I find it impossible to think of Mother’s Day as anything other than a gimmick. I have no interest in hothouse flowers, store-bought cards, or jewelry (which I can’t wear anyway since the baby yanks anything that dangles and shines). For me a genuine holiday would involve sleeping late, lolling around all day with a good book and a good kisser, going out to dinner, maybe taking in a movie where women wear long white dresses and picnic in the English countryside. The thing is, none of these decadent pleasures is available when small children are involved, and it would be downright dastardly to request a vacation from one’s own children on Mother’s Day of all days. So I’ve come to think of the occasion as little more than an opportunity for Hallmark to sell an obscene number of cards to people who feel guilty because they didn’t fly home to visit Mom.
Besides, I’ve already experienced the most triumphant Mother’s Day imaginable, the most glorious, sun-filled celebration of hope and new life that good luck ever bestowed on an ordinary mortal, and it happened more than 20 years ago, when I was 12 years old.
I was a child lonely for playmates. To pass the time on long weekend afternoons, my brother and I would walk a mile or so down the road to visit an old man who ran a plant nursery, in the back of which he kept an enormous array of fowlvarious kinds of chickens, ducks, turkeys, and guinea hens. Wildlife-starved city kids, Billy and I would spend hours in the back of Mr. Frerret’s nursery, watching the mother ducks build their nests, observing the hens as they pecked on the ground to call their chicks’ attention to a choice seed or bug, listening to the settling noises of the chickens as they took to the pine trees as dusk came noiselessly around their roost.
Unfortunately, these were creatures domesticated into abject stupidity. Female fowl enthusiastically built elaborate nests, only to lose heart just when it came time to brood. All spring and summer it was my great desire to become a foster parent to any of the adorable, fuzzy, peeping little infants I saw scooting over the nursery yard. So, with Mr. Frerret’s advice, my father and I fashioned a makeshift incubator from a volleyball box.
I began in early February with a clutch of large, white eggs abandoned by a Peking duck. Four times a day I would turn the eggs from one side to the other to insure even distribution of heat, just as a responsible mother duck would have done. I woke several times each night to check the temperature in the box; if it was too hot, I propped the lid open a bit more; if it was too cool, I shut the flap tighter. I was as conscientious a duck mother as any novice pregnant human in a Lamaze class. For 28 days I was unfailingly faithful to my volleyball-box nest.
On the eve of the 28th day I could not sleep. No night spent waiting to hear reindeer hooves on the roof ever passed so slowly. But in the morning, nothing. It was Saturday, so I kept watch all day, determined to miss no moment of the final splendor. Noon came, nothing. Suppertime, not a peep.
Finally giving up hope, I trudged back to Mr. Frerret’s for another batch of abandoned eggs, but I had no better luck with the mallard eggs, or with the Rhode Island Red chicken eggs. In April, when Mr. Frerret offered me a final opportunity, one small egg from a bantam hen, I almost didn’t have the heart to try, but he convinced me I was that little egg’s only chance. Of course I took it home, hoping this time to become not only a surrogate mother but nothing less than a messiah.
I was not exactly the picture of parental obsession that time around, but I did my job and kept an eye on the calendar. At least, I thought, chicken eggs require only 21 days of incubation. Finally, bedtime of the 20th day arrived, and as always I reached into my incubator to turn the egg before I went to sleep. As my fingers closed around it, I suddenly felt it shiver and heard a muffled little peep coming from inside the shell. Heart pounding, I brought the warm solidity of the egg closer to my eyes and observed the tiniest little X-shaped crack in the broad end. Instantly I was screaming: “MOM! DAD! MOM! DAD!”
It was a restless night. I kept getting up to check the progress of the hatching only to find the egg still and silent. When Mother’s Day morning finally dawned I was sleepless and alarmed, sure the infant chick was going to die trapped in that cramped little egg.
It took some persuasion, but Dad finally convinced me that all by themselves baby birds have been managing the job of hatching for a very long time. Placing the egg in the center of a folded towel on our patio table, we began the wait. Sure enough, in the backyard of our apartment on Mother’s Day, my family and several curious neighbors all watched as the chick painstakingly chipped its way around the circumference of the egg. Every time the tiny beak broke through, I would flake off the resulting bit of broken shell, the only assistance my father would allow.
In an hour the egg was neatly encircled by a fine-line fissure, and we could see the dark wetness of the chick’s brown down within, but the chick itself had stopped moving. With my family I waited breathlessly for some sign of life, some indication that the exertion of hatching had not been too much for an artificially nurtured chicken to manage.
Finally, finally, the egg lurched. Appreciatively, the audience gasped and collectively leaned forward. After another moment’s rest, the egg gave a gigantic shudder, and the ends popped apart. There, looking up at me in the mild May sunshine of Alabama, lay a skinny, wet, exhausted, half-bald little brown chicken, the most beautiful creature in all the world.
I thought almost instantly of that chick nearly 20 years later, the day my husband placed our first-born child in my arms. That pointy-headed little baby was long and thin, covered with blood, and his eyes seemed puffed entirely shut by the hard work of labor. At birth he made one small soundack!and then was silent, lying quietly in the crook of my arm before summoning the nerve to open one eye and peek at me. It was a glance of pure recognition, and never once in the Mother’s Days since then have I forgotten it.
The truth is, I don’t need Mother’s Day. I understand every day the marvel of the gift I already have, and, just exactly like that little girl waiting so hopefully on a warm morning in May for the advent of a small brown chicken, I thank heaven for the miracle.