To Eva, On Your Marriage
Soon you'll walk down the aisle with a dancer's grace, your hand looped through my arm, and the minister will ask who gives this bride away. I will obey custom and your firm instructions by saying "I do," yet I can't give you away, for you aren't mine to give. You belong only to yourself, and to the power that created you, so beautiful and bright, out of sunlight, food, water, and air.
For me to claim ownership of you, as fathers since time out of mind have claimed ownership of their daughters, would be like a twig on a great oak pretending to have made all by itself the newest bud. You're a sprout of the whole tree; you're the daughter of Earth. Yes, I contributed my share to your making, passing on my genes through an act of delight. But this joining with your mother to set you in motion gives me no right of possession, for the biological memory carried in my genes stretches back, unbroken, through the countless inventions of eye and hand and backbone and brain to the first flicker of life in the primal seas.
I knew you, darling, while you swam and kicked in the small sea of your mother's womb. I knew you from laying my fingers and ear to her taut belly. I knew you from the shining in her eyes and from the catch in her breath when you moved. All that summer and fall of 1972, while you waxed inside her like a secret moon, she and I took long swaying walks every night after supper, brimming with tenderness and anxiety. By the short days of December, we began our walks after dark, so we kept to the lighted streets, not wanting to stumble. Mom was determined to hold out for the full nine months, which would end in January, because in that month Bloomington Hospital would begin allowing fathers into the delivery room, and she wanted me there. I was there, from the earliest pains right through your birth, holding her feverish hand, reminding her to take shallow breaths, mopping her forehead with a damp cloth, murmuring to her steadily all night, then babbling ecstatically when you arrived near dawn.
Nothing I had imagined beforehand prepared me for the sight of you, so perfectly made, so intent on life. Every inch of you pulsed with energy, hands groping, legs churning, and your skin glowed furnace red. I trembled. When your body convulsed for a gulp of our difficult air, I gasped. The sound of your first cry echoed through my bones. I wanted to shout. Maybe I did shout, because the nurses looked at me appraisingly, as if to calculate my need for a sedative or a straitjacket. No matter how old this miracle, no matter how many times it had been repeated through the generations, it was brand-new to me. You were the first baby ever born, my heart was sure of it. The birth of the universe could not have been more thrilling.
You were utterly fresh, every toe and finger and eyelash and cell an unprecedented wonder. Done up in a turquoise cap and gown like a refugee from an asylum, I sat in the hospital chair, my feet planted on the floor to make a solid lap, my back tense with responsibility, and for the first time, I held you, so fearfully small, barely six pounds. My hands, cradling you, seemed clumsy and huge. Wondering, I bent down to feel your breath against my cheek. You smelled of apples. After a few minutes you started to whimper, so I handed you gingerly to Mom, knowing that only she could satisfy you. I stroked your fuzzy head while you nursed. How avidly you sucked, even before her milk began to flow! No monk in the rapture of meditation could have been more devoutly focused on God than you were on your mother's breast.
When it was time for you to go home, the nurse handed you to me while Mom lowered herself gingerly into a wheelchair. Only your drowsy eyes and tiny dollop of nose showed from an opening in the pink blanket--the inevitable pink blanket--in which you had been wrapped against the January cold. As I clutched you to my chest, a wave of worry swept over me. These experts in babies were actually going to let us take you out the door, as if we knew how to rear a child. What training had we ever had, except watching our own parents carelessly as we grew up? At least my watching had been haphazard; I can't speak for Mom's. Oh, sure, we'd read books on babies, but that's like reading manuals to learn about sex. It seemed outrageous, that a hospital would turn over a creature so tiny and precious and new to a pair of rank amateurs. Yet no one blocked our way as I pushed the wheelchair, with you in Mom's lap, down the tiled halls to the entrance, then out to our waiting car, its engine running and the heater on high. An orderly followed to fetch the chair. I half expected him to demand you back, but he only waved and wished us luck. I gave one lingering look at that haven of experts, and away we drove.
Among the books we read while preparing nervously for your arrival were several on gender bias in child rearing. The pink and blue treatment begins early, we learned. Studies of delivery rooms show that nurses tend to handle boys more roughly and speak to them more loudly. Mothers of newborns often carry on these distinctions, holding girls closely and gently, holding boys loosely and distantly, murmuring to the girls and talking firmly to the boys. So from the outset, the paths begin to fork, and for a child nudged in one direction or the other, there may be no going back. In videotaped experiments, mothers presented with toddlers whom they do not know tend to be more verbal and soothing with those dressed as girls, gruffer and more physical with those dressed as boys; they keep the girls close by, within easy reach, while they encourage the boys to move out and explore the room. Supplied with an array of toys, these mothers will usually offer trucks and balls and hammers to the infants whom they take to be boys, dolls and mirrors and dress-up clothes to the ones whom they take to be girls. I suspect that fathers might have acted in similar ways; but the experiments appear never to have included fathers, perhaps because the men were busy driving trucks and swinging hammers and roving about.
