Why you should care

Because your mother’s voice can give you courage when you need it most.

Rachel Howard is a memoirist, fiction writer and arts journalist who lives in the Sierra Nevada foothills. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, ZYZZYVA and NewYorker.com.

County fairgrounds in a Central Valley farm town. Same men she sees at Thrifty’s, at Perko’s, same would-be rock-star mustaches and boot-cut jeans, same swagger, except instead of Coors Light, they’re swinging pink teddy bears like freshly shot game for the girls with blue eye shadow. Forget them. Her date is in the stroller. Cotton candy stands hold out clouds of pink sugar like the peonies lining church aisles that she’s seen in wedding magazines. The air smells of cow dung and fried cornmeal. Rides that run in endless circles glitter, and teenagers screech. She nudges the stroller wheels over power cords held down by electrical tape, slowing at each crossing, noting thick blades of grass trampled into mud, thrilled to be taking such care.

Being a mother is more adrenalizing than any Tilt-a-Whirl, more surreal than any fun house. Beneath the giant plastic slide, she spots the twining legs of lovers half-hidden inside photo booths. Well, she can do that too. She unbuckles the baby, parts the orange rubber curtain, steps in. The first flash comes too fast, her eyes are closed, the baby flinches. The second flash, she holds the baby high, the baby’s body goes rigid, she’s scared. Third flash, she pulls the baby to her face, offers kisses, coos, the air alive with her warm breath. The first photo she’ll tear off and throw away. The second and third will find their home, 39 years later, on my desk.

***

I started singing Stephen Foster’s “Beautiful Dreamer” at an old piano bar in Oakland when I was 35. “Beautiful dreamer, beam on my heart / E’en as the morn on the streamlet and sea.” At one in the morning, to a crowd of liquored insomniacs, I sang Stephen Foster like I was serenading a baby. The bar hushed while everyone listened, and then I choked, my heart throbbing in my throat. What I had released to the black hole of the night was too much; I wanted to gather it back in and hold it, small and tight. I was reaching the age when men sensed a certain ticking. But still, when I came to the bar again, again and again, I sang that song. “Then will all clouds of sorrow depart / Beautiful dreamer, awake unto me.”

My mom wasn’t rich enough to go away for college, wasn’t poor enough to get a scholarship. She got pregnant.

My mother grew up among almond trees, five miles down the road from Foster Farms, trucks stacked 40 feet high with chickens barreling past her house at 5 a.m., dirty feathers flying. She was a plain girl with a crooked spine and busted teeth. My father had been dating her best friend, Trinka. Trinka later starred in ’80s rock videos, married a millionaire and lives in a mansion on Cape Canaveral. In 1975, my dad was mustachioed and charming and had barely graduated high school. Trinka got a scholarship to UC Davis and got out. My mom wasn’t rich enough to go away for college, wasn’t poor enough to get a scholarship. She got pregnant.

***

Last summer my mother came to the house I’d chosen for its toddler-friendly yard, for the elementary school at the end of the block. I drove her through the foothills, down a long dirt road to the rattling wooden bridge above the Yuba River. We picked our way around poison oak and brambleberries, stood watching the gold-flecked trout. Then we swam to a granite rock, where the sun lulled us, the heat whispering against our skin. I sometimes find it hard to talk with my mother; she watches TV shows, I read books. But on that warm rock, verging on sleep, I said, “People keep asking what’ll happen if I don’t bond with the child.”

I said it as if it were a ridiculous question, because I was worried that it wasn’t, that the people who believe it’s too risky to adopt out of the foster care system could be right. I said to my mother, “You know, sometimes biological parents fail to bond with their children too. It happened to a friend of mine. For more than a year, totally cold.”

My mother looked at me with blunt shock. “I just can’t imagine. With both of my children, as soon as I saw them, I thought they were the most beautiful thing in the world.” She said this with no music in her voice.

But I remembered then, her warmth in my ear.

***

Later I called my mother near bedtime. “No, no, no,” she insisted, her voice breathy. Tell her all about the child, she wanted to know. A 6-year-old, moved and moved again through three foster care placements. She’s scared, throws tantrums, wouldn’t you?

“Do it,” my mother said. “As soon as possible. Get her out of there. She needs you.”

Of course it’s her voice I’ve always heard singing that old song, her voice I’ve wanted to make my own.

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