My aunt has no children, and my mother has only me, and this has been their shared sorrow and their shame. In their world, to have so few children is a mark of failure, and to have none at all is a shock—I know that much from my sex education and from listening quietly to conversations the other mothers have over intricately themed teas we host each week to commemorate the church’s endless feast days, memorials, solemnities.
My mother seems always to be newly, hopefully pregnant. But the babies—all but me—never come, and she passes them in her monthly blood. My aunt trained to be a doula and midwife, helped to coax other women’s babies into the world, while trying every folk remedy imaginable to make her own babies come and my mother’s babies stay. She’d send my mother packages from Virginia, smelling of pungent herbs, with recipes for smoothies and homemade oils to dab on her temples when the headaches began, which they always did, around the sixth week.
My aunt looks like my mother, set free. Barefoot, her hair gone gray, worn jeans stained at the knees from kneeling in garden beds. My mother doesn’t own jeans. She wears skirts that fall below the knee. She pays someone else for our organic produce, and sometimes she pays someone to cook it. Our house is the most spacious, so she has always hosted the homeschool co-op. She is often tired, and often in pain, but she never shows it. She’s a good mother, and I love her.
“The perfect mother,” one of the other moms in our homeschool co-op said.
“I’d be perfect too if I only had one child,” someone else said before realizing I’d come into the kitchen. I got an apple out of the crisper drawer and left.
Maybe she is too perfect. She never puts her foot in it, as Aunt Liz says. My aunt’s willingness to put her dirty bare foot in it is one of the things we love best about her.
My mother kneels with me at my bedside every night to say compline, and we pray for the health of her children. My whole life had been filled with talk of these invisible babies, dreams of ghosts of sisters and brothers and cousins, all while our days were overrun by the ever increasing brood of babies and toddlers and children in the homeschool group. But my aunt’s womb remained empty and my mother’s only a grave.
“So good with the babies,” the other mothers will coo as I rock and read to one or change another diaper, speaking of me admiringly as if I wasn’t in the room at all. But I had no heart for their babies. I assisted dutifully, but I had no desire to endure what my mother endured, month after month, the never ending sickness, cramps, headaches, false hopes and losses.
I set myself aside, consecrated, was the word we used, when I was only three. My virginity was my gift to give to God, I said, before I new what virginity meant and was only imagining the state where my aunt lived in the shadow of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
I wanted to be a nun.
This didn’t make my mother happy, not in the way it should have, I thought. To have a son enter the priesthood was the crown of motherhood in her circle of friends, but they all had children to spare. To lose me to a convent—especially the cloister I dreamed of—was more than she could bear. She wouldn’t discuss it.
I practiced my vocation in secret, marking the hours of the day by reciting the Divine Office – the morning hours of Matins, Lauds, and Prime, during the day Terce, Sext, and None, and at the end of the day Vespers and, always with my mother at my side, Compline. I practiced extreme obedience to the homeschooling ladies, though I knew they gossiped about us, and they ridiculed my mother for her life of ease, and they whispered to each other that it was a shame that her only child was so smart but so odd. “On the spectrum,” they say. “Obsessive compulsive.”
Still I change any diaper that needs changing, teach the preschoolers their language lessons and drill them in arithmetic. If this feels like penance, all the better. I offer it up for the souls in purgatory, for the ghostly brothers and sisters I’ll meet, I hope, in heaven. For all the souls that never came to inhabit my aunt’s home, or her body.
After my aunt went through menopause, my mother and I stopped praying for her fertility. We prayed instead for the health of her husband, my uncle, who’d been struck dumb by what his doctors said was a mild stroke. He seemed to be in perfect health, but now that he couldn’t speak, he and my aunt had begun to write each other letters, my mom told me as we knelt together to pray before bed.
“She says it’s been like getting to know a stranger,” my mother said, freeing her silk nightgown from beneath her knees. “That they’re falling in love all over again.” She laughed in a humorless way that made me wonder if she’d ever been in love.
The next night my aunt called to tell us she was pregnant.
“Six months?” I heard my mother ask, her voice flat. “How can this be?”
She went into her bedroom and shut the door, and for the first time I could remember, I prayed compline alone.
That night I dreamed I was standing in my aunt’s backyard, which is not a yard at all but a meadow dotted with gardens, herb plantings and hoop houses, homemade structures for climbing roses and towering hydrangeas with blooms larger than my head. “How do they get so big?” I asked her once, knowing only my mother’s perfect, symmetrical landscaping. “I just let them be,” she said, and shrugged her shoulders.
In the dream, I lay in the grass tracking a murmuration of starlings as they crowded the sky in their odd formations. I knew from a unit study I’d done the previous year that these birds, though beloved by me and my aunt, are considered a menace, an invasive species. They were brought to North America by a Shakespearean theater troupe that released them into Central Park.
Can that be true? Or was it part of my dream too?
In real life I love nothing more than to watch the starlings with my aunt, to lie in her soft, overgrown grass and smell the sweet air moving in her gardens. But in the dream the chatter of the birds became too loud, their movements erratic, and they flew so close to me I became afraid and hid my eyes, heard myself saying, “Let them be.”
When I woke the world had changed.
“I’m still a virgin,” I told my mother through my tears, when we stood together in the bathroom, staring at the plus sign on the test she’d bought at CVS. She hugged me close and smoothed my hair. She believed me, if only because she couldn’t believe I would choose this. She knew me. My fears. My dreams. She knew I wasn’t crying in shame, but because I’d tried to keep myself intact, to preserve us from this particular pain, to offer myself in some other way, any other way. And yet there we stood, the wrong one of us pregnant. Again.
I’m staying with my aunt and uncle for a while, to avoid the stares and whispers of the ladies in the co-op. My aunt makes the smoothies and tinctures, and we drink them together each morning and night, side by side in her cramped kitchen. She counts down from 3, 2, 1 and we chug—the smoothies don’t taste good, but we enjoy our ritual anyway.
My mother calls every night for compline, and I see her face on the screen of my phone, an image of my own face, projected into the future, lined with grief and loss. She is still beautiful in her silk gown and slippers, and I’m still a girl in my aunt’s baggy t-shirt and bare feet, my stomach queasy as I kneel next to the guest bed, tracing my fingers over the familiar quilt patterns in the dim light, wishing I could touch my mother’s face. As we pray my silent uncle strums his guitar in the next room, and I hear my aunt’s voice singing softly, “blessed…blessed…How did this happen to me?”
Image: Stephanie Krist on Unsplash