About a year and a half ago my mom wrote a paper for a college course she was taking. The subject was the experience of my birth. At the time she wrote it, I didn't want to read it. It was too personal for me, it brought up emotions I didn't want to deal with at the time.
This past month I finally asked my mom if I could read it. I am so glad that I did, it is a beautiful story.
To set the scene, it was the seventies. My parents and older brother lived in the woods, in a primitive shelter. There was no running water or electricity.
So here is the beginning of my story... Thanks mom for letting me share it.
The hot sun and heat of this summer remind me of the year my daughter was born, thirty two years ago. I have often thought there may be an invisible map which leads each of us through a series of defining experiences. In retrospect, few would plan a life centered on the primitive conditions in which I lived that long, hot summer.
August in the western United States is a time of dryness, the blackberries are ripening and the hot afternoons are still, even the birds are quiet. The last weeks of my pregnancy were spent in days of collecting water in white plastic buckets, which I covered with cloth, protecting my precious water from dust and bugs. I walked dusty paths worn along the forested hillside to gather firewood. Later in the day I would walk still further down the hill to pick blackberries, a small treasure of sweetness and sugar in an otherwise unvaried diet of rice, potatoes and venison. My four year old son usually ran ahead on the path excited about the prospect of playing in small stream at the bottom of the hill. In a backpack I carried some yarn for crocheting, a few worn books for my son, and a bar of Ivory soap which I used to wash ourselves in the stream. I felt large and ungainly in those last weeks, burdened by the heat and the pants I wore which fell uncomfortably below my stomach. There was a dog named Belle, a small Redbone hound that snuffled in the brush and leaves while her long ears fell along her nose.
Two days before the birth I felt lethargic and quit walking the long arduous trip down the hill, and stayed close to the rough structure we called home. The round fir poles and hands split cedar shakes, which protected us from wind and rain, was open to a vista of trees and the morning sun. That was my summer home, high on a hill where my child would be born under a ceiling of sky.
I obsessively poured bleach on the wooden plank that was my kitchen counter, a futile attempt at protecting me from the unknown of a birth in primitive surroundings. I had the pathetically simple preparation of clean sheets in the rugged atmosphere we lived. During the hot afternoon, I read the story my son loved, about a dog named Spike that was sprayed by a skunk and later washed in tomato juice to clean him. We often enjoyed a blackberry milkshake, goat milk, blackberries and sugar. That small luxury tasted as sweet as ice cream to us.
I had few close friends at the time and although they were supportive of me they were concerned about my choices. “You could die up there,” one friend commented. While I knew this was true and in fact quietly thought of the dangers, my days flowed one into another so easily, I simply lived day to day in an ancient rhythm. Two days before the actual birth a friend Carol arrived with her daughter. I felt a need to have another woman near me; maybe I felt her presence would help me, even though she knew less than I about childbirth in such primitive circumstances. “God you are huge, are you scared?” I do not recall my exact reply; however I am certain I answered with bravado. I was young and relied on youth and naiveté at the time. “Where exactly are you going to deliver?” she asked, as she looked dubiously at my surroundings. “Ah…well, right here,” I replied, pointing to a bed made of wooden planks which had been built some four feet off the ground. Our conversation about the birth ended there. She would not wound me with comments that could cause either of us more worry.
The night I was awakened with the contractions foretelling childbirth and I woke Carol and Ron the baby’s father. “I think I am in labor, probably be awhile.” However the labor intensified quickly and it was soon hard to discern the end of one contraction and the beginning of another. Nine months of walking up and down the forested hills seemed to have prepared my body for a quick, hard labor. Ron did what people have done for centuries, building a fire against the morning’s chill and setting a large pan of water to boil on an open fire. I recall looking at the night sky with the dog Belle lying near the fire, the night stars fading into a morning sky. There was not a clock available to know the exact time of birth but judging from the time of year and the light, my little girl was born about five in the morning. We had spoken little but laughed at my statement in the middle of labor, “I can't do this”
In the following days as summer slowly slid into autumn I walked that hill again and again, with two children. My tiny daughter in a pack, held close to my heart. She seemed terribly vulnerable in that large rough world. Much of the day was spent in cleaning clothes, diapers and in the constant ritual of feeding my son and daughter. We spent one more winter in that ripple of time; it is a blur in my memory. The strenuous work of caring for two children and keeping us warm and dry required my constant vigilance.
As my son grew older I recognized his need for interaction beyond that small world. We moved the next summer to a tiny community near the coast. One of the last one room schools in the state, and I would be closer to a store. How very civilized that seemed at the time.
In the years to follow as my children grew, we moved again to a rural town with even more accessibility to jobs, stores and a whole new world of possibilities. I spoke very little about that time. Most people looked at me with either confusion or consternation if I did mention it. However one friend many years later, having spent time in the Peace Corps, in the mountains of Thailand accepted that time as reasonable. She seemed to understand the simplicity of the experience and acknowledged the universality of it.
Today as a grandmother I can accept that time as an amazing time of quiet grace it was physically demanding. The relentless focus of simple duties, cooking, cleaning formed a structure which held us in place. I found a strength there that has stayed with me for many years, and I believe I could survive under any circumstance.