“If only I had married Barry Higgins,” my mother joked whenever she was feeling frisky.
My mother didn’t date much before she met my father, but not for lack of interest. She blamed my grandfather, a stern man who taught Latin at her high school and intimidated any potential boyfriends. In more reflective moods, she acknowledged that she hadn’t known how to make boys feel appreciated. She wasn’t good at small talk.
Barry Higgins was her blind date for the senior prom. He had large ears and crooked teeth. They had little in common, but he was leaving soon for the army and wanted a girlfriend. Although she longed for a boyfriend, my mother knew that things between them would not work out. Barry said ain’t and never voluntarily read a book. After he left for basic training, he sent her a paisley scarf, picked out by his mother. My mother sent him a thank-you note when she returned the scarf, letting him know that her parents said she was too young for a steady boyfriend. This was a lie, though she assumed my grandparents would agree that she deserved someone more literate, with less prominent ears.
Barry’s mother sent my mother a note in return. I haven’t forwarded your letter to Barry the way you asked me to, the note said. It would hurt him too much.
“If I’d married Barry Higgins,” my mother chortled, “you and your brother would be little Higginses. Would you like that? I wonder what my life would have been like.”
She would still be in Kansas teaching home economics, I thought. And I knew about biology. Unless she married my father, she would not have had me or my brother.
“Yes,” my mother agreed when I pointed this out, “but I would have had other children.”
This didn’t distress her as much as it should have. My mother displayed certain callousness with regard to my origins. As much as she loved me, she was prepared, at least in thought, to exchange me for another child.
My father was a red-bearded Renaissance man who played the piano, sang, and painted in oils. His hero-worshipping graduate students asked me what it was like to grow up the daughter of a genius.
“The father you have now is not the boy I married,” said my mother.
In photos of him at the age of twenty-two, I can see her point. His ears weren’t much smaller than those of Barry Higgins, and his wrists protruded bonily from the too-short ends of his hand-me-down shirts. But his intelligence gleamed from the black and white images. His lower lip was soft and full.
My parents met at a church social. Like Barry, my father was in the army. My mother was lovely at twenty. It was no mystery to me what he saw in her. Slender and shy, a saucy lushness shone from her lipsticked smile and curves in her sleek brown hair hinted at sensuality. She saw something in my father that went beyond his looks. Ambition, perhaps. Possibility. His grammar was impeccable, his room piled high with books. He planned to go to graduate school to study Russian literature.
“He was my ticket out of Kansas,” my mother said. “And of course,” she added, “I loved him.”
My mother didn’t realize she was pregnant until she was five months along. Her periods had always been irregular. I asked her about my life before I could remember it.
“How was my pregnancy with you? Short. And the delivery was easy, until they gave me medicine to knock me out. ‘We have to get the baby born quickly,’ they said, and that was the last thing I remembered.”
I tried to imagine not knowing you were pregnant. How could a baby make so little impact? How could she not have realized I was in there?
I almost died after I was born. “You had a fifty-fifty chance,” my mother told me. “That’s what the doctors said. There was something wrong with your lungs. So I decided not to breastfeed. It would have been too depressing….”
She let the sentence trail off. Too depressing if I died, she meant, to be there in the hospital with breasts dripping milk for a dead child. I pressed her for details. Was she upset, distraught? What had it been like, having me so ill?
“I was sad. Of course I was sad,” my mother replied. “But I was young. I knew I could have another.”
I was a colicky baby. Thin as a skinned rabbit and red in the face, all I did was cry. My parents took me to meet the relatives at a family picnic when I was three months old. My cries were so loud the relatives couldn’t get near me, and no one could think of anything nice to say. They eventually set me under a tree in my basket and let me wail away under the shade of the summer leaves.
“To be honest,” my mother said, as if she were ever anything but honest, “we thought you might be retarded. People would come up to you in your pram and look in, and you would stare back at them with a stunned expression and your tongue hanging out.”
Every time I heard this story, I waited for a different ending, for her to tell her me I had actually been a pretty baby and hadn’t worn a stupid expression all the time. She didn’t understand why I needed this reassurance. “You turned out fine,” she would insist. “We figured out you weren’t retarded when you started talking in sentences before you were two.”
Then she would tell my favorite story about my early childhood, without any sense that it reflected badly on her. My maternal grandparents, who lived in Kansas, came to visit my parents in New York State. My father was teaching the summer semester at Vassar. We have one photo of this visit. Dressed in a snowsuit, I am proudly pushing my stroller with my tongue, admittedly, protruding slightly from the corner of my mouth. My grandparents look on, beaming as if I am a normal child.
My grandparents took me grocery shopping. In the dairy aisle, I pointed at the containers of cottage cheese. “Ah-chee,” I said.
“We didn’t know Jeanne was talking,” my grandparents commented when we returned home. “But she asked for cottage cheese, so we bought some.”
“What?” my mother replied.
My grandparents related the story.
“Oh,” said my mother. “She’s talking? We thought she was just making noises.”
Shortly thereafter, my memories of my life began. I started telling my own stories, which has been convenient. My mother does not remember details, and her stories about me after my brother was born are vague and few. Yet she loves me unconditionally. She is as proud of my accomplishments as she was accepting of my early disabilities. I spent years trying to puzzle this out, and think I have the answer. As with many things in life, it has little to do with me.
My mother was insecure. She couldn’t believe that a girl who could attract only the likes of Barry Higgins or my gawky father in his ill-fitting clothes could give birth to a child who would live and thrive. By the time my brother came along two years later, she was no longer the same person, nor was my brother me. He was large and plump and happy. He nursed enthusiastically and flashed his gummy grin at all the relatives who clustered around his crib. My survival might have been an accident. With my brother’s help, my mother figured out that motherhood was something she could do.
As for me, the product of the unnoticed pregnancy and traumatic birth, the child of a mother afraid to love me too much lest I die, and with unfortunate facial expressions that hinted of developmental delays, I became a daddy’s girl.
And never once have I wondered how life would be for the different person who would be me if my mother had married Barry Higgins.