A Bundle of Joy.
In March I found out I was with child.
We were elated.
I grew up the oldest in my generation in my mother’s family, with the privileged status of being the ‘first granddaughter’ of Dr.Chellamma and the ‘first daughter’ of the famous Photographer Sivaraam.
Balu Chettan was the oldest of ten, and being first-born-son, was denied nothing until he coveted me against his father’s wishes, when we were both medical students. The untimely demise of his father, the year Balu Chettan graduated from medical school, had changed everything between him and his mother. His status as her favorite son was re-established in his mother’s eyes. He was her sole source of financial support. He assumed the role as the head of the household, one that carried nine siblings of whom only one was married and on her own.
So, here we were bringing forth a child who would inherit all the crown and glory of a worthy descendant of two first-borns.
The two of us laughed and cried and celebrated the event.
We could not go out to eat, because there were no restaurants that catered to my cravings. We could not hide our happy news from any of our friends; we were glowing all the time, and I was throwing up every time I smelled meat cooking.
There was no immediate family to celebrate with, so our friends celebrated with us. When I cooked a meal, each and every one of the guys, who had never washed a plate or cup before they came over from India, gladly scrubbed my pots and pans and even cleared the table and put away my placemats. Then we sat and talked about our childhood back home and how their mothers reacted to their pregnancies. For, among the seven of us that gathered the only other one who had married was Dr. John, and he had a wife and child , but they were still back home awaiting their visa to come over to the USA.
Balu Chettan and I sang the songs about first-borns and new-borns we had learned from Malayalam movies.
‘Adyathe kanamani aanayirikkenan, avan achane pole irikkenunum’
The first born has to be a boy, and he has to look like his father.
“adyathe kanmani pennayirikkenum, aarume kandal kothikkananum; aval ammaye pole chirikkanam”
The first born has to be a girl, and anyone who sees her has to covet her; she should smile like her mother.”
We sang the songs, we laughed, and then I would burst out into tears. “I want my Mommy.” I would say between sobs.
I missed my mother the most, now when I was being blessed with child. What could I do? It was too far to go. We had too many commitments to just quit and leave, and besides, we just plain could not afford to return even for a visit.
My sleep patterns were all goofed up and dreams interrupted my sleep.
I still remember the time that I woke up in the middle of the night, and screamed. ”I want to see Kannan, now!”
Kannan, was our nephew, and the littlest member of our family that we had left behind. The year after we were married, Kannan’s mother Ambika had another baby, and hence I had taken care of baby Kannan many a time.
The fact that I was carrying my child brought the homesickness and in addition to yearning for my own mother, I missed the one child to whom I had been close. The fact that no one here would pamper me the way the mothers-to-be were pampered back home hit me hard. A mother-to-be would get her favorite foods brought to her not only by her mother and mother-in-law, but also by her aunts and close family friends. Even my Dad would have stopped by Xavier’s Restaurant in town for my favorite vanilla icecream. And the special oil bath! Especially a first time pregnant woman would have aromatic oils rubbed on her at least once a week before her bath by the help in the kitchen or a special lady that came to help.
My emotional state made an impact on Balu Chettan. The next evening he offered to get me tickets to return home for a short visit. I did not accept his offer.
Even though I was in a tizzy due to my ‘hormonal’ ups and downs, I knew that my returning alone even for a visit was not a simple affair. I think Balu Chettan’s offer to give me a visit home was all I needed to hear, because, after that I settled down and went about my business without further upset.
Thinking back, as young as I was, Balu Chettan handled our emotions so well, I am still impressed by it. He was not much older than me either. He was only twenty-five years old at the time.
Yet another problem arose.
Before my arrival, Balu chettan had arranged for a two week vacation for us to California and back, driving all the way with three friends, Radahakrishnan, Eipe, and Rajasekharan. Because their first year stint was ending in June, the four friends were eligible to their annual days off. However, I just started my first year training in February and was not eligible for my annual vacation. I don’t know how Balu Chettan managed to arrange my vacation to coincide with theirs even before I had started working at that hospital. I believe Dr. Kent, the Chief of Pathology and my future boss, felt sorry for the pining look in Balu Chettan’s eyes when he explained the request for my early holiday. Anyway, he granted my days off so that I too made the cross country adventure to see the ‘West’ all the way to California and back.
Balu Chettan also recruited the help of Mrs. Florence Hruso, the secretary for the Director of Medical Education at MacNeal Memorial Hospital, and prepared an itinerary for our trip.
Part of the urgency of such a trip was due to the fact all of us had training Visas that automatically limited the length of our stay in this States. We were determined to see as much of this country as possible.
The copies of our ambitious itinerary are added here. This shows how driven we were, and how unrealistic. Our youth and inexperience revealed!
My morning sickness lasted all day and well into the evenings.
Balu Chettan was quite upset, and of course we did not want to cancel the trip. Radhakrishnan and Eipe gathered half a dozen IV sets and nutrient bottles to carry with us so I could be fed intravenously should we run into major health problem due to my throwing up along the way.
