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Sisterland(11)
Curtis Sittenfeld

When Vi emerged, our mother felt as if she’d been turned inside out. A nurse whisked the baby away, and as the contractions continued, another nurse told our mother to keep pushing, which our mother thought she already was doing. I emerged eight minutes later and was similarly whisked away. Our mother had neither held nor even really seen us; she was hyperventilating, and though she soon stopped, she felt flattened, overwhelmed by what she had just been through. She lay motionless in the hospital bed and swore that she would never have another baby.

As for Vi and me, after our Apgar scores confirmed that we were healthy, we were weighed (Vi was six pounds, nine ounces, and I was five pounds, eleven ounces), then cleaned, wrapped in blankets, deposited in bassinets, and taken to the nursery, where we were introduced to our father. Vi was asleep, he said, and I was awake, and he went about memorizing our faces. Vi had been named, but I hadn’t. For the next five days, though the nurses and our father repeatedly inquired about our mother’s preferences, she declined to answer. Having expected only one baby, she had planned on Violet for a girl and Victor for a boy. What about Violet and Victoria, our father suggested, but our mother shook her head. She had spoken very little since our birth; she did not breast-feed us. Violet and Margaret? (Margaret was the name of our father’s mother.) Our mother shook her head again. Violet and Daisy? our father asked, and our mother shrugged. He took this as assent, and we became Violet Kimberly and Daisy Kathleen. Our mother later claimed that Kimberly and Kath-leen had been maternity ward nurses, but our father denied it, saying the nurses had merely helped him select our middle names.

As little girls, Vi and I loved hearing about our arrival in spite of the fact that we didn’t have a mother who concluded this narrative with lavish expressions of affection. In retrospect, I’m not sure why we were so enthralled by this story, aside from the fact that we possessed the guileless self-absorption of most children. But it took having babies myself for me to understand just how lacking, how depressing even, the story of our births was, with its absence of any hint of joy on our mother’s part. She had looked forward to having one child, was my interpretation of events when I became an adult, but having two did not double her excitement; rather, it extinguished it. Our mother was neither a happy mother nor a happy person. It’s impossible for me to know if she was unhappy before she had us, but I suspect she previously must have been able to enjoy herself at least a little or I doubt that my father would have married her. And not only married her but been so smitten that, as a thirty-nine-year-old bachelor, he’d proposed to her within three months of their meeting and left behind a life in Nebraska to move to St. Louis for this beautiful woman seventeen years his junior.

It also took having babies of my own for me to truly imagine what that experience in the hospital must have been like for my mother, how difficult: At twenty-three, she was almost a decade younger than I was when I delivered my first child; her husband wasn’t in the delivery room to support her; and the combination of the ineffective epidural and the still surprising fact of there being two babies to push out must have been, in the clinical sense, traumatizing. And things did not improve much, particularly with regard to her isolation, when the hospital discharged the three of us.

That morning, our mother had changed, for the first time since our arrival five days earlier, from a hospital gown to a dress, and she was shocked when she looked in the mirror. Between giving birth and shedding the water weight that had made her swollen, she had lost at least thirty pounds; her legs were so skinny that she reminded herself of Minnie Mouse. And this, in a way, was the happy ending of our birth story, a happiness Vi and I surely intuited, and celebrated, even if it had little to do with either of us—that in spite of everything she’d been through, on the day she left the hospital, our mother once again looked pretty.

We lived in Kirkwood, Missouri, a suburb twelve miles southwest of the St. Louis Arch. The blue shingled house on Gilbert Street that my parents had bought when they married was the one they stayed in until after I’d graduated from college, and for all that time my mother complained about it. She said that the house was drafty in the winter, that the street smelled of exhaust from trains on the nearby tracks, and that the neighbors were nosy and low-class. The real problem, however, wasn’t the house; it was a simple and terrible fact that none of us ever discussed because we didn’t need to, which was that our mother didn’t like our father. In her crossed arms, the exhalations of her nostrils, the pinch of her lips, she showed us every day that she didn’t enjoy his company, didn’t find him interesting, and didn’t respect him. Part of it seemed to be that she held him accountable for the disappointments life had dealt her, though it was always easier to see that she was disappointed than to understand exactly why. (Not that my father was alone in having let her down. Almost everyone my mother encountered fell into one of two categories: low-class or snobby. Only very occasionally would she bestow her most prized compliment, reserved for a rich person who had pleasantly surprised her: He didn’t put on airs, she’d say. He acted the same as you and me.)

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