By Rebecca F. Rikleen, a member of Get Your Wordsworth
Ah! The taste of tender brisket with onions and carrots, bypassing the dry turkey! Ah! The sweetness of the cinnamon raison rolls.
Ah! The once-a-year meeting with the in-law clan.
For 30 years (same time next year), I have tasted, watched, chatted, listened, shared Thanksgiving near Boston. For thirty years I have mourned new deaths, new problems. For 30 years I have celebrated new babies, their growing up, new boy friends, new husbands, new babies. For thirty years I have chatted with energetic cook and baker now in a wheel chair, bright hostess now confused.
Best of all, this year we do not have to drive. My youngest son will drive up from Washington, DC. He will rent a roomier car so I can fit in with affectionate dog and pregnant wife. He will drive me door to door in comfort.
Son, wife, dog, car arrive late Tuesday, after crawling through sluggish holiday traffic. The whole nation is on the move to eat with family on this unique holiday.
I have the eggplant salad all ready, my mother’s recipe, bequeathed from generations past, tedious to make, amazingly, enjoyed by my children and grand children. I have the birthday gifts ready for grand children. I have our spare room swept, dusted, with scrubbed linens, plumped pillows, warm blankets, ready for a one-night stopover.
We will leave for Boston Wednesday morning, leisurely and in good company.
Wednesday morning, Rachel, the pregnant wife, concerned because she is not due for another four and a half weeks, needs to consult with a doctor because she is leaking fluid. Our nearest hospital is St Luke’s, our family hospital, scene of many family visits, first and last resort of our extended neighborhood, a really busy place.
After some hours she and my son Ethan are referred to the sister hospital, Roosevelt, which has a maternity center; they wait more hours for an ambulance transfer.
In the meantime I have with me the loyal dog. Although he has visited here before, he still parks himself at the door, waiting and listening for masters’ return. I walk the dog. He is gentle but strong. I am not used to going fast to exercise a healthy animal. But he uses the outdoor facilities readily, seeking bushy growth to unload himself, sprinkling every other station where the smell warrants. He sniffs constantly, nose to poles, hydrants, greenery. His walk is far less satisfying than those he takes with his own family, but he is good to me and reluctantly returns home. I portion out his pellet food, dry and uninteresting. I’m glad I don’t have to eat it. Herb sneaks some candied sweets to him. I had to buy these sugared popcorns from our Boy Scout neighbor, and Herb doesn’t care for them.
At Roosevelt Hospital Rachel goes into labor, slow progress, more pain than she has ever felt, hours and hours, far from her normal medical team, totally unprepared for a newborn’s needs. Everything is in Washington, the accumulation of two baby showers: blankets, wraps, outfits, booties, hats, diapers, most important a baby car cradle, without which the baby will not be released. Also in Washington is the medical support who know her and whom she and Ethan trust.
After 29 hours of insufficient progress, Rachel agrees to an epidural, an injection to control pain. Then the labor progresses and a new being emerges, a tiny girl, under six pounds (5lbs13oz.)
Ethan never has left Rachel’s side, though sleeping in a chair is uncomfortable, and he can’t shower or change clothes.
Dog and I take other insufficient walks. He gets his dry tasteless rations regularly. Now he sprawls in the long narrow hallway of the apartment, half way between the door that had swallowed his family, and me; he can keep an alert ear and eye on both pivots. He barks at Herb every time he walks down the hall.
I have to leave him behind when I go to visit the new mother and baby. I duck out quickly, shutting the door before he can nose himself out. As I go down the stairs from third floor to the first, I hear him barking his distress.
I carry a change of clothes for Ethan, and a camera to meet and document the new addition to our family.
Ethan is not permitted to shower in the hospital room, but the nurse leaves him some towels and says she knows nothing.
The single room, a birthing room, is comfortable and private. Birthing had changed since I had my four babies. Mine had been delivered in a surgically sterile operating room, where I was rendered unconscious. Rachel has been alert, the bottom half of her bed swung away and the baby entering our human world in that very room. In that room the doctors stitched the tears and cut the umbilical cord. In that room baby girl is wiped clean and placed naked on her mother’s bosom. Mother’s temperature moderates baby’s. For seven and a half months Baby had been kept wet and warm in mother’s body, and now in a much drier and cooler world, mother’s body warms baby or cools it; from that position Baby can hear the familiar heartbeat and the regular breathing. For a few days a new-born can neither sweat nor shiver to moderate her own temperature.
My babies had been whisked away and brought to meet me formally, already washed and swaddled in scrubbed wrappings, then taken away except for lessons in nursing.
Little new Clara stays in mother’s room, cradled in loving arms, lying skin to loving skin.
I go home to walk the loyal dog.
Later that same day Rachel and baby Clara are moved from the birthing room to a standard semi-private room, but the baby lives next to her mother’s bed. Rachel’s mother flies in from southern California. Two days later she rides back to Washington, in the rented car with the enlarged family.
I phone our Thanksgiving reunion in Wayland with progress reports. They are appropriately thrilled.
The host, my eldest son Sander, says he misses the eggplant salad. I say please take photos. No one takes photos. The brisket and turkey however and arugula and cranberry sauce and ratatouille and cakes are packaged and delivered to us via daughter Annie and her husband John, who come to NYC from the Thanksgiving feast to meet the new family member. No one has died. All the children are healthy and growing.
Our Thanksgiving celebration is not the Norman Rockwell ideal, shown in his famous painting of grandmother carrying to the crowded family table a huge turkey. Nor is it the modern Wayne Thiebaud painting of a solitary turkey dinner, a single sterile place setting in a café, with a slice of white bread and its square pat of butter, its restaurant plate with a neat turkey leg, peas and carrots and a slice of yam. Silent.
Our Thanksgiving is a day to celebrate a new life, a healthy baby, a promise of a rich, complicated future.
Rebecca Rikleen ran an early childhood full-day program, used her spare time to create assemblages out of discarded children’s toy pieces, wrote, and finally worked hard at painting when she retired.She is a young painter and fledgling writer. She says, “Even though I am an old woman, and unfortunately, there is no short cut to honing skills. In my head I was always a painter and a writer. The eye and hands are trying to catch up.”