Tuesday, February 17, 2009
ONE WOMAN'S LIFE
When Nina was carrying Alec she rode the bus to downtown Windsor, and a medical lab she’d read about in the newspaper actually paid her cash money to collect her urine. Seemed the urine of pregnant women was valuable for some reason or another. They paid Johnny on the spot too. Unfortunately, she was only able to made the trip twice. The distance to the lab was too far away to surmount by foot and they simply couldn’t afford the bus fare for the trip. That’s how broke they were. As it was, her husband Hank’s cousin swung by to pick him up every morning, they both worked on the line at Chrysler.
Nina was stuck in the one room apartment all day alone. The only entertainment available, after the household chores were completed to her satisfaction, was the stack of books that she checked out from the library once a week, and the only company to be had during the day was her neighbor Dolores and her colicky baby, Lila. She truly feared giving birth to such a desperate needy creature. At times Nina wished that she had stayed put in business school—she would dare to wish that she had never married. But, she had seen fit to quit business school and had recklessly married Hank as soon as he returned from overseas. Such a romantic figure returning from storming the beach at Normandy and doing his part to defeat the Nazis. Nina had succumbed to infatuation readily. A woman made her bed and a woman had to sleep in it.
Nina stood five-foot-three and weighed only one-hundred-and-one-pounds. The doctor told her to start caring about the living baby, and to put on some weight. But she had no appetite to speak of, and had never been much of an eater. Besides, they were on a tight budget. Thank goodness her mother kept her in tea bags. Nina could subsist on hot tea and toast.
One sunny afternoon, while sitting out on Dolores’s porch shelling peas, Nina told Dolores about the book she was reading, describing the plight of all the starving people in China. How could those poor mothers stand it, Nina wondered, when their children cried for nourishment and they were unable to feed them? While reading about all that gut-retching hunger she wondered if there was something wrong with her physiology because she didn’t seem to feel hungry all that often, maybe she was defective. The doctor feared for the health of the unborn child, he wanted her to eat liver and to drink milk. Nina grew ill at the thought of either substance. But she did manage to down a bowl of boiling hot water with a little ketchup mixed in with plenty of pepper, after being scolded for being neglectful towards the fetus.
Dolores grew thoughtful as she listened to Nina recount the terrible tales of mass food shortages and starving children so far away on the other side of the world. When Nina stopped talking, Dolores said, “They don’t care about their children the way we do. They aren’t like us you know. Those Orientals aren’t truly human.”
Nina involuntarily let go of the bowl that had been resting atop her bony knees and it fell, sending beans scattering.
“Oh my!” Dolores cried.
Nina dropped down on the floorboards at once, grabbed hold of the wobbling wooden bowl, and began to retrieve the shelled beans.
“Stop!” Dolores said, putting her hand on Nina’s shoulder. “Never mind that. Are you having pains Dearie?”
Of course Nina was fine, she had just been shocked at her friend’s ridiculous observation. Surely she couldn’t believe that Chinese women did not have the capacity to love their children, that they were less than human? Nina told a lie, she said she didn’t feel all that well, and then hurried off to her own apartment where she spent the rest of the afternoon watching the shadow of an elm tree on the bare wall above the dry sink dance and change size and shape as the sun descended. Waiting for her handsome husband to come home and tell her how much he hated working at Chrysler, about how damn bored he was. She couldn’t imagine that Hank could be any wearier with the drudgery of daily life than she was.
The baby was full term but he only weighed a smidge over four pounds and the doctors kept him in the incubator. Hank said his son’s head was shaped like a loaf of French bread. A baguette, Nina’s mother corrected him in her pronounced accent. Her parents were French Canadian.
Hank smiled and took his wife’s hand in his once they were alone. In a conspiratorial manner he whispered, “We gotta get you outa here, I have big plans.”
He wouldn’t fill her in on his big plans just yet. She was to rest. In those days they kept women flat on their backs for days and days after childbirth. The doctor showed and explained to Nina that they could not circumcise Alec because he was too weak.
At home Dolores helped with the baby. Nina didn’t feel the same about her friend since she’d made the unfeeling comment about those unfortunate Chinese women. But beggars couldn’t be choosers. Nina’s mother couldn’t come help out as planned because she had pneumonia again. Alex was a quiet baby. Nina’s milk hadn’t come in, so he was on formula. He took the bottle fine and burped with ease. He was so tiny they used handkerchiefs instead of diapers for the first few weeks. After he’d grown a bit Dolores cut up some of Lila’s old diapers and gave them to Nina. She forgave her friend’s ignorance. Dolores’s kindness towards Nina and Alex melted her anger away. But, those warm feelings aside, Nina intended to set her neighbor straight about her peculiar beliefs and prejudices, once she felt better.
What got into Hank was an article he’d read in the lunchroom at the factory about the exotic, wild North Country out west. He asked Nina to bring home books about Alaska. They would sit at night and read them together. Hank’s favorite book was Jack London’s The Call of the Wild.
When Alec was a toddler barely three years old Hank returned home from work and announced that they were leaving Windsor. They were finally going out west. He spread a map out on their kitchen table. A friend had given him a truck. They were heading for a better life. Hank was sick to death of working in a factory. He would most certainly die a bitter old man if he stayed put. Nina didn’t protest. The adventure appealed to her.
They didn’t make as far as Alaska, but they reached Northern British Columbia. Hank worked in the mines and became a union leader. They didn’t miss The East one little bit. Nina had to hike over a knoll and down to the creek for water, then lug it back up the hill, but she didn’t mind. She grew strong and muscular. They had a view of the mountain from the kitchen window and the sky was a vast theater that Nina never tired of studying: swirling clouds against turquoise, or thunderous gunmetal grayness billowing and bellowing, one day a huge rainbow after a rain, and some nights, on occasion, the aurora borealis would appear, the most spectacular light show on earth on display—free of charge.
These are the memories that ran through Nina’s head right before she closed her eyes for the last time at the age of seventy-eight. And they were good memories.
All Rights Reserved. © 2009 by Elizabeth Bradley.