Back in April, I attended a memoir-writing workshop. Before the class, I received an email from the instructor to bring five artifacts that would be used in writing exercises throughout the day. A few things came to mind that seemed like low-hanging fruit, but I wasn’t convinced these were the items.
Late one night, I padded down the stairs into the garage where I kept my most sentimental items. The moment I put my hands on the photograph of my mother holding me, days after my birth, I started bawling.
This was the picture to write about.
My mother was twenty-six. She looked youthful with a baby splayed out on top of her, not wrapped up like a burrito like babies nowadays. Pinned to my shirt were religious medals and I half-chuckle at the thought of bringing a huge safety pin that close to a newborn. My mother’s blond hair was tied back with a pink ribbon and she wore a brown paisley silk robe and blue eye shadow. Even with her eyes looking downward, I think she looks tired.
When my mother went into the hospital, she reminded my dad to water the tomato plants in her absence. She might not have known then that a hurricane had developed in the Yucatan Peninsula. Sometimes we forget that in the 1970s, news traveled by way of the daily newspaper and the television at 6 and 11 or by word of mouth.
The hurricane, eventually named Agnes, caused a lot of rain, and departed back to the ocean. Soon after, it returned and rained some more. For days and days and days.
The Polaroid picture has no date on it. My mother was too put-together for it to be taken on the day I was born. I wondered when she would find out what everyone was learning: that the Susquehanna River was rising to unprecedented levels.
Within a few days, she was among the droves of patients discharged from hospitals that would soon be underwater. Here’s what became of Mercy Hospital in Wilkes-Barre in the days after my mother was sent home:
The story that was told over the years is that my family was among the last people across the Market Street Bridge. The dikes broke within a few hours.
In the years leading up to my birth, my parents and older brother lived in a low-lying area, on Carey Avenue in south Wilkes-Barre, not far from the hospital. We would all be displaced to Plymouth for some time where my grandparents lived on higher ground on Shawnee Avenue.
Our home was gone when it was all said and done and that young mama and her little baby probably had a rocky postpartum period.
I admit that I don’t know a lot about it. I wish I could have had the vocabulary to ask my parents about this trauma when they were still living. Talking about hard things was never our strength.
Having had a baby six years ago in the best possible circumstances – a smooth delivery, a short hospital stay, and a home to start life together in – I can collapse in tears thinking about what my parents dealt with.
What I do know is that my uncle made trips through back roads to acquire formula and diapers. The streets were inundated with water that completely covered entire first and, in some cases, second floors of buildings. It’s unknown to me not only what preparations had been made for my birth, but also what items might have been moved to my grandparents’ before the evacuations. Once when my uncle went for supplies, he was given a tiny doll suitable for an eight year-old, which was my first baby toy.
What I began writing that day at the writing workshop is in progress. That photo calls up a lot about the trauma that hit when I was born. Something that was no one’s fault and that everyone did their best to live through. My family kept me fed to the best of their abilities and as safe as they could under the circumstances. This snapshot is a moment in time that I still work through, fifty-one years later.