“Even in the disastrous political climate of today, with neighbor turning on neighbor, and families divided on issues more deeply, I suspect, than at any time since the Civil War, even when global warming threatens us in ways known and as yet unknown, even as the ice melts where it should not, and polar bears die of starvation, even then, spring is joyous. Our minds may grasp the death of a family member, the peril of the earth, the winds of change that threaten at the least our world view and at worst our lives and systems of government, but inside us, heat rises, bubbles in the blood, embraces life, tells us to live, however briefly, in the ecstasy of life-force, not in the prison of our knowing. This month, however, belongs to my girl.”— Jean Carroll Nolan
By Jean Carroll Nolan
SEASIDE California—(Weekly Hubris)—March 2019—I love spring. Spring is the beginning, the genesis of the natural year, the open door. All is new, all is possible, the sun smiles, the sky kisses us with rain, the earth explodes with joyous, brawling life, and Persephone comes home to the waiting arms of her mother.
For me, spring is full of gifts, and the month of March, in particular, overflows with celebration. On March 2nd, John and I will mark 51 years of living in each other’s lunacy and loss and laughter and love. On the 13th, our astonishing daughter, Claire, was born (of which more, presently) and, two days later, our daughter-in-law, Sharisse, put the Ides of March squarely on our calendar with her own birthday. See? We have a list of things to be happy about in this season of burgeoning growth.
And, as a musical score to accompany all these personal milestones, baseball, the Corn King of my life, is back. Yea, verily, I say unto you, the game is being played, at every level, throughout the land. Our grandson Brody just had his first tournament of the year, competing in Manteca, with snow covering the tops of the mountains on both sides of the town. (He did well, playing third the entire tournament, with some nice putouts and lovely little clusters of RBIs.) Cactus League and Grapefruit League contests enliven Arizona and Florida, (between bouts of strange and unfathomable weather), and hope quickens the blood of those of us who are attached to a team, hope for a win, of course, but more for a competitive and pleasurably exciting season, or, if both those options are dim, hope for the emergence of a young star, or the retooling of a former star, to occupy our minds and fill our hearts.
Even in the disastrous political climate of today, with neighbor turning on neighbor, and families divided on issues more deeply, I suspect, than at any time since the Civil War, even when global warming threatens us in ways known and as yet unknown, even as the ice melts where it should not, and polar bears die of starvation, even then, spring is joyous. Our minds may grasp the death of a family member, the peril of the earth, the winds of change that threaten at the least our world view and at worst our lives and systems of government, but inside us, heat rises, bubbles in the blood, embraces life, tells us to live, however briefly, in the ecstasy of life-force, not in the prison of our knowing.
This month, however, belongs to my girl. If you know our daughter, you know that she is a force of nature. There is nothing of the moderate about my Claire. She has always been like that. I have written previously about the arrival of our twins, Gabriel and Jacob, and their subsequent loss, all in the painful, angled light of a midwestern autumn, and of my Daniel, who gave me back a reason to celebrate fall here in the holy forests of Carmel Hill. But Claire is the child who arrived on time, pink-gold and perfect and hearty, with a strong cry and a normal appetite, and eyes that could melt steel.
We had moved to California in December of 1978, needing, we both felt, a new beginning, a pioneer adventure after the devastation of the little boys who ate our universe. My mother and uncle were here, and I had a job with delightful and supportive coworkers and friends. John was in the Carpenters Union and working steadily. It was a good time, a happy time. It was our great good fortune that Kathryn, John’s sister, had had surgery in February, and was off, for recuperation. She was able to fly out and spend the week around Claire’s birth with us, which was particularly sweet for me. We had a delightful time driving around the Peninsula looking at things. I will never forget her cry, “Oh, now I know what all the greens in the Crayola box are for!” when she saw Pebble Beach. I had a sister with me, a peculiar and gentle pleasure for one raised primarily by men. It was cozy. Kate had a far clearer idea than I about how the baby’s room should be set up, and taught me, gently, not to wash John’s sawdust-infused work clothes with the layette items. Together, she and I received, and stowed the few boxes we had shipped out from Chicago and indulged in all the joys of nest building.
