Global Mom: Monsieur B., Part II

From Global Mom: A Memoir

(Continued from last post, “Monsieur B., Part I”)

. . .[Monsieur B.] heaved a sigh and then, stretching upward his five knobby fingers, twinkled those blue eyes: “I’ve lived through this many wars, an occupation, my bride’s death, changes I could have never imagined would have happened in my lifetime. Capucine will survive, too.” And he smiled that smile.

**

credit: parisperfect

credit: parisperfect

. . .We returned to our apartments Monsieur B. and Madame B., those parallel universes split by a sliver of flooring. Against a backdrop of the Monsieur’s serenity, my native country’s vibrating map of red and blue “moral values” throbbed a garish neon nuisance across my mind—a mind already fuzzy from weeks of breath- holding over teetering politics, months of being on the global political alert.

That night in the Bradford’s cosmos, life felt so slightly perilous and slap-dash, with our six jostling bodies whirring like asteroids, weaving and whipping through what should have been a bedtime routine – our night time orbit — but which felt to me, at least, more like an enactment of chaos theory. Certainly the galaxy was off kilter, the Milky Way curdling, I thought, with our earth stuck in a hiccup rather than expelling her usual steady breaths. How could Monsieur B. just shrug off the recent events as “mere politics” when, as I was convinced, the whole globe was convulsing and reeling toward ruin?

credit: retinacandy

credit: retinacandy

Then, at nine on the dot, the Monsieur’s street shutters rattled their regular racket. Our Grandfather Clock incarnate chimed. A wad of laundry in my arms, I stopped for an instant to absorb the ritual beneath my feet, that common constancy like so many other banal patterns in a day, which, when noted anew, pin infinity in place and set fretting aright. In his cozy retreat from the world, Monsieur must have at least believed he was invulnerable to it, I reflected. And at his age, I thought, what else? Lining the level above his, all our shutters were agape as they always were, allowing our garrulous glow to flood the streets, whatever part of our private lives was not under wraps.

credit: 123rf

credit: 123rf

He’d watched foreigners come and go, Monsieur B. He’d seen the old open market that was once supplied by the boatmen delivering goods on the banks of the Seine one block northward razed to make way for the Senegalese Embassy and the Erik Satie music conservatory. He’d watched an adjacent villa converted into the bland headquarters of the American University in Paris and had heard the choir rehearsals, aerobic classes and karaoke nights through the wide-open stained glass windows of the American Church across the street. He’d heard more and more English-speakers just outside his windows asking for directions to the Eiffel Tower, (two blocks that way) or Napoleons’ tomb (two blocks the other way). He’d witnessed the high-pitched spectacle of four sweat-slippery men cursing in chorus at each other and at their weave of pulleys and cables holding our dangling long table which was to be hoisted through our windows. He’d quietly tolerated restrained ruckus, my occasional high-heeled prancing and Parker’s gym-shoed thudding overhead, and had graciously avoided even the most subtly judgmental political commentary as Franco-American tensions simmered and at times passed the boiling-over point. And he didn’t grow the least bit hysterical when his own French presidential elections kicked up dust in our own neighborhood, where camera crews interviewed candidates, pundits, the local political in crowd. There I was, practically salivating with curiosity at the whole scene, and there was Monsieur B. watching silently from his window, his ascot tucked in his camel blazer, a cup of coffee held in the right hand, the saucer in his left.

Stalking our flat that late autumn night, tidying room after room, I was ashamed that our comparatively super-sized portion of dwelling space was super-imposed, squat, right over the head of this frugal Frenchman. I cringed, feeling personally responsible for the astronomical U.S. deficit. Then I also thought of the thriving terrorist cell, which French intelligence had just exposed and exploded in a northeastern sector of Paris, eight Metro stops from our door.

To what end, shutters? To what end, self-imposed blinds? Was this gracious neighbor, this truly gentle man, what U.S. secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld had in mind with his pejorative, “Old Europe”? And did French foreign minister, Michel Barnier have a chance at realizing a “New Day” in Franco-American relations, where an alliance wasn’t always tantamount to absolute allegiance, but where mutual respect reigns, and where, as Monsieur B. once said, “we value one another in a community?”

credit: parisiensalon

credit: parisiensalon

To be sure, in a few hours some version of the next day would break, and I’d be counting on the 8:00 a.m. downbeat from Monsieur B.

(To be continued. . .)

Swiss Christmas

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From Christmas in the Serengeti. . .

IMG_0063IMG_0049IMG_0059

. . .To Christmas in the Swiss Alps.

 

They say that strong contrasts make for strong writing. But I say that if nothing else, they make for heavily textured living.

So may I begin writing about this, our First Swiss Christmas, by taking you back to a contrasting one, to a Last Christmas? Not our last Christmas chronologically, the one spent in Africa, the one about which you’ve just read.  But the last one we spent in Paris, our last Parisian Christmas.  We’ll always refer to it as that.  At the time, though, we didn’t know it would be the last we’d spend there, as we were still leaning toward staying in Paris from where Randall would commute back and forth for his new postion in Munich.

Despite those details, we did know we’d  be sending Parker off to college in June.  So it was a “Last Christmas”. Of sorts. Our last Christmas with all of us together like this. So I’d run my self a bit ragged with holiday preparations, writing and directing and performing in the church Christmas program, writing and printing out and folding and addressing and sending by snail mail our 95 annual Christmas missives, decorating and baking and scurrying and visiting and hosting and getting into the holiday spirit.

At least euphemistically so.

That Christmas Eve I hit a wall, and the collision landed me in a mental state I’m not so proud to write about.  For lack of a more incriminating description, I’d holed myself up. While holed up, the universe didn’t bother to tap me on the shoulder and whisper into my heart, warning me that this would be The Last Christmas, the very last we would ever share with our firstborn son. We weren’t given the luxury of preparing ourselves for devastation.  Usually, if devastation is coming, the universe is preoccupied preparing you in other, extremely subtle ways (besides shoulder-tapping and coded whispers). I suppose we’re all being trained in one way or another for whatever devastation will surely be ours.

