by Madeleine Mysko
“You were a beautiful baby,” my mother once said, “but to tell the truth, I just couldn’t wait until you were old enough to talk.”
Anyone who knew my mother (she is gone now) will see the humor in this. The predominant trait on my mother’s side of the family is the desire to talk. Those in the family who likewise exhibit this trait are forever vying for that pause in the conversation into which they can jump and take the floor. My mother was a natural storyteller. The child of a natural storyteller, I grew up telling stories too, and writing them down.
When I was the mother of small children, I read an essay by Raymond Carver, a sad little piece about how hard it was for him, as the father of small children, to get any writing done. I instantly developed a crush on him, because I was feeling sorry for myself too. Eventually the crush faded. I’ve lived a lot longer now than Carver did. Meanwhile, my children have grown up to be as fiercely protective of their mother’s creative space as they are of their own.
Once I wrote some poems about a recurrent dream in which I discover a baby in an unexpected place: up in the attic, down in the basement by the washing machine, on the ashy grate of the cold fireplace. I don’t actually recognize this baby. At the same time I know this baby is mine, and I’m terrified because I’ve forgotten to feed the poor thing. This baby just looks at me with wide-open eyes, the gaze seeming old and wise somehow, and maybe even forgiving. I named the poems “Dream Babies.”
Around this time I went to visit my youngest child, the daughter who’d moved to New York and taken several part-time jobs so that she could paint when she wasn’t working. Because my youngest child was not born with her grandmother’s desire to talk, she had told me only that her new apartment was small and the canvases were big.
I took the train. As it rolled out of Baltimore, I gazed into the backyards of all those little row houses beyond the tracks. I was feeling a little blue. I’d recently let go of a house full of memories, the very house in which I’d raised the daughter I was off to visit.
At the train station, she strode forward from the crowd to take charge of me. She led me into the subway and out, down 14th Street, up the elevator to the apartment.
“Prepare yourself,” she said, unlocking the door.
“Oh, it can’t be that big a mess,” I said, though I hadn’t forgotten her childhood bedroom, the smell of turpentine, her fingerprints in bright colors on the furniture and the walls.
“The paintings, I mean,” she said. “They’re really big.”
And there they were, really big: paintings of babies with wide-open eyes, the gaze seeming somehow old and wise, and maybe even forgiving.
“Dream Babies,” I said.
“Yes,” she said.
“Did I ever show you my Dream Baby poems?”
She was looking at the nearest Baby, who was sitting against a field of blues. “You dream about them too?”
I was too surprised to even talk.
We stood side by side, studying her babies for a while. And then she carried my bag to her bedroom, where I would sleep beside her that night, beneath a comforter that smelled of turpentine and paint.
Madeleine Mysko is the author of a poetry collection, Crucial Blue, and two novels, Bringing Vincent Home and Stone Harbor Bound. She is also a registered nurse, and coordinates the “Reflections” column for American Journal of Nursing. Presently she teaches writing at Goucher College.