birds in a barrel's mission is to release creative nonfiction into the wild.

40 Days & 40 Writes is its first project.

Large Shoulders

I was 23 years old, standing on a busy corner in NYC, watching yellow taxis and busy pedestrians bustling about their business, amazed that all their mothers were once pregnant too. I was not the only one. How can that be? How can all those people have felt this wondrous strangeness too?

When she was born, I was shaken by the wash of love, I guess it was oxytocin too, that poured over me. In one instant everything I had ever done in my life fell away and it all started for the first time. How can it be that this has been going on since the dawn of humanity, and yet I never knew?

Joe and I took her home, which means we took to the hundred year old campus of Perkins School for the Blind where we both worked and lived. We had two bedrooms on the end of the hall, connected with a door, like a hotel suite. We didn’t have our own bathroom, and we shared a common kitchen and dining room with 23 multiply handicapped children. We brought tiny Sarah home, and were surrounded by curious children and adults as we slowly made our way to our room where we put her on the bed, a futon on a wooden frame, and stared at her. Now what?

Because we were going to be perfect parents, we’d signed up for a diaper service, and I would strictly breast feed. The only cloth diapers I’d ever used though were on my baby dolls, and tiny Sarah squirmed and wriggled on the top of the dresser. We certainly didn’t have anything like a “changing table.” Where was my instruction book? Joe certainly didn’t know how to change a diaper. How could I possibly be this beautiful little creature’s mother when I didn’t even know how to change a diaper? We were in the dark and scary woods.

Then the door flew open and Marcia burst in. She swept over and despite her large size, deftly changed the tiny one’s diaper in a powder puff of expertise. Then she scooped tiny Sarah onto her shoulder, where she was held fast by an ample bosom and years of experience with siblings and other tinies. “Get some rest,” Marcia said, and out she went with my new baby girl. I felt a surge of anxiety as my brand new daughter moved further away from me than she’d ever been since her conception, but exhaustion won. When I went down to find them an hour later, Sarah was asleep on Marcia’s shoulder, her pale white face a stark contrast to Marcia's rich dark skin, while Marcia oversaw dinner, scooping and pouring and feeding without missing a step.

That night we put our new baby in the little wooden cradle a friend had loaned us and stared at her while she slept as we would do for weeks, amazed and terrified at our new charge.

When I took Sarah in for her first well visit, the doctor said she wasn’t gaining enough weight. We discussed her nursing techniques, and it was decided that she was a “lazy nurser,” and that I should continue nursing her but supplement with a bottle afterwards.

I had failed completely. I wept salty tears on the way home, then felt guilty for depleting my body of precious liquid. I would go on to feed her, 20 minutes each breast, then a bottle, for three months before we abandoned my exhausted breasts all together. More tears of guilt, more guilt of tears.

“We used bottles,” my mother said, wishing she could offer some advice. My mother, sick and frail, had brought me home to a nanny. I too had been swept around on the shoulders of a large black woman on my first day home. We have pictures but her face is never in them.

I wrote a silly series of stories that take place in Purgatory. In them, my characters wake up in a cold room, totally empty but for a Purgatory Handbook. Maybe this is my gift to my characters to make up for all the handbooks I have yet to receive.

Essential To My Life

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