Debra Gwartney books
Monday, December 5, 2011

Something of a Beginning

Does the world–the internet world, the world in general–need another blog? Probably not. But here I am entering into the fray well behind the curve–behind two or three curves, actually (as is my tendency, slow to the current mode). I plan to use this space for occasional updates on food, books, discussions of nonfiction writing craft, family life, the beautiful place where we live, etc. In other words, the usual smatter of blog posts.

I look forward to hearing from anyone who has a comment on these thoughts.

Last week was Thanksgiving Day–as everyone is well aware, especially those about to (a little guiltily) throw the last remnants of the turkey in the garbage, and those still trying to work off the extra gravy and mashed potatoes (me on both accounts).

baking Mamie’s rolls on Thanksgiving 2011


The traditional holiday is noted with some stir of nostalgia here because my first child, my first daughter, was born on Thanksgiving Day, the moment I became an impossibly young  mother. Not impossible, obviously, though I’m stunned at how young I was, 21, though at the time I believed I was appropriately old and mature, since I’d been born when my parents were considerably younger.

Anyway, I was in labor all day, and by that I mean all day, morning to night, overly anxious and no doubt obnoxious to everyone in the “birthing center” (regular old hospital room with a couple of comfy chairs and better magazines). It turns out that when I’m in that kind of pain, I go silent, so when the endless parades of cheerful hospital workers came in waving plates of turkey dinner or a big slice of pumpkin pie in my face, all I could do was glare. Since I’d been vomiting into a plastic bedpan next to my face for several hours, I most definitely did not want to see, smell, or even hear about Thanksgiving feasts.

After Amanda was born at about 10:30 that night–a hard snow falling out the window in Spokane–I could have eaten the proverbial horse. I was cleaned up and back in my room with this astonishing new person, swaddled tight, asleep next to me, when my mother’s cousin, and a hero for life, snuck into the strict Catholic hospital with a turkey sandwich and a cold glass of milk. I can still almost feel that meal, hearty and nourishing, the crisp lettuce and the thick turkey and the chilly milk, in my belly. It was if I’d consumed the earth itself, at least a taste of all the elements, I felt so abundantly fed, exhausted beyond belief, yet capable of anything.

And then the next day the hospital released me. Plopped me, along with my young husband, out on the sidewalk with our baby. We’d taken those popular breathing classes, preparing for labor once a week with all the other earnest young parents, but no one had mentioned anything about the after labor part of things. No one mentioned the going home with a baby and figuring everything out side of this pact. Thank goodness, my mother and grandmother were waiting for us at our house, and they spent that first day creating what was then my favorite dinner while I stared at the ceiling trying to sort out if I was up to this. (It’s when they left a few days later that I practically pressed my face against the living room window, watching their car pull away, about to break down with terror: do they realize what they are doing, these crazy women? Leaving me, who knows nothing, with an actual human child?)

Oddly, I have not cooked up this dinner myself in subsequent years. I’ve preferred leaving it in their domain, my mother’s and my grandmother’s. Prefer leaving it to the memory of this first day at home with the first child and my first tremulous notions of motherhood. A plate of utterly tender chunks of roast beef in a fairly delicate sauce–this is not boeuf bourguignon or even a stroganoff, but simple peasant food–over noodles, and on the side, lacking in nutrition though it is, sliced iceberg lettuce, with finely chopped avocado and cauliflower, tossed in a buttermilk dressing.

I ate this sumptuous meal, so exactly right in its flavors, its textures, its warmth and snap, and then sat down on the soft sofa to nurse my fussing two-day-old daughter, yowling myself when she “latched,” which I wouldn’t get used to for at least another week (even nipples, it turns out, must work up to the callus).

Sleeping with Amanda Mae


Once she was asleep again, I went into the kitchen to help with the clean up. That’s when I noticed the pan the meat had cooked in all day–a pan that was a wedding present but that I’d never used because it came with a note warning about the lengthy process necessary to remove the potentially harmful and definitely toxic coating on the surface. My grandmother had ranged around in the cupboard and found this gorgeous cookware still in its box–how was she to know why it shouldn’t have been touched, let alone heated to release its hazards?

Without explaining to either of them, I ran to the bathroom and stuck my finger down my throat, forcing myself to throw up dinner, but even then knowing that I was too late–I’d already passed poison on to my baby through my breast milk. I was shouting at my husband to call the doctor, to tell him we had to get to the hospital to pump her stomach. My grandmother and mother by now were standing in the hallway, frightened, confused, hands wringing, hands thrown bewildered in the air. My husband handed me the phone, our calm and ever reassuring doctor on the other end, and this man told me to sit down, take a breath, maybe even sip a glass of wine, and get over myself. Everyone was going to survive, he promised me. Not enough chemicals from the pan’s coating could make it from my belly to hers to cause any problem. I might have a stomach ache later. She might, too. That was all.

I did sit, calm down, weep a little in the aftermath of adrenalin ache–and spent the entire night wide awake thinking about the fragility of this small human who would now be in my care. In my care. Good God. How would I manage to protect her for decades ahead, when the first danger she confronted in her ever-so-brief life came straight from me?

Turns out I did cause her more pain, more heartache and difficulty, though I never meant to. The angry, bitter times between us have largely been tempered by love and a mutual desire to find our way back to each other no matter what. She’s now a mother herself–and she seems to me much more capable than I was back then, though of course not without her own challenges. Who gets to do this parenting thing without challenges?

Amanda Mae, born on a day when the smell of roasted meat wafted through the hospital corridors and plates of gooey dessert with canned whipped cream were passed from visitor to visitor, is also the finest cook I know–to eat at her table is a privilege and the food is, every time, fresh, real, imaginative, unforgettable.

Amanda Mae and her daughter in the kitchen


So now I’m going to ask her to concoct a recipe for the tender beef on noodles dish–and what of the iceberg lettuce salad?–her version of the meal that set in me the first of many startling recognitions of the cliff’s edge of motherhood.

Recipes to come!




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