Night is falling. We are sitting in our friends’ back yard watching their next door neighbor light a bonfire for our children to tend. His are at the beach with his wife. Since the storms last year, the bonfire has been a popular activity.
Our friends’ German house guests call to report a flat tire, but the evening is fluid, dinner safe to wait. It is a perfect night to sit outside. Fireflies, but not mosquitoes. The children gather sticks and organize themselves.
The neighbor hands me his phone with a picture of his younger son in the dark, in front of a rectangular fire.
“Forget Chuck E. Cheese,” he says. “For X’s 10th birthday, we had all his friends over and burned down the climbing frame.” It’s brilliant, the perfect party for 10-year-old boys: a tribal fire ceremony, a little danger, a rite of passage and much more fun than spending part of your weekend dismantling it with tools.
The house guests return. The children come back through the fence in search of food.
We had a bonfire night in college on the eve of commencement. All the seniors would drag their old furniture out of the campus apartments and burn it. Textbooks that should have been resold to the book co-op were lobbed into the fire. Handfuls of paper were carried up into the flames. My friend’s notes from accounting, papers, papers, symbolism, papers about symbolism.
My younger daughter has never liked these transitions, leaving the crib, the high chair, the pushchair, the training wheels. Maybe instead of selling her crib on Craig’s List to a lady surprised by a late baby long after she had shed her children’s baby things we should have taken it out to the communal garden and torched it.
In the weird late pregnancy days with my first child, I had somehow ended up with this mother in my flat. She was selling something baby-related, possibly stationery for birth announcements? It was before the internet became a marketplace. If you wanted to buy certain things you had to go to shops or make phone calls and talk to people. Somehow this has led to her sitting in my living room telling me how badly she wished she were pregnant again.
Her doctor had told her another baby would kill her. She was already a mother of 10. I filled two pages of my baby journal, describing this odd meeting, knowing then that what my unborn child would find interesting about the days leading up to her birth was probably not this. Sorry! I am your mother and I am flawed.
Otherwise, I was alone for a week or two of maternity leave, waiting for the baby, not knowing what else to do, tearing through the works of Olivia Manning and re-reading all of Updike’s Rabbit books (note to expectant mothers, not a good choice; women, especially mothers, are very unfavorably portrayed) and wondering how else I could prepare for this unavoidable, unimaginable event; waiting on a guest who is late and will not let you know at all when to expect them, only that he or she is coming, not like the German house guests who called with a revised ETA once the flat was fixed.
All the while, the mothers from our National Childbirth Trust class were having their babies and word was passed along. Then we would reassemble and drink tea on each others’ floors while watching babies sleep or tending fuss. The health visitor is giving a talk about sleep. The friend of a friend is leading a postpartum exercise class. The women’s club is having a social.
I thought in the months that followed that if I were ever to write the story of my London motherhood years it would be called “The Biscuit Tin,” for this would inevitably make the rounds at every gathering of mums. It would be my homage to The Bell Jar—American Sylvia Plath’s own days of early North London motherhood and then suicide—took place not far from where we lived.
I passed by Plath’s last house, blue plaqued, every day on the way to some holiday art camp, and then again to a play center, killing time with an infant between drop-off and pick-up of a toddler. I realized that you, as a mother, could narrate your own state of mind, spending so much time alone or in your head. It is the doing for, the mental calculation of naps and meals, that fills your thoughts along with nursery rhymes and action songs from playgroup. If you keep telling yourself you are unhappy, it is a refrain that it works its way into the rhythm of the day and you become so even more.
From Primrose Hill you can see the bird enclosure of the London Zoo, a high, trapezoidal cage rising up at the edge of Regent’s Park. There used to be a wolf in an enclosure along the Broad Walk and a few years later, after reading Lucy and the Big Bad Wolf, where the wolf escapes from the zoo and ends up in a suburban a housing estate, we went to visit it, but they had rearranged the animals. Our zoo membership days were past so we were not going to spend £20 on admission to go in looking for it. A harder line had been drawn between real life and the zoo, no longer the wild animal regarding you on the other side of the low stone wall that separated your park from his. Another childhood haunt left behind.
As a mother, each letting go of childhood equipment was liberation: both for the child who could sit unaided and the mother who no longer needed specialty furniture. You sell, you pass along to friends. Or you celebrate its obsolescence. You burn it down.
The neighbor hands the German guest an anti-Auburn bumper sticker to put on his car when he gets home. He grins with the pleasure of sending a message onto unknown roads, of just knowing it’s out there, scoring one for Alabama.
Darkness, a fire smouldering. The children just being children. The biscuit tin years felt endless but of course were fleeting. Enjoy your 10 children and don’t mourn the 11th that will never be. Take notes. Know when to burn them.
Searching online for a picture of Plath’s blue plaque, I found this article. Proximity to the zoo meant that Plath and Hughes could hear the animals, and the wolves.
Photo by Older Daughter, Violet Hill Gardens, London, 2011