We set out in the middle of May, taking Route 66 for the most part. The days were spent seeing such marvels as the Meramac Caverns, ‘Air conditioned by Mother Nature,’ as the marquee proclaimed. Radhkrishnan wished to spend at least two nights in the Casinos at Las Vegas. In order to have enough time and a little extra money to spend there, we had decided to drive through the night. The four men, acting more like boys, took turns sleeping during the day, and I too slept when I could. I did not know how to drive a car. So, it was my turn to keep the night-driver company, talking and singing songs and telling stories about our parents and siblings.
We did make it to Las Vegas with plenty of time to spend any money we could spare. We reached the town at dusk, and as we drove through the Strip, the night lights came on. I said in awe. “Wonder how many light bulbs are used on this street alone. They must be using more electricity to light up this street than is used for the entire Trivandrum town.” I have not heard the end of that quote of mine in all the years that followed.
The town I had left just four months previously had bright street lights in the main street, but dim corner lights even in the shopping areas and market-place. At home, we always turned off the lights as we left one room, and only used reading lights at the tables where we worked. No unoccupied room was left with lights on.
In New Mexico, hedge-rows of oleanders touted masses of pink and white flowers and Balu Chettan had me pose for pictures beside them.
I closed my eyes and was carried back to my ammoomma’s front yard. There, the aralis, as we called the oleanders, welcomed the caterpillars that metamorphosed into shiny dumbbell shaped cocoons,pupa, which hung precariously from the tip of their dark, long leaves. As kids we were allowed to pick some and place them in a shoe box with holes in the lid. We awaited impatiently until they released the butterflies in due time. The arali leaves were poisonous to their predators, but not to the caterpillars that feasted on them before their sojourn into pupas within their cocoons and on to the butterfly stage. It taught me early in life that some things that are good for someone else may not be good for me.
Through marriages and childbirths, and despite some dry years, and despite illnesses, divorce, and retirements and a bit of moving around the country, this band of travelers along with most of our families have stayed in touch, and those two weeks on the road in 1964 created a bond for the few of us whose hearts were pining for our own siblings we had left behind.
* * * *
On July 2nd, 1964, I noted in my diary that ‘the little one moved within me for the first time.” With the very first movement I knew it was the real thing. Not just a muscle twitch. Not just my imagination. I knew the little one was letting me know of her presence, and was demanding that I take good care of me so the care would be passed on to her. Of course I did not know then it was a girl. The movement within me was a reminder to take my vitamins and my calcium pills and to drink milk every day, even if I lost some of it with my persistent morning sickness, which happened all through the day.
At the end of the pregnancy, I had only gained nineteen pounds. I felt great. I worked until the day I had labor pains and went to the hospital.
A little after midnight, in the early hours of December 12th, 1964, I felt the pain in my abdomen that heralded my little one’s arrival. The pains came infrequently through the night. At nine thirty on Saturday morning I walked over to the hospital, registered at the office, and got myself admitted to the OB department in anticipation of my first childbirth.
At 11.22 P.M. almost 24 hours later, a beautiful little girl was born to us. The sight of her small face framed with dark, thick, even wavy hair made me laugh and cry at the same time. For her first official portrait, the nurse placed a pink ribbon on her hair, but had pin back the hair off her face, so her eyes would show in her photo.
How is it that the distress that lasted almost a whole day was forgotten the minute the baby was placed in my hands? It could not be just denial, because I knew the pain was real when it happened. But the tiny fingers curling around my own, so much stronger than I ever imagined, somehow send signals to my brain to erase the agony of just moments ago. As her eyes met mine the ecstasy I felt raised me to a higher plane, replacing the anxiety over the many hours of labor and possibility of a C-section that you had heard them talk about in the distant corners of the labor room.
Balu Chettan hugged us both, and I cried again. This time I cried because the miracle we created together had finally arrived.
We named her Devi, meaning ‘goddess.’ With such an auspicious name we were wishing her a great life.
Balu Chettan called home and gave our families the good news. I could not talk to my mother or grandmother because the baby and I stayed at the hospital for the next five days. I learned I could be lonely even in the midst of friends who visited me. Strangers stopped in my room to see the mother of the ‘baby with so much hair.’
My loneliness turned to tears all the time and my constant agitation because I could not have the baby with me all the time. Devi was brought to me for feedings, and the nurses frowned on my unwrapping the bundled up infant so I could inspect the tiny toes and fingers and admire the little miracle.
Back home a newborn would wear a cut out muslin top, and would be lying next to the mother, on a mat with a soft cloth for a sheet, and in those days there were no diapers used either. The adults stood around and commented on how agile the baby is when he/she would kick and scream. There were no scheduled feeding times- the baby would get fed anytime it screamed in hunger.
My loneliness and frustration increased. I wanted my mother and aunt to take care of me. Not the strangers in this strange land where a mother was denied a chance to see her newborn naked.
My friend Padma brought me our brand of comfort food- rice and yogurt and lime pickle. It still was not enough.
Then, on the fourth day Balu Chettan brought me a pound of butterscotch candy. For some reason my blues vanished as I shared the sweets with the nurses and my visitors.
I had suffered from post-partum depression, fortunately of a very mild degree.
To this day, our first born Devi has a very special place in the hearts of the remarkable friends who were more than family in our lives, and were the very first uncles and aunts who helped us raise her as an infant.