On Friday, May 25th, six days after giving birth to Wrenna Ruby Cary Smith, aka Birdie, my daughter Laura went to buy seedlings with her dad, my husband Bob, who had driven from Philadelphia, and our younger daughter Zoë, who’d flown in from Chicago the day before. Laura and her partner Shelby had already bought enriched soil, and edged the beds with long, slim, maple logs and planted a few early crops including peas.
I’d been with them since the end of Laura’s long labor with Birdie, having driven up in my sister and brother-in-law’s Jeep after having spent the night in their house in northern New Jersey. In New York the night before we’d attended the premier recital of my mini-opera, “The Gospel According to Nana,” with composer Liliya Ugay, based loosely on my own Nana, a complicated, indulgent North Carolina native from whom I learned a love of European classical music, opera (aka Robeson), gardening, and rigid household organization. I also learned from my mother that Nana was not always trustworthy, something that I would find out later by myself. The opera was coming out around what would have been Nana’s 111th birthday, and so was this new grandbaby.
We’d expected a few days in between, but by the time I awoke in my sister and brother-in-law’s charmed third-floor getaway bedroom Laura had already been in labor all night and been admitted into their hospital’s birthing suite. Thinking the girls might need me to stay with their not-quite-three-year-old, Mica, my husband and I agreed that taking the Jeep made more sense than waiting the two, maybe three, hours it would take my husband to come up from Philadelphia in our car. As it happened, Shelby’s mother had driven from Boston to stay with Mica, and when I got to Vermont, Laura sent word for me to come to the suite, where she was already in transition. After yet more hours, my organic, free-range snowboard-instructor daughter, so strong, so determined, had to stop pushing. She and Shelby agreed with the midwife that a C-section was the most humane way to rescue little sunny-side-up Birdie, the top of her head stuck and swollen in the birth canal, from more hours of slamming her forehead into the pelvic bone.
Because Birdie came a few days before the due date, all eight pounds, ten ounces of her, Laura had not finished her one last bit of nesting behavior: planting out garden seedlings. So, three days after the birth, having been home one night, Laura tiptoed her stitched-up self over grass and gravel to check out the farthest garden patch. Garlic from last fall was coming up nicely, she reported. And, amazingly, where last summer’s parsley had grown, new shoots were coming up! We talked about the miraculous parsley for two days. Since then I’ve learned that parsley is actually a biennial, that during this second year it will likely flower and set seed, but that the leaves will be less flavorful than in year one. It may self-seed and return again next year, when the baby will be one, and Mica about to turn four. Or, say gardening websites, Laura could collect seed from the flower heads, store them somewhere, and then plant them next year. Good luck with that. Not this growing season. Not with a new baby and a toddler, plus three dogs, two goats, and one last invincible chicken, a fast-running bantam named Showbird.
Honestly, there was so much work up there in rural Vermont new-birth land that I was tempted to suggest Laura skip planting altogether. The experience of that week comes to me as a dense-pack. Everything all at once, all the time, with Showbird and Shelby in constant motion. Mica needed help with the torrent of change that was blowing through her life. Laundry without end. Every hour something new to figure out: where to put the new changing things, the breast pump, the baby duds, and for Laura, how to get little Birdie to latch properly so that she wouldn’t chew up Laura’s nipples now that the milk was coming in, big time, like water rolling down the rock at Horeb. Everyone needed to eat, of course, so there was food prep and clean up. The goat needed milking everyday, by Shelby, with each gallon brought in and marked, and any undrunk milk thrown out after five days (since Laura’s not yet making cheese, and Philly Nana Rene cannot, as a visiting sub, boil gently, add lemon juice till curds set, then pour the almost cheese into a cheesecloth and hang it from the birch twig over the sink…)
Appointments with the pediatrician and visiting nurse had to be made and kept, often on the landline, rather than on dirt-road, high-altitude cell (which apparently only my mother can get through on!) Mica had to be convinced to go to Pre-K with me only, i.e. no parent. Despite parental leave time, Shelby kept a popcorn schedule of sessions with private clients for her dog-training service as well as an evening puppy-training class at the North Country Animal League. Her own dog, like some sort of naughty clergy kid, took the opportunity of new personnel in the house to trot over to the neighbor’s porch, like, ¼ mile through the forest, while we were busy doing something else.
And we were always doing something else. Something else swirled around us like blue mist off the mountains. Mica had to be helped with dear, gentle times with “her baby.” She also discovered, Mica did, that you can take a dump on the floor rather than in the potty and then report the accomplishment while your mama’s nursing a not-well-latched baby, who’s leaning against the sore C-section cut.
The recliner Shelby strapped to the truck bed and drove home was not actually a proper recliner, but a big, padded rocker. Who knew? Back onto the truck to the store. The next day Shelby wrestled into the house the perfect choice: an updated version of the recliner Laura used in our home for Mica, driven in the old minivan 1,100 miles from her rural Iowa paternal grandparents.
More something else: as the trash cans filled up, I remembered that they have no trash pick-up. In responsible rural Vermont fashion, they haul their trash to the dump and pay $5-$6 per contractor bag. The attendant smiles after you’ve paid and tells you to drive around and nudge it down “the big blue hole.”
