This post is number one in the Mother's Day 2017 series.
I was a superstitious child. I held tightly to my belief in the allusive promise of every birthday candle, dandelion puff, and found penny. I believed in the power of a sidewalk crack to break my mother’s fragile back. Every trip out the door meant a hundred, a thousand, careful steps, sudden skips, fast, physical little bargains for her strength and the precarious security of our little family. My mother somehow made it through my childhood unbroken, though I' not entirely sure the credit is mine. These days, like any modern, savvy adult, I believe in intellect, reason, practicality, and, of course, the incomparable power of a hand knit vest to keep my family safe. I am not a child. I am now a superstitious parent.
I was newly pregnant, enduring a long, stuffy weekend of mind numbing political speeches, when one of the senators told a story that grabbed my heart and still holds it captive. After college, before graduate school, she’d taken a backpacking trip through post-revolution Guatemala. The bus, bulging with too many people, chickens, and bundles, bounced and rattled through lush mountains that had not so long before borne witness to genocide. She traded shy smiles and then snacks with the Mayan woman squeezed in next to her. Was the gringa married? Did she have children? No, she was not. No, she did not, not yet. “When you have children,” her seatmate urged, “have three. Then when hunger takes one baby and the soldiers come for another, you will still have one child to hold. You will not have to live with empty arms like me.” The truth in those long ago, far away words settled, sharp and painful in my womb. I knew, in that instant, in that stifling, bland, too-bright conference hall, that I needed three children. Three at least, to keep my arms from hanging empty.
Sure, I always wanted a bunch of kids, and my little shoeful, bursting at the seams these days with shouts and laughter, the chaos of five children, feels just about perfect. I like people, and I love noisy, messy, beautiful gatherings of them. And there was always this concern between us that the weight of our love and depth of our expectations would be a burden more fairly carried by several children than one. But still, every child I hold is held in honor of that Mayan woman. A nod to the unknown that it's not just our love that is too big a load to carry alone, but also our fear. It's about not taking the luck of time and place for granted. It's about superstition. If I remember, if I act in the name of the victims, such a thing cannot happen to me, to my family. It’s a worry that pinning all my love on one child is tempting fate with too easy a catch.
With my first baby nursing and dozing safely in my arms I listened to a radio interview with a reconciliation worker back from Bosnia. He had witnessed the excavation of mass graves at Srebenica. As he described watching the bodies being lifted from the muddy pits and laid out in an empty marketplace, all those men and boys, my own little boy’s eyelids fluttered, his tiny fingers wrapped around mine. Those bodies were so badly decomposed that they could only be identified by the homemade sweaters, vests, and woolen socks they had been wearing when they were killed. They could only be named by the mothers and wives who recognized their own handiwork laid out in that gruesome bazaar.
Is it any wonder then that I am most comfortable with my own children wandering out in the world when I know that they are dressed in clothes made just for them? They are bold, fierce, privileged, climbing mountains, skiing down them, planning far-flung travels and wild adventures. I want it this way, but I want them protected too. I may like knitting, sewing, and embroidery, but it is more than admiration for my own needlework that sends my children out dressed in in those pants, that vest, these warm and cozy socks. It's the need for me to give them a little bit of armor, some shelter from a world at times cruel and incomprehensible. Take this. It was made with love. Wear it. It was made for you. You are loved. You are mine. You are known, and being known means you can not disappear. Let the world know that you are not up for grabs.
It is ridiculous, of course, to believe that having a bunch of children, even a bunch of children dressed head to toe in hand knits, can protect a family from disaster. I know it. They know it. Our genetics doctor knows it too. You do not save a child from hunger or car accidents by having more. You can not stop a genocide or fix a fault in genetic code with mittens. It was just as ridiculous, as a child, to believe that my mother’s strength, health, and ability to keep our family together was determined by the stride of my steps and the condition of the local pavement. Everyone knows that too. But when the troubles, the dangers, the looming disasters, are bigger than one parent’s arms, and the fixes are so many generations and political seasons down the road, you hold on tight to the baby in your arms and whatever hope you can pluck from the air, even if it's no more than a dandelion puff, a wish.
These adult superstitions are more than just grown-up anxieties. They are physical prayers of Thanksgiving for our safety and pleas for continued safekeeping. They are moments of memorial, of “there but for the grace of God go I.” They are salt over the shoulder, protection from the Evil Eye. After all, the one constant between atrocities around the world and accidents around the corner is that no one thinks it will happen to them. If there is any connection between not seeing it coming and the disaster, I want to do everything I can to let the fates know that I have eyes wide open.
And if I now know that sidewalk cracks are a childish superstition, well, maybe that’s why I’ve taught my children to never, never, step on a crack. Not ever.
As for me, I'm grown up and done with penny wishes and concrete. You'll find me in this chair, furiously knitting rows; willing wool into protective garments; wishing my love were enough to protect my family from the dangers lurking in the world and in their genes.
Yalisha Case has been accused of over thinking things, but isn't sure that's the whole story. She'll let you know if she figures it out.