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A Red Carnation for the Children I Did Not Have (5-9-21)

Updated: May 19, 2021


8 or 9 years ago, I stopped at a Safeway on a Sunday afternoon in May. A few yards inside the sliding-door entrance, a young female employee stood. Her arm cradled a dozen long-stemmed carnations -- red, pink and white, curly and lush.


She smiled and extended a red carnation toward me.


How nice! I reached out to take the flower.


As I was almost touching it, she asked, “Are you a mom?”


My hand froze and I shook my head.


She withdrew the flower. The girl looked away, hopeful, out toward the parking lot.


I thought, “Man, that’s cold, Safeway,” then veered toward the produce. I’d stopped for a few pears, some roasted salted almonds.


At least train your worker to ask first, then offer the flower. Even better, if you’re giving away flowers today, give them freely. Are you familiar with the life that any woman – or man – might bring in behind them, through your automatic doors? The potential unkindness of retracting a kind gesture?


What if I’d been a woman trying to get pregnant, unsuccessfully? Or had easily gotten pregnant but then endured a series of miscarriages? Or whose in vitro didn’t take, again? Or whose heart and spirit had been whiplashed by failed adoptions? Then by failed foreign adoptions? Here’s-a-flower-Oh-WAIT-NO-you-have-failed-today’s-test.


Your ‘offer’ that day surely extended to some who shook their heads with giant hearts hollowed by grief.


As a person who did not feel certain about wanting to raise a human child myself, I had the luxury of feeling dissed, annoyed. But for my friends who did feel that certainty and couldn’t be parents, for various reasons? They, most of all, deserved a curly flower from your chilled case, on Mother’s Day.


Also deserving, anyone with a complicated, painful experience of being mothered, or anyone altogether motherless, or whose mother died when they were young, or whose mother had lived for decades but just died, days before they walked through those sliding-glass doors, after the funeral.


The pears all looked sub-par. Like they’d never be edible. I couldn’t focus.


Couldn’t imagine a store doing that, with any other sub-set of their customer base (people who ever need food).


Hold out a flower. Then. “Are you a … surfer? A practicing Buddhist? An architect? At least 1/256th Cherokee? No, only 1/512th?” Sorry, taking it back. Next!


I doubted they would think of doing that, with any other sector of society. And many ‘non-moms’ and ‘non-dads’ feel very deeply that their animal companions are no less their family. Some are like mothers to other humans who need nurturing, whatever their ages, in the thousand ways any human needs nurturing, from beyond that of one named Mother.


Yet many people would think, Oh. What a nice gesture, giving moms a carnation, Safeway. And some (still, in this millenium) think, underneath that nice-gesture, well, if a woman doesn’t have children, there’s got to be something wrong with her. Motherhood still seems the default status for ‘normal’ female adults.


The sadness, the pity, in some people’s eyes, when they hear my answer to “You have children?”. And I’m not sad about it. I was unsure about it, and it didn’t happen, and that ship has sailed, biologically. The why of that, and the what-now of that, I’m still figuring out. But pity me not.


Plenty of moms and dads will say, "You can't imagine what having a child feels like." All I can guess is that they were younger siblings, or only siblings, who can't imagine what older siblings of many siblings, can imagine. The older of many siblings did watch, did hold, the most vulnerable, tiny people (issued from the same woman), tiny people who entered their households, helpless, precious, perfect, however they arrived. We olders did hold bottles up to their greedy, sucking mouths, then wash those bottles with wire brushes, standing on a stool at the kitchen sink. We did change diapers, and clean up projectile matter, no matter from which end. Did teach the children well, how to tie their shoelaces, recognize the sound of a cow or a rooster, protect their balance when they first tottered across the living-room, Franken-baby style.


Many of us did much the same for neighborhood children, issued from beloved neighbor women -- the diapers, the sound of cows, the building of forts and reading of favorite books. (I took little Kathy R. to kindergarten for the first time, to meet her first schoolteacher, when her mother could not be home to do that. Kathy R. is now an oncologist at Duke. My eyes fill, just to think about her kindergarten start, on this day for mothers, if not for the mothers-by-proxy when-needed, when they were, like, 13, themselves.)


Some of us did and felt much the same for children farther away, who needed a Teacher Aide to help them go to the bathroom, and who tried to respect their dignity, if, at age 9 or 10, with, say, Duchenne's muscular dystrophy, they needed someone to wipe their bottoms in a 'handicapped' bathroom, however much they would prefer not to need that help.


Still, these plenty of moms and dads who are certain that the childless can't imagine, they will not have a clue how to interact, or understand, those who are not parents of humans.


When my (now-ex) Bob and I were first dating, one of his law partners hosted a meet-and-greet for a candidate for county council (the county next door). We couldn’t vote for the man, but in support of this friend, we showed up to help him ‘fill the house.’


The candidate shook our hands, asked our names, gave a short paragraph about all that “our families, our children’s schools” deserved, “right?” Bob and I looked at each other. “Sure. Even if we don’t have children.” (We were happy to pay taxes to educate the children of our own localities, which helped everyone. This seemed a no-brainer for us.)