Reading all of that before your birth, and not yet realizing how stubborn human character and culture are, your mother and I vowed to resist these warping influences. We would rear you purely as a child, neither girl nor boy, so that you might grow like a tree in full sunlight, taking on your own natural shape. You arrived early in 1973, after all, a time when many of us who were under thirty considered nature to be all-wise and culture to be a snarl of rusty chains, easily broken. We would seek out playmates for you whose parents were also striving to break the old gender shackles. We would allow into our house only those books, magazines, television programs, and visitors that honored your right to become whatever your heart and mind led you to be. We would put before you the whole rainbow of human possibilities, and let you choose.
Yet there you were, two days old, riding home from the hospital swaddled in a pink blanket. It was a gift from someone so close to us that we could not say no, the first of many such gifts. Clearly, whatever Mom and I might decide about rearing you, the world would have its say, right from the beginning, and the world's say would grow louder each year.
By the time I carried you into the house, presents had already begun to accumulate there in drifts, most of them cuddly, frilly, and pastel. Enough dolls to start a nursery, a teddy bear that mooed when it rolled over, a robin's-egg-blue satin pillow with a music box inside that played a Brahms lullaby, morally uplifting storybooks, pale baby duds for every occasion, and soft mobiles to dangle over your crib. I didn't rush out and buy you a GI Joe and miniature chain saw and baseball glove to even things up. But I did make sure you had a toolbox fitted with toy hammer and screwdriver and wrench, and a board rigged out with plastic hinges and bells and gears, and a little bench for pounding. Thus, I began smuggling into your life my own hopes for who you might turn out to be.
Try as we might, Mom and I could not shield you from everything the world expected of girls, least of all from the expectations buried deep in ourselves. We could not undo our own upbringing, could not erase the hundreds of films and thousands of books and millions of images we'd taken in. Each of us had built up a composite notion of maleness and femaleness from all the boys and girls, men and women we had met, beginning with our own parents. Even though we wrestled with those notions, trying to break their hold, they still left their marks on us, visible and invisible. When we cuddled you, spoke to you, played and romped and dreamed with you, who could say what unconscious impulses reached you through our hands and lips?
You certainly kept our hands and lips and every other bit of us occupied in those early months. For the first year or so, you rarely slept more than two or three hours at a stretch, and never through the whole night. Although I must have been tired, the weariness has washed out of memory, and now I remember only the bliss of watching you, tracing the weather of your face; I remember feeding you the one nightly bottle that gave Mom relief from nursing; I remember bathing you in the sink, with a towel underneath to shield you from the chilly porcelain; I remember rocking you, or flying you around the room at arm's length, or spinning a leaf in front of your face so it tickled your nose, or showing you snow. I remember carrying you for hours each night as I paced around the apartment, and soothing you with songs. As soon as you found your voice, you began to sing along, in a skittery language known only to babies and sleepless parents. When I exhausted the repertoire that I could remember from my own father's singing, I worked my way through anthologies of folk songs, from immigrant ballads through whaling chanteys and spirituals and lullabies and love ditties and blues, skipping only those selections that featured bloodshed, drugs, or booze.
You've heard most of these memories before, even read some of them in my books, for I never tire of talking about you. When I sit down to make this small present of words for your wedding, I can't help recalling the child you were behind the woman you've become. There wouldn't be paper enough to hold all the memories of your growing up, so I recount only a few from the early years, when your character took shape.
In your very first spring, one blustery March day, I was carrying you, bundled in a blanket, along the sidewalk from house to car. Before I reached the street, you stiffened in my arms, twisted your face about, and gazed with a startled look into the empty air. I stopped, looked around, but could not figure out what had provoked you. "What's up, Kiddo?" I asked. You weren't saying. I snugged the blanket around you and took another step. Again you jerked, swiveled your head, stared. Only then did I feel what you were feeling, the breath of March. My eyes flared wide, and my face turned into the amazing wind.