But something did tap on my shoulder that December evening.  And something did whisper.  And something did warn me it would be the Last Christmas with Parker.

And that something was Parker himself.

**

The Last Noël

A true Christmas story

For Unto Us A Child Is Born

For Unto Us A Child Is Born

“Mom?”

Her son, whose voice normally had the resonance of a foghorn, was whispering from behind her, kneeling next to her bed.  She was on her side, knees curled up a bit, a dark purple woolen comforter dragged up over her curves and tucked into her hands, which she held against her sternum.  Her eyes she kept firmly closed.

Born to raise the sons of earth, born to give them second birth. . .

Born to raise the sons of earth, born to give them second birth. . .

She faced away from the voice, away from the faint glow of the one night table lamp, away from the door, which she’d closed a couple of hours earlier, barricading herself into silence and as far as possible from the everyday, holiday noises that emerged from the end of the hall.

The holly bears the crown. . .

The holly bears a berry as red as any blood. . .

Kitchen sounds.  A swirling, tinkling holiday CD. Conversations between teenagers, the low word or two from the Dad, the swish-swish-swish up and down the hallway of two younger children in houseslippers.

The silent stars go by. . .

The silent stars go by. . .

A spike of laughter here. A name said with a question mark there.  Noises she simply wanted to escape.

How silently, how silently. . .

How silently, how silently. . .

She was doing it, that thing she sometimes did.  She was retreating into silence.  She was sending a loud signal.

“Mom? Look. . . Listen, Mom.” He was leaning his weight on the edge of her bed, now.  “Please, don’t do this.  Not again. Not tonight.” The weight of his hand on the mattress next to her hip was enough to make her flinch and consider scooting away. But she couldn’t muster the effort. Tired.  So bone-deep tired.

And sad.

The hopes and fears of all the years. . .

The hopes and fears of all the years. . .

He sighed, her oldest child, and then readjusted himself on the floor with a groan. She could tell from the sounds that he was wearing jeans. And wasn’t he also in a turtleneck? Probably his maroon one.

Let loving hearts enthrone him. . .

Let loving hearts enthrone him. . .

Should she just turn around, face him, turn around and face the family? Just roll over and brush back the matted hair a bit soggy, now, with old tears, just roll over and swing her legs out and plant her feet on the floor, shake some oom-pah-pah into her limbs, just turn it all around like that, switch directions as slickly as a Brio train track, switch gears, flip some switch, just head back out? Smiling? Humming Bing Crosby?

Let loving hearts enthrone Him. . .

We traverse afar. . .

She remained silent and still, hoping he’d think she was sleeping deeply.

Sleep in heavenly peace. . .

Sleep in heavenly peace. . .

This is when he tapped her right shoulder.  And then he left his hand there.  The heat traveled all the way through her, into the mattress, as she envisioned its course, and to the floor.  How she wanted to respond. But her jaws were clenched and held in all the loving feelings her heart held in its pulse.

For unto us a child is born

Oh come, Oh come, Emmanuel. . .

“Why don’t you say something, Mom?  What have I done? Okay, so I should have cleaned up the dishes first.  But c’mon, they’re done now. Just. . .just come out there. Come see.”

She had lodged herself too deeply in the silence to creep out so easily now. Tired of speaking, giving orders, answering to everyone. Tired and worn out.  Another year: Gone, wrung out like I feel, squeezed dry to its very last particle.  

Ring out wild bells and let him die. . .

Ring out wild bells and let him die. . .

Here we are again. Christmas. And stymied.

For mighty dread had seized their troubled mind. . .

For mighty dread had seized their troubled mind. . .

Then she heard the lightest tap-tap on the door, and the sound of its edge shuuuuushing over carpet. The smell of her husband’s cologne.  And she pulled the purple up over her head.

Sing, all ye citizens of heav'n above. . .

Sing, all ye citizens of heav’n above. . .

“Hey.”

“Hey.” The son’s voice was deeper, even, than his Dad’s.  And heavier.

“Honey. We’d love you to come out, just eat a little dinner, kay?  And then watch the movie with us. Maybe? No big production. Just be with us.”

And still their heavenly music floats o'er all the busy world. . .

And still their heavenly music floats o’er all the busy world. . .

So, so tired. And so emptied clean out.  All this pressure to be happy. Please. If you could let me be alone.

The oldest son made a sudden move.  His voice came from above her, now. “Alright. I’m just. . . I’m going to change things here.” There was ballast in that voice now, a clip on each consonant. “Mom. Mom. Get. Up. And. Turn. Around.”

Rise up shepherd and follow. . .

Rise up shepherd and follow. . .

She pulled the purple from her face. She rolled over, opened her eyes, and was looking right into the knees of two men in jeans.

Then the son knelt.  His eyes were at her eye level and he looked right into her. She’d never seen this look, at least not from him. The earnestness and resolve. The deliberateness.

Fall on your knees, oh hear the angel voices. . .

Fall on your knees, oh hear the angel voices. . .

“Kay, I’m not going to add to the drama here, but you know, um, this is my last Christmas with you all.  This is it.” He pounded a fist into the carpet and shook his head.

Was he trembling? What was the stiffness in his lower lip? In his chin?

Their watch of wondering love. . .

Their watch of wondering love. . .

“And so I want us to celebrate and have the Spirit.”

Let every heart prepare him room. . .

Let every heart prepare him room. . .

“So will you please come out and be with us? Now? Mom?”

God and sinner reconciled. . .

God and sinners reconciled. . .

He took her hand, which gesture was a bit odd, but not too odd right then, and she let him take it. She felt each of his callouses from dribbling balls and pummeling drums.

And fit us for heaven to live with Thee there. . .

And fit us for heaven to live with Thee there. . .

“Come on, ” now he was whispering so low she could hardly hear him. “Come in here with me.”

Close by me forever and love me I pray. . .

Close by me forever and love me, I pray. . .