But. As if we’d said, “Sure. Even if we’re serial killers,” the man took a step back and put his hands in his pockets. Yet he started over with his same spiel about our families, our children’s schools, caught himself, and retracted the flower. He did not know how to understand, or interact with, us.


(Just. This candidate-man was warm and engaging. He won. And went on to become county executive for a couple of terms. He will probably seek higher office. His own kids are likely in their 20s and 30s now. Maybe they will question the obligation to have, necessarily, children. Maybe he’ll be more comfortable with the unchilded citizenry.)


That night I got a call to say, “You’re gonna be an Aunt Mary again!” -- 6th time, with another yet to come.


(Just. This candidate-man was warm and engaging. He won. And went on to become county executive for a couple of terms. He will probably seek national office someday. Maybe his own, grown kids will question the obligation to have, necessarily, within-normal-limits, children. Maybe he'll understand the unchilded citizenry number much greater than he imagined, at that meet-and-greet.)


Thinking of carnations, I’m remembering the ones in Sargeant’s lovely painting in the Tate Gallery, “Carnation, Carnation, Lily, Rose” and how emotional I felt to visit the work again in a different century, with the gallery itself split into two, across a newer, old London. Like seeing old friends, those girls and those flowers.


Also remembering how that thirsty carnation became the cause for greedy Ugolin and his grandfather to plot against their neighbor, Jean de Florette.*

But I digress.


It’s Mother’s Day. And my heart inflated to call and speak to my mom this morning, just to hear her voice, in real time. And finally, after a number of near-hugs interrupted by illness and bad weather, to know I’ll see her in person and hug her, next weekend. My mother, a National Merit Scholar in high-school, was told by her father, “girls don’t go to college, they take care of their husbands and children.” So she didn’t, and did the other.


My friend Marian, now in her 70s, became pregnant with twins at age 35 and was called a “geriatric maternal patient.” They used that word at every visit, she said, "geriatric." As if it ain't over 'til it's over. As if most species don't reproduce as long as they live (which most species do, including the females of the species.) I have friends who didn’t try to have children until close to age 40, even after. And Marian seems hardly geriatric now, with her spirit and intellect so vibrant.


Choices progress and bloom, for younger women, by the year. The assumption, the cultural norm, of producing children as a given? Younger couples I know speak of being intentionally “child-free” instead of “childless,” like I was described at their age. I don’t think my nieces feel that same expectation, any more than they would have to fight to go to college. Any more than my nephews do, who have a different parent-ability timeline.


Their job expectations (if not their parity against a man’s pay, sigh) are much broader. Women have worked on the International Space Station. They fly airplanes, perform neurosurgery, fight fires, create groundbreaking software. They’re master carpenters, Oscar-winning film directors and screenwriters, economists, high-court judges. These jobs would have been unreachable for my mother. And, except for a few pioneers, unsupported dreams for me and my childhood girlfriends.


In the late-‘60s a game called “What Will I Be?” had very few choices for girls. Ballerina (!) nurse, airline stewardess, model. (So likely for each one of us.) If you picked the ‘personality card’ “YOU ARE OVERWEIGHT,” your choices would shrink even further. You wouldn't even, at the time, wonder why 'overweight' was in the 'personality' card deck.


By the mid-‘70s, at least, the game included an astronaut and filmmaker and news reporter.


A perfume commercial in the late ‘70s featured a woman who could “bring home the bacon” from work, then “fry it up in a pan,” but never let her man forget he was a man. (!) No pressure, all those expected and simultaneous jobs. Maybe no sleep, either.


Even the not-overweight news reporter and perfumed bacon-bringer would have had children, though, or else thought to have something “wrong” with them.


That Safeway? It turned into a Badlands – an interactive children’s play space. Kind of perfect and hilarious, for medically nulliparous women like me and our invisible carnations.


The other evening in the woods, my park-ranger friend Troy rolled up and said in one breath, “Happy Mother’s Day I’m saying it to everybody and especially you because you’re like a mother to so many people even if no one says it you are and everyone should celebrate something so basic no matter they’re appreciated for it so I’m saying it to you, Miss Mary.”


He knows I do not have children, and he would not let me remind him of that, after his first “Mother’s ...” Also, he’s extremely adept at speaking without punctuation.


Happy Mother’s Day, Troy. He deserves to hear that, too. Troy deserves a flower just for his fast-moving, generous brain. He was mothering me, right then and there. And I am just one of many for him in the woods, along with his wife, kids and grandchildren at home.


So Happy Mother’s Day and a long-stemmed curly carnation to all of you, however you mother. To care about people and other living things, to listen, and wonder how you can be yourself and help someone be and become themselves, to learn and love, and love learning, and loving, and doing something for other living things, out of love and what you've learned.


Like my cool aunts who didn’t have children. Like the Auntie M I try to be. Like any mother. And a big, curly, fragrant flower to the planet we share, mother of all us mothers.



Thanks for reading,

Muffin

* soundtrack: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vr7UFcMGA3Q

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