeast was light, not clogged that evening.
My mother, however, still insists my birth is connected to an important historical event, one that should be taught in schools and colleges to this day. Everyone loves a foundational myth and I would never consider enlightening her.
As for me, perhaps his mellifluous voice filtered into the womb that night. All I know is that I have loved Orson Welles forever and I always will.
Mother of Invention
When her longtime lover refused to father a child, Kirsten ended the relationship. She was forty-one. She had to act. The day her mother died, she felt with crystal clarity that she had to have a child. “It was like I’d been drifting along, hoping things would work out somehow, and I just woke up and realized it could be too late!”
Kirsten Johnson, almost a member of our family, is also a world-class cinematographer. She had gone to China to make a documentary about Chinese medicine. The film, Journey to the West, is visually stunning. My daughter Katy, who accompanied her, said that, although Kirsten spoke no Chinese, she had enchanted children everywhere with her imaginative games. It’s a shame, I thought, that Kirsten can’t combine her career, which takes her far from New York often for long periods, with childrearing.
Then Kirsten learned that a filmmaking acquaintance, Ira Sachs, wanted to father kids with his lover, Boris Torres, an Ecuadorean artist. The three hit it off immediately, and their long conversations about values deepened their commitment. Three parents can offer more love than two, they reasoned, and Kirsten thought two fathers might trump one husband. The men were happy to take over parenting when Kirsten travelled. They couldn’t believe their good luck.
With Ira’s sperm, Kirsten valiantly flew to Iceland to try in vitro fertilization. Even when she told us of its failure, she remained hopeful. Seven times she tried artificial insemination, but her age was against her. Ira wanted to find an egg donor; Kirsten was frantic until Ira reassured her that she would still be the mother.
Through an agency they found and met with an egg donor (who, Kirsten said, looked a little like her mother). Two of her eggs were planted in Kirsten’s uterus. As Ira provided the sperm and Kirsten the womb, this harmonious troika agreed – to give Boris equal standing – that the twins should bear his surname, Torres. Ira readied his large apartment in Greenwich Village. And the week before the babies were due, he and Boris were married in City Hall.
Five years after her quest began, Kirsten gave birth to a boy and a girl. As the babies were premature, the hospital gave the family a room where Mom could nurse one baby while a dad dandled the other against his bare chest, the better to bond. Kirsten sent us a startling photo of men pressing newborns to their chests, while studying name books. Favorite names were compiled, days of negotiation ensued, until Viva and Felix carried the day.
The parents meet Sunday nights to discuss and refine arrangements. After a year, an apartment next door opened, and Kirsten moved in. Now the twins divide the week between two nurseries. Two fathers cause no confusion: Ira is Daddy and Boris is Papi.
a small green car pulled into the parking lot of a neighborhood convenience store. it was just after midnight. the two women inside had followed the simple yet explicit instructions given over the phone: drive into town to this address and pull into the parking lot; a woman will meet you there. if you find that you are being followed by another car, drive directly to the police station and enter into the parking garage; stop the car; don’t get out.
the transfer from one vehicle to the next happened quickly: first the toddler, then a blanket, two plastic feed sacks of clothes followed by a quick, desperate hug between the friends. then the mother carried her child and went over and sat down in the car of an absolute stranger in the middle of the night in a city she did not know. the little green car and anything that was familiar went away.
names were exchanged. the mother sat holding the child close, desperate to keep that deep hidden place down in the center of a self where balance and/or imbalance resides intact. her bowels were knotted and twisted with the fear and bile that is the stuff and refuse of abuse.
they left the parking lot and drove through a quiet, dark residential neighborhood. she sat with her arms around the trusting child, clinging to the one truth she had remained faithful to throughout all the fears, confusion, and danger: being a parent, nurturing this boy. this role, this task, had miraculously kept some part of her sane and eventually prompted her call for help, her decision to escape.
she did not know where she was; she did not know who she was with. however, after stepping through that simple door, when the screen closed behind her, she was flooded with the all but forgotten experience of actually being safe.
the room held a large table for eating, which was surrounded by chairs. this room was divided by a bar and stools; a kitchen could be seen there on the other side. the lights were appropriately dim for that time of night. two women wearing nightgowns were pacing the floor, smoking cigarettes. it was impossible to say how she knew, but it was obvious that these two women had been there before – an uncanny sense of certainty that was later confirmed.
the mother stood still to take all this in: the two women walking the night; the fact that not one person who knew her, friend or foe, had any knowledge of her whereabouts, none at all; how that fact alone provided for her safety. she was safe, and a long hidden part of her emerged. she felt it happen, and she swore from deep down inside herself, the region of all her fears, injuries, and hidden hopes: she would do this thing just once. never. ever. again.