The gesture, a tug, unlocked something in her bones and she moved, almost effortlessly, letting the purple wrap crumple to the floor as she trailed her son and her husband down the hall, into the light, the noise, the company of her family.  The other three children looked at her, stopped tinkering, quibbling, and went quiet.  A suppressed grin and, “Hi. . . Mom!” came from the youngest, who wriggled his nose under the round little red frames of his glasses.

Round yon virgin, mother and child. . .

Round yon virgin, mother and child. . .

“Okay. Everyone?” The son holding his mother’s hand announced in the middle of the room, “We need to have a prayer.  We’re going to turn things around here.  So. . . we need the Spirit. Right now. So come on. We’ve got to kneel.”

In the dark streets shineth. . .

In the dark streets shineth. . .

It was the prayer of a full grown man, and his mother – no, everyone – felt its weight settle on their shoulders.  They knelt for a moment in silence.  But not that resistant, withholding kind of silence.

Risen with healing in his wings. . .

Sweet little Jesus boy, we didn’t know who you was. . .

This was the silence of soft awe, and like the invisible bending of the arc of a rainbow, it did indeed turn things. The mother spoke, but her words opened up a whole swamp of apologies, to which all the children and the husband now countered, wading in with their own apologies. Then they embraced, got off their knees. . .

Risen with healing in his wings. . .

Risen with healing in his wings. . .

. . .And embraced again.

And so it continued both day and night. . .

And so it continued both day and night. . .

Later that evening, the mother and her oldest son sat next to each other, legs stretched out, on the overstuffed sofa.

Where meek souls seek him the enters in

Where meek souls will receive Him still, the dear Christ enters in. . .

He, between spoonfuls of ice cream straight from the container, lip-synced Jimmy Stewart. . .

Heaven and nature sing. . .

Heaven and nature sing. . .

. . .And she knew all the lines for Donna Reed. . .

Tender and mild. . .

Tender and mild. . .

And the whole family sat together and watched, like they had every Christmas Eve for as long as they could remember, “It’s A Wonderful Life.”

And it truly is.

002

**

“Temporary separation at death and the other difficulties that attend us as we all move toward that end are part of the price we pay for. . .birth and family ties and the fun of Christmas together. . .These are God’s gifts to us – birth and life and death and salavtion, the whole divine experience in all its richness and complexity.” — Elder Jeffrey R. Holland

Global Mom: Monsieur le Docteur

With the help of my next-door neighbor, Florence, who had heard about my unconventional wishes, I was led to Monsieur le Docteur.  His cabinet was in the center of Versailles, and he assisted births in various facilities in town, including the clinic closest to our home, Le Clinique du Château de la Maye.

Monsieur le Docteur had a slightly different approach from his Norwegian counterpart, Doktor Ø.-N.  This Frenchman was a balding intellectual with spectacles on the tip of his nose, and his cabinet was a converted maison parictuliére with a grand stone entrance through which horses and buggies would have once passed.  Once through the main portal on the street, there was stained glass at the end of a shadowy corridor and wrought iron fixtures indicating a one-man elevator installed, probably, in the early 19th century.  There was a huge walnut door on the right with the brass plaque giving le Docteur’s name.  The door was decorated with ornate carvings, and its burnished brass knob was, as is the case with these old world door knobs, right in the middle.  The door weighed even more than I always managed to weigh at full term, which means I had to lean in on that brass knob with all my force just to enter.

As you walked into the practice, you stepped from the 17th into the 20th century, but still a 20th century of the old France that was cramped and randomly geometric, and narrowed into what felt like what might have once been servants’ quarters.  A receptionist behind a modern desk set at an angle sat straight ahead under a framed Picasso sketch of Mother and Child. Le Docteur’s office itself, once I was invited to enter it, had a massive leather-topped walnut desk, deep embossed carpets in rich hues, surrounding bookshelves, gilt-framed paintings of La Chasse and low mood lighting.  I was in Sherlock Holmes’ library, not a medical facility.

“Please, Madame. . .Madame Braaaaaaaadford, tell me first about yourself.” The Docteur smiled from his side of the desk toward where I sat in a 19th century curve-backed chair with burgundy and gold petit point upholstery.  His grin had something of the Cheshire Cat to it, which caused me to feel something like Alice; teenaged, blonde, perched on a mound of ruffles and scratchy petticoats, shrinking and slipping into a hole.

So I played the expert. I was prim but relaxed, The Mother in Control, dotting my French i’s and crossing my legs tightly.

Alors, Monsieur,” I said, motioning to the stack of papers I’d handed him, “This you should immediately note is my fourth child, as I have explained in the papers there. I’m no debutante.” I smiled coolly and straightened my spine, trying not to hold my handbag too tightly on my lap, as if I needed a prop or a shield or a weapon or anything.

Ah! Une mêre d’un certain age! Charmante, charmante,” he was scanning my papers, but kept grinning and staring up at me, as if awaiting something. A mother of a certain age? And this was charming? I’d written in bold black Bic that I was thirty-seven, still very young in my book, hardly worth a comment.  For heavens sake, coltish, right?

The doctor raised one brow and smiled at me, leaning back in his leather chair, hands crossed over his middle.  Something about the setting made me feel as if the next thing that was supposed to happened was I was to jump up and sing my eight bars from “Oklahoma!” then tap dance or something. Or was I supposed to start listing my GPA and extracurricular activities for this administrator interviewing me, it seemed, for a college scholarship? I kept my school bag – I mean handbag – on my knees. I heard myself swallow.

“And you are. . .” he ruffled through the big stack of forms I had spent more than a whole hour filling out in the small red and peacock-blue waiting room with four chairs and five patients, “You are. . . an American citizen, vraiment charmante, and will deliver in April and, oh! I see you are the woman I’ve heard of, the one who wants to deliver à la scandinave. Charmante, charmante.”

“Yes, I would like to deliver as naturally—“

“Now, tell me, Madame, where did you learn to speak your lovely French?”

“In the streets, frankly. Now, to the birth: I hope to deliver with as little—“

“In the streets? Charmante! Vraiment charmante.”

And so on.