Claire is Thursday’s child. The evening preceding her birth, I had had a few uterine twinges, and had given up solid food for sweetened tea, but the morning was normal. We sent John off to work, met my mom for breakfast at a nearby coffee shop (tea again for me), and went back to the house to continue waiting assertively for Something to Happen. It was a really lovely day, softer than a normal Monterey morning, and the house we were renting had a patio at the back, protected from the constant onshore breeze. We felt very soignee, I seem to recall, as we put on sun tops and the giant sunglasses fashionable at the time and settled with cool drinks on the patio lounge chairs. For a pair of Midwestern Irish girls, it was a foretaste of paradise.
I want to say it was a little after noon when I asked Kath, “Do you have a watch on?” My sister-in-law is a statuesque woman, 5’11” in her stocking feet, and she was recovering from back surgery, but I really cannot remember seeing anyone get out of a lounge chair that fast. Her sunglasses were up off her face and onto her black curls, and I could see the laughter, excitement, and anxiety waiting to burst out of her. I assured her I was fine, but added that, yes, it was time to start paying attention. At warp speed, she collected her reading glasses, a pad and pen, and was back at my side. We giggled, I remember, immoderately and nervously.
Until it was lost, in the fire, in 2011, I had in my photos the pad on which Claire’s aunt recorded the time and duration of 45 minutes’ worth of contractions. By the end of that period, it was clear that I was in labor, and that we were moving fairly rapidly along the path. We decided it was time to call John. I remember her laughing, and calling out to me, “They’re cheering, Jean! They said he jumped down from where he’s working!” I was laughing, doing my Lamaze breathing, losing my grip on reality, entering the world of delivery.
I remember taking a shower, washing my hair, making sure, sadly, that all the polish was off my nails, per the labor and delivery instructions, putting on a very pretty maternity dress, and heels, and my favorite heavy wooden bangle bracelet, upon which both my nephews had teethed. I was utterly blissed out. I had achieved a full-term pregnancy. Nothing could have prepared me for the rush of relief and joy, for the knowledge that, very soon, I would see the person I’d been waiting my whole life to meet.
I don’t remember anything else. John must have come home, must have taken me to the hospital, must have gotten me signed in, but I don’t recall a thing. In my mind, I go straight from laughing on the patio with Kate, to throwing up, in the misery of transition labor, in the hallway outside the delivery room. I don’t know anything about the labor itself, save that they waited far too long to give me the enema that at the time was de rigueur, and I ended up too exhausted to push, having worn myself out not pushing. It was, however, a short labor. I could not possibly have gotten to CHOMP before 1:45 or 2:00, and we were one-and-done by 5:00 p.m., so it was fast.
So, I see John leaning over me, trying very hard to look as if this were an everyday occurrence, and I know Dr P is using forceps to free the baby’s sturdy shoulders from my womb, and I hear someone say, “You have a girl, Jean,” and then, I feel, even today, the moment when the tiny, wriggling wonder that is my daughter is placed on my belly, and I look at her.
Now, you must understand, we had lost two boys. My husband is the only son of an only son. I was archaic enough to want to carry on his name by giving him a son. I know that that is politically incorrect, but it is true. I had been terrified, and I mean wake-up-in-the-night terrified, that I would not love a girl child.
So, there I was, under unimaginably brilliant lights, lifting my head, sweat-soaked despite the cold of the delivery room, and staring at the perfect little being who would become the remarkable woman I now call my daughter, afraid that I would not feel what I should.
And I loved her. I more than loved her. I adored her. She was beautiful, rosy and solid, a bit waxy, as new babies often are and, when I held her, and breathed in her essence for the first time, stroked the warm, satiny skin, felt the silken swirls of pale hair, saw her open a quizzical eye, I became a different person. The cocktail of parenthood is fascinating. I felt fierce, and protective, and elated, and godlike. And frightened, but frightened of how to change a diaper, not of losing another baby, nor of being an unnatural, unloving mother.
And then, it was all beer and skittles. By coincidence, the mother of one of my coworkers was the director of food services at the hospital. Donna knew my exciting history in pregnancy, and had shared it with her mom. In those days, the hospital (which, by the way, is damned near a tourist attraction), put flowers on the meal trays, a delightful detail that seemed surreal to a veteran of Augustana Hospital in Chicago, where trays were a cause for gratitude, flowers be damned. Mrs G had caused every extra pink and white and red carnation in the hospital to be put in my room, or so it seemed. John and I entered a bower when we returned to the ward and, soon, a dozen pink roses arrived to add to festival atmosphere.
