Thursday, December 23, 2010

The Hopes and Fears of All The Years

I finished The Birth House, by Ami McKay, on the plane back from Florida this week. (Swimming in the sea in the days before Christmas is a childhood memory come back to life. Somehow it seemed right. One particular swim, just after dusk on the Tuesday evening after the eclipse, was marked by the bloodred rising of a full moon out of the belly of the Atlantic. The moment was mystical. If I were Aztec, I would have fallen to the ground in fear. As it was, we all stared in awe at this orb rushing out of the horizon; even the waves seemed to forget to roll.) But back to this beautiful book about a remote Nova Scotian fishing village, Scots Bay, during WWI and the decades beyond, and its women healers who helped "sing the babies down."

Dora Rare, the first daughter to be born to a Rare man in generations, is taken under the wing of Miss Babineau, an aging and wise Acadian healer and midwife. Miss B. trains her to take her place among the women who marry, birth and die in Scots Bay during the 1920s and 30s, before running water, electricity and hospitals with maternity wards.

Dora's experiences are revealed to us partly through her journal. I was moved by her entry for December 26, 1917:

December is a month shadowed in darkness and fear. With every lamp blazing, with oranges and stockings, ribbons and holly, whether Christians rejoice or not, this is the truth of the season. As a young girl, I felt the shock of the annunciation, my belly sinking into hurt every time I listened to Gabriel standing winged and menacing over Mary. The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee and the power of the Most High shall overshadow thee . . . Not once did sugar plum faeries dance through my window on Christmas Eve. Instead, my dreams were filled with the hiss of Gabriel's whisper bringing the terrible message that heaven had made a mistake and I was to take the Blessed Virgin's place. With a blanket over my head, I would wait for the dawn knowing that poor Mary must have suffered more than anyone ever knew. That in that hour, she swallowed the spirit of the Christ Child down into her belly, crying into the night, knowing He would have to die. [Some] might call it blasphemy, but when I told Miss B. about it, she said, "That's a sacred dream. The blood you share with the Holy Mother is what sets you achin' like that. The same blood she shares with all women."
Having and raising children must be perhaps the most faithful work ever. After all, we cannot see their particular end. No matter how hard we try, we cannot even control their particular path. Too often we find ourselves kicking up against the immovable force of who this child really is. And, there are times when we have to stand and watch, knowing that the particular steps are their journey to take. We cannot take those steps for them. To try to is to deny our children the benefit of learning through experience those things that cannot be learned any other way.

Yet, there is something I believe we mothers can do. Dora tells it this way.

She and Miss B. are preparing to help Mabel, "a plain living and dependable" mother of two, birth her third. Dora cannot help but notice Mabel's effect on her family as she sends her children to her neighbors so that she can concentrate on "do[ing] what she needs to" without "frettin' over givin' them a fright."

Her belly almost too wide between them, Mabel leaned towards her shy, quiet husband, giving him an awkward kiss on the cheek. She tousled the hair on her little girls' heads saying, "You be some good for your auntie. Mind your daddy and say your pleases and thank-yous." Two little strawberry-blond heads nodded together as they looked up at their mother, smiling, reaching out their hands to rub the roundness of her one last time. . . . Big as a barn and nearly ready to drop, Mabel Thorpe still made motherhood look easy. Miss B. says, "It's a mama's faith what keeps her children right. I'm not talkin' 'bout the churchgoin' kind, neither. Miss Mabel's got faith in goodness. Tell me you can't help but believe in it too just by lookin' at her."
Faith in goodness. That's within our grasp, to believe utterly that at the root of this world and the hearts of others lies goodness, and to show our children that this is so.

Merry Christmas.

Title, from "O, Little Town of Bethlehem."


  1. I discovered your blog earlier this year and am always glad to see you've posted a new entry. I appreciate your thoughts and the beautiful way you articulate them.

    Also, your new profile photo is gorgeous.

    Merry Christmas and best wishes for 2011.

  2. My beautiful sister, creating a world more beautiful with your words. Thanks for seeing the sacred in the mundane and helping me along this good path. I love you.

  3. I love when someone suggests a new book. I can't wait to read this one. It sounds delicious.