Throughout the exam that required what all prenatal gynecological exams require, there was no privacy screen, no paper gown, no nurse in the room, no professional distance. No fig leaf. No Geisha fan. No strategically placed standing fern, even.  Just your typically invasive examination performed on a vraiment charmante pregnant woman by a gentleman in a burgundy wool cardigan and a perpetually sleepy grin.

Pregnant and at the gates of the Château de Versailles with two of my best Norwegian friends ever

I got home and called a whole list of French girlfriends to ask if what I had just experienced could have possibly been standard practice. Every last one of them was surprised by my concern:

“Ah, Mélissa, it’s nothing to worry about.  I know you Americans tend to be a bit touchy about your bodies. But really, wouldn’t you rather get random compliments from your doctor than insults?”

And:

“So, you’re telling me that even in Norway, they give you a gown for the exam? But . . but why?”

And:

“You could do what? File a lawsuit if some nurse is not in the room with you? But I don’t see why she is even necessary.”

And:

“A little room behind a screen? To change your clothes? Never heard of it. Charming concept, though.”

And:

“Listen, I’d be flattered if my doctor told me I was beautiful when pregnant. My husband doesn’t.”

I began to understand that this was a cultural oddity, evidence of the deeply calcified gender roles and the ever-present tension between the male and the female that is more a part of French culture than any other place I had ever lived or spent significant time in. Yet, in spite of that sometimes creeping Alice-and-the-Cheshire-Cat feeling, and even when he told me at six months gestation that I now had to go on a strict diet (!?!!) because I had reached the official 12 kilo weight gain limit, I kept le Docteur.

Why? Because he was a fabulous discussion partner about everything besides just obstetrics; Soviet politics, Sub-Saharan water initiatives, Patagonian turtles, art, music, literature, cuisine, philosophy, world religions including (or especially) mine.  I almost –-almost – looked forward to our visits if only because I knew I’d be able to enjoin him in some sort of debate. He could not hear enough about my Mormonism, not just because of his interest in theology or my personal commitment to abstaining from alcohol and coffee and nicotine, (which he said he admired and wished his other patients could take a lesson from), but chiefly because of my belief in chastity before marriage and fidelity afterwards.  Now, I was not naive; I knew that was the hottest button I could probably push, and more than once he shook his head and laughed, convinced, as he probably was, that I was lying or in denial or was living under some onerous threat. I laughed back, and the difference of opinion on that particular topic never squelched my fervor during my chats with this Frenchman.

More than for the lively conversation, though, I stuck with le Docteur because, all corporeal concerns aside, he was competent, gentle, worked right in this town, and, frankly, he was the one and the only doctor I could find after months of searching daily who vowed to let me deliver my baby as I wished.

Which meant, incidentally, without much of his help.

Under a full moon, Randall and I arrived at the looming doors of the Clinique du Château de la Maye, just a couple of blocks from our home.  We drew up the heavy cast iron doorknocker, and let it drop four times, announcing our arrival. Christine, our sage femme (or, literally, “wise woman” or earth mother or midwife) answered.  She was, as fate would gift us, a native German and the one sage femme we had already met on a previous tour of the facilities.  On that day two months previous, we’d all spoken German together, Randall, Christine and I.  We’d spoken and laughed and mused about how unlikely but wonderful it would be were she to happen to be on call the very hour we would come in for the birth.

And there she stood.  White frock and orthopedic sandals and a warm hand extended, she swung wide the door, “Einen recht schönen guten Abend, die Familie Bradford!  Hinein treten!” I knew right then it would indeed be a “really beautiful and good evening”, and so I did as she asked; I wobbled right in holding Randall’s arm.

Please appreciate the silk scarf, lipstick and up-do. I was having some significant contractions in this very moment. Randall, my love, this is where we kick in. Ready. . . ?

True to her role as a sage femme, Christine wisely escorted us through the quiet modus operandi leading up to birth. With only one exception to what I’d done in Norway where I birthed kneeling on the floor next to my big bed, I birthed here exactly as I’d requested. Granted, French law said I had to have an I.V. drip. So I rolled my eyes and let Christine poke it in and tape it down. And according to French law I also had to be on top of the birthing bed.  So Christine, the resourceful German, had hiked up the one end to a full sitting position, I’d knelt on the bed facing that upright part, grabbing the back with both arms, and then closed my eyes and began humming.  My wise woman let me do as I wished – sing, chant, rock back and forth, crochet little booties (No, I didn’t. I cannot crochet) – and afterwards, she asked me for a copy of the French hymn/lullaby I’d sung as Luc – The Luminous One – was entering the world:
Souviens-toi, mon enfant: Tes parents divins
te serraient dans leurs bras, ce temps ne’st pas loin.
Aujourd’hui, tu es là, présent merveilleux,
ton regard brille encore du reflet des cieux.
Parle-moi, mon enfant, de ces lieux bénis
car pour toi est léger le voile d’oubli.

Souviens-toi, mon enfant des bois, des cités.
Pouvons-nous ici-bas les imaginer?
Et le ciel jusqu’au soir, est-il rose ou gris ?
Le soleil attend-il la neige ou la pluie?
Conte-moi, mon enfant, la couleur des prés
et le chant des oiseaux d’un monde oublié.

Souviens-toi, mon enfant : A l’aube des temps,
nous étions des amis jouant dans le vent.
Puis un jour, dans la joie nous avons choisi
d’accepter du Seigneur le grand plan de vie.
Ce soir-là, mon enfant, nous avons promis
par l’amour, par la foi, d’être réunis.

**

Remember, my child : not long ago,

your divine parents held you in their arms.
Today you are here, marvelously present.
Your gaze still shines with the reflection of heaven.
Talk to me, my child, about that blessed place,
because for you the veil is still thin.

Remember, my child, the forests, the cities.
Can we down here imagine them?
And the night sky, is it rosy or gray?
Is the sun waiting for snow or rain?
Describe to me, my child, the color of the meadows
and the birdsongs of a forgotten world.

Remember, my child: at the dawn of time,
we were friends playing in the wind.
Then one day in joy we chose to accept
the Lord’s grand plan of life.
That night, my child, we promised through love,
and through faith, to be reunited.

© Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Global Mom: My Two O.B.’s

Respectable women do not make demands on the medical system. This is what I was picking up in my conversations with my neighbors who were each giving me their two centîmes on where I should go for gynecological care. This was going to be especially helpful since, a year and a half after we arrived in Versailles, we were thrilled to be pregnant with number four.

“We”, I write. By then we were apparently speaking in the royal plural, which happens, I suppose, if you’re learning the French of Versailles. I now felt comfortable in the language, which for me was an essential prerequisite to entering into the most intimate world of a culture, the world of giving birth. No way was I going to føde, (give birth) in Norway unless I could somehow manage start to finish in that language. And no way was I going to accoucher, (give birth) in France unless I could muddle through in French. It was this curious little deal I’d made between my tongue and my ovaries.

Our Luc, le petit prince, three days old and in that perambulator

I had been reading as many articles as I could on French obstetrics and gynaecology, and was concerned but somehow not surprised to find out that France ranks among the top ten countries in the world for the highest number of Cesaereans programmés, or scheduled cesarean sections. This concern I took to my girlfriend Eleanore, who was as narrow as a baguette and always smelled of lavender. She’d grown up in le Midi, or the south of France so certainly she, I thought, a girl from Aix-en-Provence, would be a naturalite and would not prefer scheduled C-sections or even epidurals, episiotomies or intravenous drips. She’d definitely give me advice on where and with whom I could deliver our baby.  I have no idea what my logic was, but I figured her perpetual scent of lavender meant she’d given birth to her two children in a field of it.  But no. She explained the same thing my other neighborhood and church friends told me. On ne fait pas ça en France. Meaning, we don’t do that “natural thing” in France.

The Clinique was housed here, and this just happened to be within a walk from our home . . . so it was practical. It was.

The ça, the “that”, was always spoken with a certain emphasis and mild wincing. My friends, their friends, and all their doctor friends refused to believe my talk of meditation instead of medication, concentration instead of caesarean sections, of walking and rocking and singing and water births, and when I told them about the simply beautiful (and natural) birth of burly Dalton, it invariably left them with a look in their eyes that was a melange of panic, pain, embarrassment and bemusement.  My fulsome praise of Ellen my Norwegian earth mother, who essentially left Randall and me alone in our private birthing room requesting only that we ring a little cow bell when everything was ready and I knew it was time to give birth, made my full grown adult French friends slap their foreheads and drag their hand over their eyes in disbelief.
“Oh yes, we’ve heard of those primitive tribal practices in Lago-Lago,” Rita told me.
And, “Those poor Nordic women are too naïve to know they have modern options. Right?” from Mathilde.
Here I came, a woman who’d had a really pleasant birth experience with a child that had weighed in at nearly 5 kilos, and what? I was still walking? They made me step back and turn around twice, all while looking me up and down and sideways, like I was Connie the Barbarian.

L’entrée principale, Clinique du Château de la Maye. We strolled there to deliver .  We strolled home when delivered.  As I said, practical.

“There is a center I once read of,” another friend Caroline whispered to me, “in Paris in the bottom of the 15th arrondissement.” She lowered her voice even more.  I had to cup my hand around my ear to hear her.  “There, you might be able to convince a clinician to assist you in such a birth.”  Caroline was glancing both ways, too, as if this place were where a branch of illegal immigrant Wiccans shared a practice with a voodoo doctor, a tarot card reader and a psychic named Esmeraldino. Aeh. The 15th was  Paris, a 20 minute drive in daytime traffic.  Too far.

The French preliminary gynecological visits themselves were nothing like what I’d experienced in Norway. There, my family doctor, Doktor Ø-N., (his actual initials), had been the designated “attending physician”, but in Norway a doctor in the delivery room was looked upon kind of like a strand of puka shells or maybe a tiara: One accessory too many. Hence, the presence of a highly skilled team of earth mothers assisting the woman in labor, and across the hall an operating room with a squad of emergency physicians who were always on hand in the hospital itself.


Doktor Ø.-N. was thoroughly Norwegian. This means he was ruggedly handsome, matter-of-fact, and dealt with his patients like he probably dealt with all living organisms from moose to mushrooms: with respect, equanimity and a certain androgyny. There was never a thing in his manner that could have been interpreted as flirtatious or even drolly suggestive. On a scale of one to ten, one being acrimonious and ten being fawning, he was a solid 5.3, courteous on all counts but never chummy or chatty about anything personal.  His job was to monitor my growing baby which was only incidentally, it seemed, housed within my uterus.

Grandmother, Claire, Parker, New Baby, and Mom in tears of joy. Less than an hour after delivery. This was our private delivery room, my delivery bed.

There was one exception to Doktor Ø.-N.’s professional distance. On a below-freezing January morning I arrived at his office with three-week-old baby Dalton bundled snugly in the car seat for his first new baby check-up. I got out of my Subaru and stepped into the eyeball-freezing cold, closed the driver’s door, and through glacial winds scuttled very carefully over the blue-gray ice to the other car door where I would take out my baby bundle. There, on the other side of the car, I discovered that that car door had either frozen shut or was jammed. I yanked and pounded on that door then shuffled quickly back to the driver’s door – also jammed or frozen –  then pounded and shook all the others then even the hatch back, but nothing opened. In that short time, everything had frozen shut.  My newborn was sitting inside this meat locker. Panicked, I ran, slipping and falling on ice all the way, to the building then up the stairs to my doctor’s office. “My baby’s locked inside my car!” I panted loudly to the woman at the reception desk, “My baby’s freezing! I’m locked out!”  Hearing me, Doctor Ø.N. stepped out of his room, already pulling on his coat, a spray can in one hand and a metal rod of sorts in the other.