Kate had spent the afternoon with my mom and, after I was settled, John went to Mom’s house to call his folks, and check in. He is, as my readers know, a veteran of medevac missions in Vietnam, and was most anxious to make it clear to all, from labor and delivery personnel to family, that his cool was more than sufficient to handle a little thing like the birth of a child.
Except that, as he was leaning on my mom’s kitchen counter, speaking long distance with his own mother on the phone, he glanced down, and saw his feet, still sporting the blue paper booties required in the delivery room. Yeah. Perfectly calm and on top of things.
Then, everyone came to visit, the out-of-towners called, cousins stopped by to lay claim to the newest puppy in the pack, presents arrived, and our perfect, lovely, deliciously cuddly daughter came home to a house in fête, in her honor.
This has been the long overdue story of Claire’s birth. I would not presume to try and write her life, as that is her story, but I will say that, like most of the people I know and love, she is highly intelligent, deeply empathetic, and painfully and wonderfully flawed.
We love, in our family, music, and art, and books and films and animals. Everyone sings, but Claire can sing. No, not Happy Birthday and the Star Spangled Banner. I mean, she can really sing. We are not talking about opera, we are talking about Irish songs, and pop songs, and blues and country and anything else she hears. She will kill me for this, but her voice is unearthly, all full of mystery and forest glens and the Great Silkie of Sule Skerry. It aches and hopes. It speaks of longing, and the things that lie just beyond our reach. A neighbor of ours, a Scot who drinks too much but has a lovely heart, said that she wakes the spirits when she sings, and I believe that. It is a remarkable gift, a revelation of soul powerful enough to silence a karaoke bar.
And, she is a creature whisperer. Claire is a dog groomer. (Anyone in the greater Chicago area, take note, this is your groomer.) She specializes in “bad” dogs, “difficult” dogs, “dangerous” dogs. She has changed lives, not just canine lives, but human lives. Because her own life has not been always easy, she recognizes the many ways in which fear manifests itself as anger, as growling, as attack, and she has the ability to move past that, and to offer comfort where others might seek more obvious methods of control. This is alchemy. It has saved lives, and made them rich and full, not stark and lonely and fearful. She never believes me when I tell her that I ache with pride when I consider her work, but her husband, Steven, and her father, get it.
So, my dearest girl, this one is for you, with thanks for all the joy, for all the laughter, for saving my life, for making me proud beyond my expectations, and for caring, no matter how painful it is, for the hurt and the damaged and the almost lost entities you encounter, two-legged or four-legged. You are a wonderful daughter, a loving sister, a beloved aunt and cousin, and a lot of fun at parties. I will love you forever.
Two Poems for Claire Elizabeth
By Jean Carroll Nolan
I know a woman who sometimes wears Versace,
Sometimes Diane von Furstenberg in pink—
And sometimes jeans. Extraordinary eyes,
Redefining blue, and frankly fearless.
A voice for speech and song, a fickle humor—
Friday the life of everybody’s party,
Saturday black, pulled beneath the surface
All smiles gone, without a trace or ripple.
Her heart is softer than her temper. She rescues
Worms stranded on sidewalks after rain.
She loves with grandeur, grieves with wild abandon
And cannot pass a dog, a cat, a baby
Without engaging these small fellow-seekers.
I knew her when her eyes had not yet opened,
When all the richness of the textured earth
Was a present I was saving for her birthday,
Knowing she would treasure it in time.
And then she blinked—one gray blue eye
Half opened, the other clamped against the light—
And glanced around, suspiciously, as if
To signal her awareness of the change
In circumstance that birth had laid before her.
One small hand, pink and gold and forceful,
Flailed against me for a sacred moment,
Then nestled to the breast, and I was hers.
When everything is written in the book
Egyptian gods keep in the hall of justice,—
Dispensing good and ill as they were earned
In life by our intransigent race of beasts,—
Then someone else may read the absolute
Joy I felt on first meeting my daughter.
But reading is only shadow play to breath,
And what I felt and feel defies description,
Warming my heart when desolation knocks
Reminding me of daily miracles.
I know a woman who sometimes wears Versace.
She has the grace to hold her failures close,
Recognizing in each tender wound
A lesson learned. And as her hands caress
Each spirit, touching each with aching care,
As if each were a polished, pulsing stone
Broken, she finds diamonds in the fractures,
And makes them warm. Benevolent Calypso.