|My mom, with a new baby.|
“She’s my baby.”
That’s what my mom would say from the time I was a toddler, sucking my left thumb into the shape of a pancake, to when I was thirteen and wearing hot pink blush left over from a Bobbi Brown makeover -- a splurge my mother surprised me with for my fourteenth birthday. To this day, I can be walking into my mother’s office, wearing my best work blazer and J. Crew ballet flats, gazing down her office hallways with twenty eight years of hard-earned wisdom, and my mom will grab me by the elbow, drag me down the hall and say to her coworker, “You remember Rachel - she’s my baby.”
It’s not easy being the baby. My older sister was never qualified that way. But why would she? Everything about my sister evokes her status as the first child. She got the best names - Grace Elizabeth. They are special names, names whose roots run deep into both sides of our family, as if my mother - also named Elizabeth - thought there would never be another daughter to come along so she used them all up at once, like wishes from a genie bottle.
My sister’s life has always been a gentle breeze of prosperity and advancement. She shared a passion for painting with my mom, something I found to be tedious and difficult to do well, particularly when in the same room as the two of them. They were readers; I was a writer. They loved the bright lights and culture of the city; I loved the quiet calm of the country. My sister was agreeable and, I’m told, I wasn't.
But it could never be said that my mom played favorites. While she resists the classification, she was not exactly the type to dote over her children. My sister and I found her greatest failing as a mother was to not have commissioned enough professional photographs of our family. Our cousins would regularly send photos of their family members stacked like measuring cups on craggy coastal hillsides. We were lucky to send out a Christmas card every other year. But despite her lack of family spirit, my mom was the sort of person you would want to have at your side in times of crisis, like at a hospital or in a natural disaster. She asks questions that other people don’t think to ask or wouldn’t want to. She makes things happen. She imposes order.
I used to wonder if the two extra years my sister had early on with my mom were what made her so much better than me. I’d imagine the two of them lounging around, my mom peering down the bridge of her over-sized, eighties eyeglasses at my sister, reading her stories from The New Yorker and dressing her in sparkling new cotton dresses. My dad would come home from work and they would all eat spaghetti. There was no one to dispute or disturb the three them. There was simply them and my sister absorbed every minute of it all.
Until I came along, screaming and bald until two years old! They gave me an unconventional name that seemed to be an afterthought. My mother, who said I looked like Frank Sinatra, still tells the story of how humid it was the April I -- her baby -- was born. “There were fleas popping all over you when I brought you home from the hospital!” My mom still proclaims.
The role of the baby, I decided early on, was the role of the outsider. I’ve been the observer, the watcher of family relations. Mostly I focused on my sister and my mother’s relationship, which seemed to be less turbulent than the one I had always had with my mom. I felt at times I was the anthropologist, logging dates and times in my vast array of journals filled with slights and insults, victories and defeats:
August 3, 1992 – Grace got headshots for aspiring acting career but still no pony has appeared in the backyard for me.
February 10, 1995 – Got pancakes and extra cuddles on a Saturday morning while Grace was at a UIL competition.
November 3, 1998 – Mom’s spare ticket to Tosca was given to Grace. Grace got to wear mom’s pearls. Oh well, I hate the opera anyway. Dad made my favorite for dinner: fettuccine Alfredo.
Age didn’t really change the dynamic. When my sister graduated high school, she moved to Rhode Island for college. My mom would sit in my sister’s room every night watching her small, fourteen inch TV, previously reserved for my sister's obsession with episodes of Felicity and Dawson’s Creek. I didn’t understand why my mom would sit in Grace’s room instead of the living room, where there was a bigger television and more comfortable seating. It didn’t occur to me that perhaps my parents' thirty-four year marriage was falling apart, a disintegrating nest as their fledgling children pushed off on their own. I concluded the only explanation was that my mom missed her daughter, the first one, the best one. We fought a lot during those days.
My sister’s departure changed everything. When Grace came home, a celebrity was coming to visit. Our family trips to her college town were rife with disagreements and emotions, pulled by the odd dynamic of suddenly being visitors in my sister’s new life. And in the four years following my sister’s departure, as my parents separated, and subsequently divorced, I found myself uncomfortable with the realization that I was now the only daughter left. I was the only daughter there to help my mom decorate her new garage apartment, and comment on how lovely her toile bedding looked, and remark that yes, the kitchen was quite spacious for such a small living area, and sit on our old chairs in a new living room, and not ask why my dad was not there, and pretend to not notice that she didn’t seem sad at all. I wanted my old life back, the one where my sister played referee between me and my mom and my dad was the one who bought ice cream and declared "You're all beautiful!" when emotions ran high. That day still hasn’t come. In a way, I became my mom’s go-to daughter, the one whose boyfriends helped move heavy furniture for her and who could pick up her newspapers when she was out of town.
In January, my sister had her first child. I awoke to a text message photo of a round-faced, pink-lipped baby boy, squished between my sister and her husband, who had met in Rhode Island but since moved to Boston. My mom called me moments later. “Isn’t he cute?” I asked, as my mom announced she was getting on a plane and that she hoped the baby wouldn’t be born before she got there. I realized my mom had no idea he was already born. My sister had told me first.
If I still had my journals, I would have written that down.
I flew up to Boston later that day. On the plane, I wondered how my sister felt, having our mother so far away as she went into labor. I thought of the mornings we would beg my mom to cuddle with us in our beds, jumping on top of her as she would exclaim “Piles and piles of girly flesh!” We were so young but I don’t think I’d feel anything else if I were laying on a hospital bed today: the wanting, the warmth, the comfort of never having enough and having everything we needed all at once. “Just one more minute!” we’d cry as my mom would try to stand up and go back to reading the paper.
When I arrived at the hospital that evening, my mom was already there, ordering my sister’s husband around and picking up the hospital room. “My baby,” my mom exclaimed as I walked through the door. Grace smiled at me, holding her own baby, and sighed “Isn’t he the cutest thing you’ve ever seen?”
I walked over to my sister’s bed and peered over her shoulder, staring down at the little lump of flesh she held cradled in her arms. I thought of everything he had yet to experience or know: his favorite color, where he’d go to college, which hand would he write with, whether he would have a Boston accent, or wish he was born in Texas, or have a sibling as stubborn as I was.
And then I thought of my sister, of the successes and achievements of her life, the failures and disappointments she would eventually face, the swaths of joy and happiness he would bring her, and the moments of confusion and sadness they might also share. Her journey into motherhood seemed like so much to take in, so much to embark upon without knowing the direction. Her bravery seemed worthy of all the firsts she had been awarded in life and it occurred to me that perhaps that was what being the first child was all about – building the confidence to always be the first.
Standing there next to the new mother and child, I felt no envy or wistfulness. And while I was not the youngest in the room that day, I was never more content to be the baby.