Without exchanging more than four words, he and I raced down the stairs and out into the gale and to the car, then, deftly wielding the magic spray and wedging this metal rod tool under the lip of the Subaru’s hatchback, the doctor pried the back open. Then all six-foot-six feet of him  climbed into the back and over the second seat, and he got right next to the car seat of my now crying baby. He unlatched the car seat and handed it back through the hatch to me, but not before checking on Dalton who was wailing his husky self into all shades of mulberry, but who (was this even possible?) went completely silent when my doctor, still crouched and contorted in the back seat with his knees up to his ear lobes, blew one light puff of air into the baby’s face then covered the baby and the whole car seat with the thick thermal blanket I’d tucked in there for warmth and lining. With one nod of the head and  “Sakte, sakte” (slowly, slowly), my doctor sent me back inside the building carrying the car seat with my baby boy.

While I stood , infant in arms, watching from the window of his practice, this man stayed out there checking every door of my Subaru, coating the edges and lock mechanisms of each door with the spray, checking and rechecking.  After ten minutes or so, his reddish brown hair looked like a flocked wig and the back and shoulders of his coat appeared to have been dipped in glass. Only now did I see he hadn’t even put on gloves.

When he did come back inside, frost rings for nostrils, frost awnings for eyebrows, there was not a conversation, not even a word about what he’d just done for me and for my child. He just stamped off his shoes, hung his coat, shook off his hair and returned to his other waiting patient.  Just like that. Your every day, no-frills superhero M.D.

“In bad weather like this,” he explained to me during our appointment, “You can just phone a day ahead and we can organize a house call.”  At any time and for any reason, in fact, I could call him and he’d visit my baby in the comfort of our home.

Well then.  “As long as you might be stopping by, could you check the oil?  And there’s this weird clicking sound in the steering column.”

(I got him to smile with that one.)

Big and Beautiful

As for medical advice, throughout my pregnancy my doctor told me to keep eating heartily, rest if I got tired, to not go slalom skiing after, oh, maybe the seventh month, (it was a minor balance issue, he said), and to drink something called tran and another thing called Vørter øl, if I could gag them down. All the Norwegian mothers swore by them, he told me, but they might be an acquired taste, he warned, and so with typical zeal, I of course gagged down double doses every single day.

Ellen, our “earth mother” and another attending midwife.  And Dalton (look at the size of that head) Haakon

That I was putting on weight at a steady rate of two kilos (five pounds) or more a month was neither surprising nor troubling to Doktor Ø-N. “We want you to be well-nourished and your baby to be strong,” he told me. “You also need a good layer of fat to produce good milk for your child. Don’t worry, you’ll ski it off by the next year.”

Randall and our earth mother, Ellen. And 7 minute-old Dalton Haakon

He was unfazed when I tested him about actual birthing options. What if I wanted to birth, say, in a tub? Or on all fours? Or while practicing arias? He said it was my birth and my body, and given this was my third child, I should know what worked best for me.

Left in my private room for four full blissful days. Just like this.

So Norway had set the standard for giving birth.  It had proven to me how lovely – how exquisite –-the experience could be, how powerful in respects physical as well as spiritual. And now France had to follow that act.

Baerum Sykehus, Norway, where Dalton Haakon was born.

To be continued. . .

Le Château de la Maye, Versailles, France, where Luc William was born.

© Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Global Mom: Julestemning

Christmas in Norway.

Three words, and my bones go all cheese fonduey.

That’s  because there is, even in my memory, a special spirit to a Norwegian Christmas.  With New Jersey’s jingle jangle still in my head, Norway’s quiet spirit caught me off guard the first Christmas we lived on our island.  And during all the Christmases that followed, I felt slowed down, whoa-ed down. Again and again and again.

Christmas in Norway is synonymous with making music, and since singing was my job, I did a lot of it during the holidays.  Where did I sing, with whom and what? Let’s just say the range was eclectic.   “Chestnuts Roasting” and other American standards with a jazz band in Holmenkollen kappell, a restored stave church high overlooking the Oslo fjord. The “Messiah” with an electronic keyboard run by a generator in a dilapidated barn hidden deep in the mountains. (I was offered an ankle length military uniform coat from an audience member, which I accepted so I could sing the soprano solos without getting whiplash from my teeth-chattering.) Scandinavian folk tunes with traditional instruments surrounded by candlelight in a stark Lutheran church. Spirituals with trumpets, sax and drums on Norway’s answer to The Tonight Snow.   “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” in a screen test for a national T.V. commercial.  Brahms with full orchestra and viola descant in a sumptuous opera house.  Simple hymns with our Mormon congregation’s small and struggling yet achingly sincere choir.

Then there was that most unforgettable of Christmases: The Viking Birth. That’s when I sang out five-kilo Dalton Haakon on a high note of “Amazing Grace”:

“And grace my fears relieeeeeeeeeeeeved.”

And grace sure did.

This post will be the last that focuses on our Norway years contained in the first few chapters of Global Mom, A Memoir, coming to you in January.  The next posts about Global Mom will introduce you to France, or more specifically to Versailles, where we first landed straight from our Nordic island isolation.

Versailles of the Sun King. Of the famous château.  And of our son, our petit prince, Luc William.  And of the not-so-famous château where he was born.

Then I’ll give you a good long look at Paris.

Then Munich. The City of Monks. Our Monastery Years.

Then Singapore. With flash-backs to Hong Kong.

Then Switzerland. With flash-backs to Vienna.

And much of the craggy, glossy, pitch dark, shimmering terrain in between.

So sit back.  It’s October wherever you are in the world.

But right now in Global Mom it’s December.

My attempt at a hand drawn family Christmas portrait one of our last years in Norway.

Global Mom, A Memoir

JULESTEMNING

Bente calls me at 5:30 a.m. Whispering in Norwegian, she tells me to hurry – run!— to the T.V. to catch the broadcast.  My friend has no idea what she’s asking.  I’m almost nine months pregnant, which means running resembles a slo-mo animation of global plate tectonics, my pelvis held together by what feels like no more than three shredded rubber bands.  But I waddle obediently down the stairs and dump my fertile self into the sofa.

Sitting breathless and alone in the darkness, I watch. In total stillness, the program illumines. It is one long, still moment until this crescent of blonde girls dressed in floor-length white gowns and with wreaths and burning candles atop their heads begins singing:

Night walks with heavy steps. . .