The white chicken, who’d disappeared when Laura went into labor, returned like a miracle after Birdie’s birth. I was thinking about naming her Milagro; this was when Birdie had no real name yet, just the nickname. But then the poor fool white chicken thought she was big and bad enough to sneak out any night she wanted. Probably brooding, Shelby said. Uh-oh. Laura heard her last, strangled clucks in the night and saw the feathers in the morning.
But I didn’t try to dissuade Laura from planting. For one thing, who asked me? Nanas should help, not stop, the next generation’s call fertility and production. Besides, she’d talked about getting in this garden on the phone the week before. We’d texted about it over the winter, for crying out loud, especially since the goats got in and messed with everything last year, except the collard greens, which, having survived slavery, continue to outlive most any threat. Ever since getting home from the hospital, Laura had referred to her garden; she had a list of which plants grow well from seed and which she’d need to buy as seedlings.
More something: the Wednesday morning lakefront playgroup, wrapped up in blankets against the cold wind. One German-born mom, Sarah, summed up neatly the urgency of Vermont’s Zone 3b growing season. One waits far into May, she said, afraid of more snow and frost, only to find at the end of May that “everything should have been planted last week!” It sounded funny in the soft precision of German vowels consonants. But true. TIV, as they say: This is Vermont. Everything has to go in now. NOW, as Mica likes to say about the needments of toddler life. Now, p’eeeeease.
So, we planted out a couple tomatoes, a pack of cabbages, and the herbs. Then I looked around, and there my daughter was, on her knees, holding her belly with one hand and putting in cukes and spinach with the other. This was the child who’d needed, like, really needed, snowboarding in the middle of an urban Philadelphia adolescence.
No stopping her. I told her about Wendell Berry, the Kentucky farmer, activist, poet and essayist, who celebrated the undervalued intelligence of famers. I felt a hint of it as I knelt in their soil, the understanding that led Berry’s mentor, the British agronomist Albert Howard, to consider “the whole problem of health in soil, plant, animal and man as one great subject.” I felt that because I’d read it so many times and assigned it to my students. But also from my in-laws in Iowa, and from reading account after account of sharecroppers in South Carolina for my last novel. Laura wanted nasturtium on either side of a mound of chicken droppings. So, we’d plant nasturtiums, bright, hardy perennials that mean victory, like Laura’s name, from the Romans’ bay laurel wreath wrapped around the brow of Apollo.
We rushed to finish before supper. In the long twilight, peepers sang worship songs. Mica and Birdie, growing up on this land in this time, take their song for granted. A week later, back to my regular city mouse life, I saw the New Yorker cover that gave lush, Edenic color to my memories of Madonna Laura in her garden.
Eight days after Birdie’s birth, Bob and I left the new family and drove south to my sister’s, Bob in our car, and me in the Jeep. I put the keys on the console in their vestibule, and then, Bob and I drove home together. The next morning I worried — that I didn’t fill up with gas. That I sucked down my sister’s water bottles from the back of the Jeep and didn’t replace them. That, having sped to Vermont in NY clothes — black pants, lace top, suit jacket, and mudcloth — I threw on her Martha’s Vineyard sweatshirt and wore it home instead of putting it back for her next emergency. That maybe I didn’t lock the door! Could I have been that tired?
So I rang Teresa. My nephews call her Grandma Teresa, because she took care of them when they were little. She still comes by and checks on things, and she was due to be there. Before I can explain about the Jeep, though, Teresa asks about the baby. I tell her about Birdie and Mica, and my daughter’s partner working so hard. Then, although that was enough, really, I went on about my daughter’s insisting on planting, and how, the next day, the seedlings perked up under a light gray-blue rain that misted down on us day. Way too much detail, but Teresa was listening so hard, it was as if she pulled it out of me.
I told her about Mica loose in the yard with a very, very sharp cultivator. (“Where’d you get that, Sugar Pie?” “No, mine!”) Temporarily careful. And how when her mama pronounced her “no longer able to be a good listener,” she was sent indoors to Granddad and Aunt Zoë, who were watching Birdie and happy to find her some animation to hold her over until dinner.
When Teresa finally spoke, she was crying. In Ecuador, her grandmother, the midwife, said that they must always plant something — a special tree, but, if not, cabbages, vegetables or even coriander or parsley — to thank God and to replenish the earth. It would be the baby’s blessing to the family and the world. I wasn’t sure whether the baby’s blessing needed to be harnessed and planted or whether the planting acted as a way to thank God for the birth. No matter. The ritual was its own loop: God as life, love, blessing and blessing.
Once Teresa’s family were transplanted to New Jersey, and lived in tiny apartments, Teresa said laughing, they had even gone to a public city park to plant a little tree when one great-grand was born. Laura’s planting would have pleased Teresa’s grandmother, her great-grandmother, and all her ancestors. She pronounced “ancestors” with the long rhythm of translated English that reminded me of Mica’s careful enunciation of “her whole fam-i-ly,” arms open, mouth smiling widely. Mica’s ancestors would also be pleased.