Flame Baby Flame - Jan Edwards
I would not have hidden Anne Frank. I certainly would not have gone to Freedom Summer, stood up to apartheid, or helped feed the poor in Calcutta like Mother Teresa. And you know, it's really too bad because I'm a caring person. I would have loved to have done my bit. Unfortunately, an open heart is not enough to change the world. Something more is required: backbone.
In the spring of 1974, we lived in a flat with a shamrock above the door in the Sunnyside neighborhood of Queens. Our backyard looked out on a cemetery which was almost as good as a park. Compared to rents in Manhattan, the place was a steal: plus we could park our old van on the street ticket free.
Down the hill from our house, where the El stopped, stood a cluster of dingy stores. No supermarkets like in California. Here every type of food was sold in a separate shop. Evan was tiny still and I carried him with me strapped to my chest in a snuggly pack as I made my rounds.
That day I made my usual stop at the little health food store down a few steps in a cramped basement space. There were no fresh vegetables, just dusty boxes of Muesli, jars of brewer's yeast, and bins of brown rice and lentils. Still, it was closest thing the neighborhood had to a counterculture. The owner was mellow and it was someplace to hang out. I was reading the flyers on the bulletin board when someone tapped my shoulder.
"Hey, how old is your baby?" The guy asking was a full-on hippie freak, maybe thirty, with a straggly beard, wearing a frayed poncho. He held an infant in a filthy blanket.
I opened my jacket to show Evan's sleepy face. "Ten weeks. How old is yours?"
"About that," he said. "Are you breast feeding?"
I nodded yes. The baby lay limp in the guy's arms, and I could see it was having trouble breathing. "Is he sick?"
"He was really hot, just burning up for the last few days. But you know his name is Flame. So I thought if I gave him a water name it would cool him down. He was born in February, so I decided to call him Aquarius. I think it's helping."
"Didn't you take him to a doctor?"
"I don't believe in western medicine," he said. "I've been giving him some chamomile tea and mashed rice, but I think he needs milk. I'm looking for someone who can nurse him."
"What about his mother?" I tried to act like we were having a normal conversation, but I already knew we were not.
"She was feeding him at first, but then she took off. I guess she couldn't handle motherhood," he said. "I heard she was into some pretty heavy stuff before she had him."
"So you're not his father?"
"No, and I don't know much about his mom, just that me and my buddies met her at a concert and she needed a place to crash. About a month later, Flame was born on the kitchen table. I cut the cord. I never did anything like that before. What a trip!" I could tell this guy's heart was in the right place, but caring for a newborn would take more than that.
"I know it sounds harsh, but you should take him to the police station. You could really get in trouble if you don't."
"No way am I turning him over to the pigs."
"The hospital then. Take him to the emergency room and tell them the whole story."
"No. I'm keeping him. I can take care of him, he just needs breast milk." The baby's eyes were crusted shut and he was gasping though cracked lips.
"So do you think you could feed him, you know, after you feed your baby? It would really help me out. We can barter. I make cool leather pouches."
I felt my stomach clench. I took a step backwards. Never had I considered nursing any baby but my own. Didn't wet nurses go out with hoop skirts? "Why not just give him a bottle?"
"Formula is bad for babies; you must know that," he said, "otherwise you wouldn't be breast feeding yours. Come on, it's no big deal." He held the baby out to me.
"Sorry," I said, moving towards the door. "I can't."
"Just feed him today. I'll find somebody else tomorrow."
"My husband wouldn't like it." I said and hurried out of the store.
He shouted after me, "Girl, you are really uptight!"
Uptight: the cruelest insult a hippie could hurl. The word chased me up the hill towards home. Why didn't I just say yes? I felt shaky and my heart squeezed hard like I'd been caught doing something wrong.
And why did I blame my husband like some beaten-down suburban housewife? It wasn't Walter who wouldn't like it; he wouldn't care one way or the other. It was me. I was too squeamish to even hold the dirty infant let alone breast feed him. He was sick. He might infect Evan.
In my patched bell bottoms and fringed leather jacket with my braid hanging down past my waist, I had the groovy veneer of a flower child. But one scratch of my rainbow surface revealed how beige I was underneath.
Around my artsy friends I still felt like a free spirit. But whenever something concerned my baby, I stuck close to my mother's ways. Oh sure, I looked into having a home birth, but was easily talked out of it. I had Evan vaccinated and circumcised in spite of the trends. I breast-fed him while singing my mother's songs and bathed him in the sink as I babbled her baby-talk.
Worst of all, I had picked up her phobias. I started crossing the street to avoid strangers and stopped riding the subway at night. I poured boiling water on toys and washed the diapers twice with bleach. Although I swore it would never happen, I was turning into my mother - my uptight mother. That hippie freak had me pegged.
When we got home from shopping, I sat in the rocker to feed Evan and found myself wondering how it would be to nurse Flame Aquarius. Really, how bad could it be? He's just a sweet little guy deserted by his mother. What kind of a person ditches out on a newborn like that? At least she could have dropped him off at a fire station. It was so easy to label her as a bad mother, but who was I to judge?
My friends assumed I got pregnant by accident and were stunned when I said it was planned. It was actually more like a whim. Having a baby seemed like a fun idea one night, and that's all it took. Way too young and unemployed, we gave it less thought than where to go for dinner. Certainly less than the kitten we adopted from the shelter and returned a month later. And let me tell you, when the baby cried all night, running away had crossed my mind more than once.
Of course, I didn't run. Instead, I did what my mother did in her day. I sucked it up. We both did. We put our theater dreams on hold. Walter got a day job while I put on the mom apron. And it worked; I fell in baby-love. Motherhood really did bring some magical powers. Yet here was a different baby, one who needed rescue. He was hungry, maybe starving. How could I turn my back? In my head the voice of my mother warned, "Don't get mixed up with that crazy hippie. It's not your problem." Still the sick baby nagged at me.
After Evan fell asleep, I went next door to see our landlady, a fortyish woman with an Irish accent and two teenage girls. I asked her about the baby. She said that in Ireland mothers sometimes nursed each other's babies, but a bottle worked fine, too. "You go get that wee one and bring him to me. We'll take him to a doctor first then figure out the rest."
My landlady was right, of course, and it was so obvious. In fact, this sounded like something my own mother would have said. As rigid as she was, Mom would never turn her back on a baby in trouble. There is no way she would nurse him, but she would make darn sure he got help. That's when it hit me: That wasn't my mother's voice in my head. It was the sound of my own fear.
I was supposed to be the liberal, the bohemian, my values were Peace and Love. I saw a baby I knew needed help, yet I walked away, afraid to take action. I was twenty-one for god's sake, not some kid, yet I had to run home to get approval from someone older even to do a good thing. What kind of mother was I? What kind of a person?
While the landlady sat with Evan, I rushed down the hill. But hours had passed, and by the time I got to the health food store, the hippie guy had gone. Did he find someone else, someone less uptight, to feed the baby? Did he buy some formula, or take the baby to the emergency room? I was pretty sure the answer was no. The store owner didn't know him, and since the hippie hadn't told me his name, all I could do was write a note with my number and pin it on the cork board: To Flame Aquarius, I will nurse you.
That note hung on the board for months, and every time I saw it guilt stabbed at my chest. It was still there when we moved back to California. I never heard any more about the baby, but I never forgot him. I hope life worked out happily for Flame Aquarius. If it did, it was no thanks to me.
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