Shadows are brooding. . .

In every room so hushed. . .

Whispering like wings. . .

Santa Lucia.  This is the darkest night of the year. And in Norwegian, that means darkness of the underside of the blackest inkiest black.  Something about that thick backdrop makes my anticipation for this moment and for this season more intense,  intimate.  I’m awaiting the Christ child’s birth, awaiting the Bradford child’s birth. The Unknowns; one under the taut skin of my belly, the other under the night skin of the world, and this slow awakening happening in the sphere of my body, in the land of Norway.

Baby rump gyrates up under a rib.  A knee there.  A foot print there.  A head grinding relentlessly like a street dancer spinning on my bladder.  Now he’s rhythmically filing his toenails on my lowest left rib while he hiccups the effects of last night’s spiced lentil soup.  I push down with the heel of my hand. The lump bulges right back again, defiantly. Can he hear the television? Because he’s pulled a lever on his recliner so he can spread eagle from my pancreas to my esophagus. I’m stretchy both in skin and in soul.

Bente has prepped me about Santa Lucia.  “If you want to really get Julestemning, you must watch the performance live or at least on the live broadcast from Stockholm.”

Julestemning is an untranslatable expression, but every Norwegian knows what it means.  Closest thing we have in English is “Christmas spirit.”  But used in English, it conjures up for me at least images of neon pulsing robotically waving snowmen in shopping malls, the slosh of musak in the dairy aisle of your supermarket.  Andy Williams rapping “Ole Saint Nick.”

In Norway, that spirit is different. Deep as the darkness.  Fresh as snowfall in the nighttime.  I hadn’t understood the term, really, when just a few weeks earlier at a Norwegian friend’s house their young adult daughter was on the phone from California. She was there doing a year-long exchange in the land of The O.C., cooler than anything, you’d think. But from her end of the line I could hear she was sucking back tears, sobbing to her family, “Det er ikke Julsestemningnen her enda!” (There’s no Christmas spirit here yet!)

But now I begin to understand. In our basement, in the dark, low in sofa, high in pregnant, I watch the television glow with angel girls singing about the heavy tread of darkness and the pending light, singing with innocence, their faces almost iridescent with the sweet liquid warmth of a musical sunrise, and I’m lulled, nearly half-dozing. Before I can tug on the corner of the blanket that has slipped off my shoulder, I realize I’m draining tears from both eyes.  Crying, for hormones’ sake!  Punch drunk on Julestemning.

Bente, my formidable friend of the predawn phone call, has gifted me with something priceless in that phone call.  She and her family are, in every respect, our tutors in things Norwegian.  This holds true particularly when it comes to holidays and music. Here, she tutors me in Christmas:

“You begin,” Bente’s bright blue eyes widen enthusiastically, “with a thorough Christmas cleaning.”

This means, I learn, on-your-hands-and-knees scrub down of every inch of pine, including the ceiling.  Polishing windows with vinegar and lemon. Beating rugs and bedding and mattresses and bushes.  Flossing your banister. Tipping over the fridge.  Wiping under it.  Picking lint out of the wiry element on the backside of your appliances.  With a Q-tip.

“Then you’re ready for Christmas curtains,” Bente’s adorably girlish Swedish sister-in-law Pia schools me. She is also smiling.

“Curtains” means taking down all your everyday window treatments. Washing them, folding them, storing them in plastic bags you’ve sucked the air out of. And replacing them with flouncy fabric in red and green. Holly berries, candy canes, bows, polar bears, trolls.

“So, where do you pick up these curtains?” I am decidedly curtain challenged, except for stage curtains, which I’d never sewn or laundered.

“Pick them up?  Oh no. You buy the fabric. You sew them.”

“Sew? Curtains? For all your windows?  For every Christmas?”

Was this even legal?

“And after that, you do the syv sorter,” Bente adds, still smiling.  She is tall, has four tall children, and they all have peachy complexions with bright, winning smiles. I conclude it’s a national mandate.

Syv sorter means making seven different sorts of Christmas cookies all in the course of one day. (And there are prescribed sorts, I was to learn, of which Pillsbury ready-bake is not one, you sluggards.) Real Norwegians like Bente are born to do seven sorts in a day and from scratch.  But they are also born with peachy complexions, winning smiles, skis on their feet, a hockey stick in their fist, and something in their constitution that lets them slurp the teensy eggs out of the tails of raw shrimp.  And still smile.

“And don’t forget kransekake,” Pia wants to explain to me, her dimples softening the blow.  By now I’m feverishly scribbling notes. “You start with hand-ground almonds and powdered sugar and — you want to borrow my moulds?” She hands me her cast iron ring moulds for the traditional stacked wreath cake, then pulls me aside. “You can actually buy the dough ready made.” She lowers her voice, “But not a word.”

I’d never seen darling blonde Pia look stern.  This time, she’s glowering.

At Bente’s, we all gather for Christmas Eve.  We have come in our best clothing (Bente and Pia’s children are in Sunday best and opulent traditional Norwegian costume) because, as Christian, Bente’s oldest has told us, this evening will be “litt høytidlig.”

A bit solemn. Formal.  Reverent.

I gather this is code for. Please, pants with belts. Drawstrings and elasticized ankles turned away at the door.  (And you will forever be labeled, “Bumpkin.” )

We gather around Bente’s table set with a great-great-grandmother’s crystal, heirloom silver, china handed down generations. There are candles. There is an order to things, a program. A first course followed by a song.  Another course.  Another song.  There are pewter warming plates and hand-tatted linens from another great-grandmother. The menu includes substantial fare; traditional white sausage, delicately boiled potatoes, steamed Brussel sprouts and caramel pudding right before the crowning treat: stacked rings of the kransekake, each ascending ring decorated with small Norwegian flags.

No paper plates, even Chinette. No feet propped on the coffee table.  No root beer floats in mismatched Jets and Yankees mugs. Not a single popcorn ball, corn dog or Jell-o salad. Nothing of that sort anywhere from the Arctic circle all the way down to the southern border that Christmas Eve.