This Is Not a Death Story
My father died several times. The first time was a Sunday, the day he fell and cracked his head on the bathroom counter. He lay unconscious in an expanding pool of blood until a neighbor found him on Monday. The subsequent heart failure was inevitable, like a holiday on his calendar. But, during the early morning rush to the hospital, under blinking red lights to the wail of the siren, emergency responders revived him, birthing him into a new life.
In a hospital bed that raised and lowered to a mule-like whine, to the intermittent beep of a heart monitor, and to the steady drip of drug-laden IV fluids, he died and was rescued a second time. A day later, the anti-stroke measures failed and left my father paralyzed on one side. In a garbled voice, he found the words to wish a friend goodbye before we left for hospice. There, on a diet of vanilla ice cream for breakfast, lunch, and dinner he gained weight and spirit and was born again.
Six weeks later he returned home and into the care of a tiny woman from Africa. She cleaned and shaved him, fed him low-sugar, high-protein meals, sang to him, and I suspect practiced a bit of sorcery when I was absent. He watched TV, talked to the occasional visitor, and regained partial mobility in the stroke-damaged side of his body. His vital signs returned to normal. He thrived.
Today my father lives in a “health and rehabilitation” center – what people once called a nursing home. From time to time, an attendant rescues him from his place in front of the television with its unending cycle of Gunsmoke reruns. She wheels him outdoors where he delights in a breath of fresh air and the sun on his shoulders.
Before his fall and the onset of dementia, he wished for death, finding the ravages of time and gravity and decay too much to bear. But he didn’t die and, though his hearing is gone, his memories scant, and his thoughts clouded, he clings to life.
And so my father is now my responsibility. I have slipped on the mantle of midwife in this birth story.
Lost in Plain Sight
The summer of 1943, in the middle of World War II, race riots occurred in Detroit, Michigan. Just a few weeks later, I decided to appear on the planet, a round-faced seven-pounder with deep brown eyes and dark hair that framed my face like a pixie’s.
My parents, Tom and Ruth, had moved to Detroit from Ohio, where they’d both been born. Dad grew up on a farm near the West Virginia border; he was the middle child in a family with thirteen kids. Mom, the youngest of three and the only daughter, was a city gal from a booming coal town, where the family lived above her father’s barbershop on the main street.
Lured by wartime jobs and the wish for a bright future, the young couple settled in Detroit early in 1943 and awaited their first-born. Dad worked for the city, driving a streetcar. Mom stayed at home in the tiny place they’d rented, but several times a week she rode the trolley on the side-ways seat right behind Dad.
In late July, Mom was admitted to Wayne Diagnostic Hospital. Segregation was a fact of life in Detroit at the time, even in the hospital nursery. Since my mother was fair-skinned and so was I, some nurse or aide mistook us for Caucasian and placed me in the section of the nursery reserved for white babies.
Of course, my mother had no idea of this because, in 1943, women who delivered babies were required to stay in bed for nine days. Years later, she’d say, “Nine days! And I was as dizzy as a fool when they finally let me stand up!”
When my tall, handsome, brown-skinned father came to see me in the nursery for the first time, he was shown to the window where a nurse greeted him and asked his name. She took off to fetch me from the “colored” section. But, I was not there. Imagine the panic when she couldn’t locate the Cassells baby. And, I can imagine my dad’s deep voice becoming animated and loud, “What? You mean to tell me you’ve lost MY child?”
That sent the nurses scurrying back and forth, checking in Mom’s room in case I might be nursing and back to the nursery to examine each colored baby’s wrist. Finally, one nurse rushed to the opposite side of the room to check in the “white” section. And there she found me, sleeping peacefully. Already breaking the color barrier, my destiny set in motion.