Female House

The summer my second daughter was an infant, the season was particularly hot and sticky — at least in my memory it was. That summer I just didn’t do certain things — I washed clothes and probably even folded them, but I rarely put them away.

Domestic chaos? Maybe. But I knew I would never have another baby, the  irreplaceable sweetness of a nursing infant in arms.

We were at Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center that summer with our 6-year-old for a very minor procedure, and my then-husband and I took turns walking up and down the hospital hallways with an infant. At one point, I stood swaying with my sleeping baby from foot to foot, reading the posters on the wall.

One watercolor was a purple hyacinth blossom with the words beneath: Choose joy.

When I drove away from the hospital, with all four of us, and crossed the river back into Vermont, I was so light-hearted, so happy. It was such a minor thing that had occurred, and we were all together and well.

Now that infant daughter is a teenager, the oldest daughter a young woman. Like all families, we’ve lived through the gamut of happiness and grief and rage. Every now and then, I remind myself, slow down, breathe deep, and finger the strand of life that’s joy.

You might as well answer the door, my child,
the truth is furiously knocking.

— Lucille Clifton, Good Woman: Poems and a Memoir 1969-1980


Before the Birth

13 years and a day ago, I walked down to our sugarhouse and closed the double front doors. Rain had fallen every day in that May, but that morning promised to be sunny.

After prolonged medical discussions, I had agreed to a caesarian for this second child. That morning, I leaned against the rough boards of our sugarhouse, with my enormous belly, looking at the wild red trilliums.

My six-year-old was eating breakfast with her father in the kitchen. I knew we would leave soon, that my two friends would be meeting us. But I kept leaning against the door, in one of those moments where time drifts away. I was so ready to meet this little child, to know who this new person in the world might be — and far above all — to know this baby was born well and whole.

I didn’t know then the natural sweetness of this child. I didn’t know, either, that her easygoing temperament would evolve as she grew into a wordless strength, that by the time this child was ten, her family would had shrunk to just a few of us. But I did know what an incredible piece of good fortune I had to be a mother to a second child. If anything, I know this more deeply now.

When she was born, this tiny girl could lie in my left arm, her head in my elbow, her miniature toes in my palm. She would lie there, blinking her little eyes, as though wondering, What now?

….may you kiss
the wind then turn from it
certain that it will
love your back…

— Lucille Clifton



After my second daughter was born via caesarian, I lay numb from my shoulders down while the surgeon stitched me up. I was beyond ebullient, full of joy but also a steady kind of peace. She had crossed over into us, into our living, chattering, very full world.

The surgeon and his assistant, working, talked about their long Memorial Day weekend, most of it apparently spent in the garden. Grass grows crazy everywhere in Vermont, except sometimes where you want it most. The sheer normalcy of talking about tomato varieties was enormously reassuring. l felt suspended, finished with a hard pregnancy, not quite yet in the realm of mothering an infant, poised between no longer pregnant and not yet nursing this little one. A rare, unique moment.

Later, looking at photos, I was amazed by the sheer mechanics strapped and needled into me for that surgery. My memories are only of gossamer wellness, rays of rainbow radiance with the very heart this tiny six-pound being. Such incredible, utterly amazing good fortune.

Happy birthday, daughter.

may the tide
that is entering even now
the lip of our understanding
carry you out
beyond the face of fear
may you kiss
the wind then turn from it
certain that it will
love your back    may you
open your eyes to water
water waving forever
and may you in your innocence
sail through this to that

– Lucille Clifton, “Blessing the Boats


The Day Before The Birth Day

Exactly 12 years ago on May 30, I was standing very pregnant at the bottom of our driveway, and about a dozen ATVs roared by, excessively fast and noisy. Within me, my baby abruptly flipped, and I pressed my hands over this baby I had yet to meet, face-to-face. The next morning, we saw each other, tiny girl infant and me.

I always think of that moment as the first time I held and comforted this daughter, wrapped my hands around her, loving her, the first time I began to know this child was mine, small being who would spend her first years in our arms.

…the poem at the end of the world
is the poem the little girl breathes
into her pillow
…this poem
is a political poem is a war poem is a
universal poem but is not about
these things this poem
is about one human heart this poem
is the poem at the end of the world

– Lucille Clifton


Tuesday: a Few Miles Travelled

Eleven years ago, I drove away from Copley Hospital in Morrisville, sitting in the backseat of a car – a place I never sit. My six-year-old daughter was in the backseat, too, her infant sister between us, just days old. Although it had rained every single day in May – either a drizzle or deluge – the beginning days of June were sunny and hot. Leaving the hospital, we passed enormous corn fields where emerald shoots of corn had emerged from the dark soil in those few days I had been cloistered.

Sick through almost the entire pregnancy, by the end I was less alive, submerged in that pregnancy’s difficulty. But all that passed immediately with the birth of my second daughter. Within minutes of her birth, I felt myself returning to life.

In all the marvelous experiences of my life, those minutes driving by those June corn fields rank very near the apex: the two children I was meant to have, beside me birthed and healthy, the gloomy raininess of a long hard season dispersed, and all around us, radiant in sunlight, those fertile fields rich with life pushing upward, in those long sweeping rows of gems.

blessing the boats
(at saint mary’s)

may the tide
that is entering even now
the lip of our understanding
carry you out
beyond the face of fear
may you kiss
the wind then turn from it
certain that it will
love your back
may you
open your eyes to water
water waving forever
and may you in your innocence
sail through this to that

— Lucille Clifton


This Child I Nursed

Sixteen summers ago, I was selling maple syrup and homemade ice cream at the little Hardwick Farmers Market. The market was so small then, sometime we had just a few vendors. One lovely Vermont July afternoon I sold a bowl of ice cream to a woman in her fifties who ate the ice cream while chatting with me. Just me and the baby had come in the old pickup, and when she began to fuss, I sat on a cooler and nursed her. The woman and I kept talking, and she finally said, I’m so glad you can do that. When I had babies, women had to hide away when we nursed.

I think back now on my scrappy self then, in cut-offs and a t-shirt faded from infinite washings, my absolutely gorgeous red-cheeked baby in my arms, so young I believed my youth would last forever, and I realize that was the first time I had seen my personal life as political.

Tonight, this girl all stretched out into her own lengthy self, dressed up in new black boots and dangling earrings she bought with baby-sitting money, drove my car to her first high school dance.

Where did all that go, I sometimes wonder, my le leche league fervor, my farmers market zest? But if anything, my energy has intensified and strengthened, as a stream running down a mountain gains force, momentum, might. The channel of my force has diverted – to writing a book, keeping a small school open, guiding my oldest toward adulthood. The shadow of that much younger woman is yet deep within me, and someday, when my girls have their own beloveds, I intend to offer my daughters a bowl of ice cream while they nurse.

the lost baby poem

the time i dropped your almost body down
down to meet the waters under the city
and run one with the sewage to the sea
what did i know about waters rushing back
what did i know about drowning
or being drowned

you would have been born into winter
in the year of the disconnected gas
and no car we would have made the thin
walk over genesee hill into the canada wind
to watch you slip like ice into strangers’ hands
you would have fallen naked as snow into winter
if you were here i could tell you these
and some other things

if i am ever less than a mountain
for your definite brothers and sisters
let the rivers pour over my head
let the sea take me for a spiller
of seas let black men call me stranger
always for your never named sake

–– Lucille Clifton