Just a guess.  But one I’d stake my life on.

LANGBORDET

Given that Christmas in Norway means gathering, we buy a huge table.  This particular three-meter plateau of pine has room for twelve, and we have twelve traditional curved farm chairs made and painted to match.  In a pinch, there is room for fourteen.  Sixteen, if everyone dines armlessly.

Even with the table as talisman, I never really fully master the Norwegian Christmas.  Maybe because it takes much longer than five years to do so. Maybe because I do not really master so very much domestically, if you must know the truth.  I do get all the traditional decorations, serve mounds of fish in every possible state at every one of my gatherings, make vat upon vat of something called gløgg, an onomatopoetically named cider that Norwegians consume with or without alcohol. (But mostly with.  And with lots).

I even perfect my own recipe for gingerbread, the very mortar of any true Norwegian Christmas.  I learn all the local songs about the art and lure of gingerbread-baking. I sing them with my children and add choreography I can still pull off today if you put a kransekake mould to my head. One year, I made enough gingerbread dough to re-shingle our roof.  Then loaded it in my car and took it to church where two dozen children built a scale model of Machu Picchu, looked like. Machu Picchu with shiny green gum drops and red striped fences all around.

In the course of our Norway years, I scrape off the biggest scabs of the vestiges of a crusty old feminism that had preached disdain for all things — for every thing — domestic.  I shimmied out of that brittle role model while also squeezing sideways past The Good Norwegian Housewife one.  (I never, for instance, tipped or Q-tipped my fridge. Never once).  But I took a swan dive into the one domestic task I liked:  Food preparation. Food preparation, specifically, that gets people together. I gave up Gloria Steinem for Rachel Ray and traded in Bella Abzug for Julia Childs.

In fact, I now see that in some ways I at least subconsciously took Mrs. Julia Childs as a muse, a model.  Many years after leaving Norway, after Childs’ death, I saw an exhibit at the Smithsonian which featured her huge meat cleaver-scarred Norwegian farm table. She said it had been the heart of her home.  She even had similar curved farm chairs to mine. Or better, I did to hers. And they were all collected during the time she’d lived in Oslo with her husband, Paul.

Hmm. She’d also lived twice in France.

And once in Germany.

And along the east coast of the U.S.

Now I’ve got you thinking we’re nearly identical, Mrs. Childs and I.

But besides the fact that I am not six feet tall, do not have an arsenal of kitchen knives, have never in my life made a boeuf bourguignon nor, lets be honest, a single pot roast, and besides the tiny fact I’m neither genius nor legend, there is one feature of our lives, of my life and the life of Mrs. Childs, that does not match.

Children.

She had none.

I was bursting with my third.

Which was  good.

But given the paragraphs below,  hard.

**

TROLLS

From my journal:

This year has marked the kids’ surge in growth of all kinds.  Parker’s making great headway with his Norwegian, managing to converse like a native with his little first grade buddies and participating in the church  program with a major speaking part.  Wise Man #1.  And at school for the Christmas program he’s Troll #1. 

Is the universe trying to tell me something?

Parker as a troll in his class Christmas spectacle at Nesøya Skole. The lip liner should be given special credit.

He’s lost teeth right in front so he epitomizes the gangly six-and-a-half-year-old, wild about his sport club, crazy about his weekly swimming classes. Claire has refined a large repertoire of native folk songs which she hollers and croons at all times and in all places.  Both children are sturdy and active,  joyous reminders to us of the vibrancy and hope of childhood.  I can drone on and on about their energy and bright minds, how Claire loves all things theatrical, how Parker has a penchant for memorizing long texts.  Actually, it’s a little creepy, his ability to memorize.  According to his teachers, they’ve never seen the likes. He has something like a perfect aural memory.

But. But. Adjusting to the whole local school thing has been hard work for him. For us all.  HARD.  Parker’s teachers have been terrific—kind, flexible, patient—and the school’s principal, Sigrid, has been an absolute wonder. She’s called me in to conference with her every week—a schedule that will spread out to once a month, we plan—just to make a team out of home and school in order to assure this boy, this first non-Norwegian child they’ve ever had, has a good experience in the school, in Norway.  

So here goes: I came close to crying in yesterday’s conference.  As Sigrid was expressing her concerns about Parker’s behavior (and his four teachers around the table were describing how disruptive he can sometimes be in class, erratic, uncontainable, sometimes explosive), I felt that salty wave climbing my throat.  Times like this I’m convinced that it would have been better for everybody had I stuck with full-time theater, had we not moved to a foreign country, and had I let child care professionals duke it out over this child.  It’s all so tiring.  So deflating.

Point is, I have little natural talent for domesticity, for mothering.  All my other talents, (that short list that’s steadily getting shorter) have no application at home. I can love, love a lot, but that love doesn’t seem to be the pill for Parker.  So while I am listening to the Norwegian terms for this boy — “strong character”, “unchanneled energy”, “sensitive” — I don’t say it out loud but my internal voice is blaring on loudspeaker, “This is too much for me!  This here? It’s nowhere in my skill set!!” 

Well, bless her heart, Sigrid reached across to me when I guess she saw my eyes drop to the table top, and she put her hand on mine;  “Think”, she said, “of the adventure we’d all miss without his powerful presence in our lives!” 

I managed a smile then. But hearing her words now in my mind makes we weep with confused but sweet gratitude for this boy.

And writing those words many years later pierces me straight through.

On Decmeber 29th, approximately 5:30 a.m., I called Bente.  I whispered, “Han er kommet.”

He, our baby boy, has come.

And with that arrival, the arrival of number three, a second son, the dark winter skies confirmed that there was now even less of a chance of turning back from being the worthless and incompetent mother I was wholly convinced I already was.

Darkness shall take flight soon

From earth’s valley.

So she speaks

Wonderful words to us:

A new day will rise again

From the rosy sky. . .

Sankta Lucia! Sankta Lucia!

 

Our three Norwegians.

**
© Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com, 2012. This work (text and images) is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. . . which means, as long you’re not selling it, you’re welcome to share, but please remember to give me a link and mention my name.