March1968

My oldest son was born late March, 1968.  A fairly easy birth, the first contractions commencing  a little after K-Mart closed while I was hula-hooping in its parking lot on Minnesota Avenue in Sioux Falls.  Now a Hy-Vee, a backdrop for other businesses–a bar, paint stores,  a kiddie daycare.

His father and I, almost the last to leave.  Not sure when but it felt like midnight.  Besides last minute baby supplies, for the due date was soon, I purchased a hula-hoop with which to exercise after the baby was born.  With those leaving the store herding for their cars, not paying attention to me, I decided that I would try out the hula hoop, just to see if I could make my immense belly swirl enough to twirl that hoop. But after the second or the third swirl, the buttons on my winter coat catching every once-in-a-while my mini movements in infinity, those noticeable contractions that then I thought were Braxton Hicks, prevented another lame attempt. Prior to that time, I felt invincible, capable of immense feats.

At first I thought the contractions false, for the due date, some two weeks away; but at 3 am that next morning, there was no doubt I was in the early stages of labor. I considered my last burst of energy in the parking lot a pregnant woman’s frenetic cleaning attempt that often occurs prior to labor.

His father and I lived on South Western Avenue, a nice two-bedroom bungalow without a basement, now a chiropractor’s office. At that time women were kept close to a week in the hospital after giving birth.  During that time, I tried to nurse, but my son was always hungry. The nurses, who were coaching me about how to nurse my child, attempted to console me, saying that once I returned home, the stress would lessen, and I should be able to satisfy my child.  At home he was still hungry, crying almost constantly.  I thought my heart would break.  He might be colicky, I thought, as I often heard infants were.  But no more than a week after his birth I supplemented my breast milk with formula: then the crying and fussiness eased.

That inability to provide sustenance to my child left me feeling inadequate, shrunken and shriveled. But before I relinquished my attempt to become a natural mother, someone I called at the hospital referred me to a Lamaze specialist.  I tried so hard, following her phone instructions as if they were biblical injunctions; but his crying prevented me from even considering lasting another day without resorting to formula.  My doctor at the time tried to offer a viable medical explanation, one that I repeated to another; but when that person’s expression slowly became nonplussed, I furtively avoided further inquiries from those who I thought considered formula a choice, mumbling something regarding the inconvenience of breast feeding whenever someone broached the subject.  But I did want an excuse, something that would reignite in me some sense of motherhood.  But I blame my deficiency on the binding of my breasts in Oklahoma when milk gushed through the tight gauze and fell not on swollen infant lips.

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Confession

I’m not sure of the exact date or even the month, but it had to be at the beginning of 1973, not yet spring, as spring comes in rural South Dakota, cold chill rising off the melting ice.  I hibernated then in winter, seldom stepping outside except for musts, feeding chickens and horses, and what not; and especially did not then with three little children, two screaming around me, their paths like deer tracks to the barn; the third, blanketed in cotton.  Putting snow suits on the three- and four-year-olds while keeping the baby warm inside meant constant vigil at the south windows where the two were told they always had to be in sight; and a quick run outdoors if any one of them fell or ran off to chase one of the dogs.

It was a late or early Saturday afternoon, or early evening, but the traditional Catholic times for sinners to contemplate confession.  I can still see my husband in a para-military stance, although he never was in the military, framed in the opening between the kitchen and the dining room.  That early spring, he was bathed in light from the afternoon sun softly warming the kitchen through the west window, enough light for me to witness the expression on his face, that note of disgust, those hooded eyes that peered at me. Righteous indignation, I suppose one could call it.  I was sitting at a chair on the north side of the round oak, claw-footed kitchen table.  On a bentwood chair to be exact.  I know for I refinished them, sanded the curved  dowels, re-glued the ones necessary, stained them light oak and varnished.  I left them when I left him.  I left most everything else, but should have taken refectory table that my father refinished, even though the ex paid $100 from a local seller for it.

The baby’s stroller was always by my side, not only to keep an eye on him but to keep him safe from the poking fingers of his older brother and sister, ages three and two.  I had found an old baby carriage, one that an English nurse might still be using, or someone from the 50s, at a garage sale–black with springs that the slightest touch would coo-coo him back to sleep.

With the not yet able-to-walk baby in my arms, bottle-feeding him, I told my-then husband I wasn’t going to go to confession because the baby was sick, the youngest of three. All three were born within a four-year span, interrupted only by my teeny-weensy bout with cervical cancer, caused by an IUD.  Any fever, a cough, anything from the baby, I watched continuously.  At the age of three months, he spent a week in Mayo Clinic to be treated for dehydration, the result of projectile vomiting–the flu.  Prior he spent a week in Sioux Valley Hospital.  I was told that the flu had caused his intestines to be stripped.  The day we brought him home from the Sioux Valley, the vomiting began again. The pediatrician wanted us to admit him once again to Sioux Valley. I insisted that we go to Mayo.  He weighed a pound less than he did when he was born.

The doctor made arrangements, my husband made living arrangements for me in a boarding house across from Mayo.  I called my parents in Iowa and asked them to drive the 180 miles up from Manilla, Iowa, to Sioux Falls and take the other two children back with them.  I had called my husband’s parents who lived in Sioux Falls first to request  that they watch him. My mother-in-law, my husband’s stepmother, refused to take the two, saying something to the effect that she and my father-in-law decided prior to their marriage not to babysit grandchildren.  Their refusal at this time of need has always bothered me.  Yet, for most of the grandparents’ lives, my children favored my ex-husband’s parents more than mine.  I should think that had to do with proximity, but I doubt it. It had to do with their false displays of affection, not the tough exterior of my parents whose lives depended upon the ability to endue hardship.

Late that morning the folks arrived. They didn’t stay the night, and headed right back with the children, only to be stopped by a blizzard near Sloan. Thank goodness, they had friends in Sloan who took in them and my children.  The folks were running the Shelby County Farm then, so I assume, although I don’t know for sure, that my older brother fed the seventeen residents.

Standing in the opening between the kitchen and dining room, my husband told me I was sinful and needed to confess.  Perhaps he wanted a transformation, for since the birth of my youngest, our marriage was deteriorating.  And of course, as women in the late 60s and early 70s understood and lived, the survival of a marriage depended upon the wife.  To be barefoot, blackandblue, and pregnant was something not just bandied about as a joke; some wives endured it. Pregnancy for me. Being barefoot in the summer time was my choice.

We lived on a farm, some eight miles out of the city of Sioux Falls, having moved there after the second youngest was born.  My husband had his business in town, and I spent the days taking care of the two children, gardening in the summer time, boarding horses for others. When my water broke in the early afternoon in August, I was chasing geese, having sold them to Red Kimball, an elderly farmer who lived a half mile south.  Red was concerned, for he comprehended the situation.  I urged him to go home, that I would be all right.  I first called my doctor, who urged me to be there as soon as possible. Then I called my husband who said he couldn’t come right then, for he had a salesman in the office.  I called the neighbor girl who came to stay with the children and drove myself into Sioux Falls, to my husband’s business; and then he took me to the hospital.  Face, I suppose, face.

That I gave in that night and rode the eight miles in the car with my husband to kneel in confession didn’t make much difference.  What was sin to me then was that I had already decided that I was going to divorce him.  I decided on the day that my youngest was born that August of the preceding year.He was a fussy baby, always crying during the night, and I was always tired during the day.  Sometimes my husband would walk him around the house jiggling him asleep. I suppose colicky, one could call it; but I think then it had more to do with the extreme swaddling Mayo Clinic nurses and doctors did.