Later that same spring, I was pushing you in the stroller one afternoon when you noticed a peach-pit moon near the horizon. You reached for it, fingers splayed, and started fussing when you discovered that your arm wasn't long enough. "That's the moon," I told you, "and it's far, far away." Months later, when you were just beginning to put sentences together, once again we came upon a ghostly moon during a walk, and this time you announced, "There's the moon. Want it, Daddy." Even if your arm wasn't long enough to reach it, you figured, then surely mine would be. I had to disappoint you, of course, and also to disappoint myself, because your hunger for the moon revived my own.
Again and again, your frank wonder stripped away the glaze of familiarity from the world. Look at that fiery ball in the sky! Smell that dirt! Taste that good water going down! Feel those wavy lines in wood! When it stormed, you and I would sit on the porch in a rocker, the rumble of thunder and sizzle of rain in our ears, mist on our faces, as still as we could be. When the leaves fell, we raked up heaps in the back yard and you plowed through them, grabbing and flinging, nibbling, yelping. What a universe! What a life! Was there no end to the surprises? You squatted tirelessly to study bees nuzzling the throats of flowers. You gawked at butterflies as they tilted overhead, spinning around until you grew dizzy. You rushed from firefly to firefly as they simmered in the grass. Anything living would captivate you--a dog, a cat, a spider, a roly-poly on the windowsill, a blue jay scrawking in the maple tree, a fern breaking ground, another child toddling along, a grown-up's idly jostling foot. How exactly right that a girl who stopped in her tracks whenever she spied a bird, who fed bread to ducks and swans, who picked up every feather she found, who tilted her face skyward in spring and fall when the geese went honking by--that such a girl should grow up to become a biologist and study birds.
As birds seem to embody your love of air, so whales seem to embody your love of water. That affection, too, began early on. You first met the ocean at Little Boar's Head beach in New Hampshire, when you were eighteen months old, squealing with surprise as the waves licked your bare feet. On our return trips to New England, up and down the coast from Cape Cod to Maine, you dipped in the chilly Atlantic or rode in boats on its choppy waters. You would stare at the surf with the same focused eagerness that you once showed when nursing, and with the same reluctance to break away. You were five when you met the Pacific, at Haceta Beach near Florence, Oregon. You clambered through a maze of driftwood logs, lurked around tide pools, stood watching waves break on rock. From a bluff on that same coast you saw your first whales, California Grays migrating north, and ever after you took these great creatures to be the soul of the sea. For years, whenever anyone asked what you hoped to do when you grew up, you would answer, "Study whales."
The whales eventually swam away from the center of your imagination, but the ocean remained. Clearly, though you were born and bred a Midwestern girl, and though you've come back here to the landlocked heart of the continent to get married, some deep part of you hungers for the sea. Or perhaps what you hunger for is not so much the vastness of ocean as the force of moving water. From your earliest days, you've been drawn to the roar of rain, the flow of rivers, the tumble of falls, the sluice of snowmelt in the street. You may have caught some of that passion from me, but not all of it. During the year we spent in Exeter, when you turned two, our favorite destination for walks was the bridge over the Squamscott River where the old mill stood. You would gaze down from one side of the bridge at the tumbling water for a long while, then take my hand and cross the street to gaze down from the other side. No matter what your mood when we set out, after a few minutes at the river, you would grow calm and clear and gathered, and so would I.
In contrast to that serenity, your other dominant mood has always been a fierce whirl of energy, finely controlled. You began gymnastics and dancing the same year that you first spied whales. In our rented house, you would race full tilt down the hallway, plant your hands on the arm of the couch, and go vaulting over onto the cushions. On the springy grass of the back yard, you turned endless cartwheels and flips, asking me to spot you on the tricky ones. At the ballet studio, you began the long training that would one day send you gliding down the aisle with a dancer's grace. There was nothing delicate or fragile about you when you leapt and turned, but rather a dazzling strength, akin to the strength of wind blowing and water flowing and wild creatures moving freely. What are birds, after all, but the most accomplished dancers, who can maneuver in thin air?
Whether in motion or still, you've always been a rapt observer. From the beginning, we took you with us when we visited friends, and you would sit in the midst of the grown-ups with saucer eyes and avid ears. At bedtime, no matter whose house we happened to be in, we could lay you down on a blanket on the floor of a nearby room, and you would go to sleep without a peep. That was the price you paid for getting to tag along and overhear adult conversation. Although you had lots to say when you were alone with Mom or me, in company you preferred to listen and watch.
That is the essence of what you do now, as a scientist, listening and watching. Only now, instead of a roomful of grown-ups, what fascinates you is an aviary full of birds, or a field thick with grasses and insects, or a river churning with otters, or a notebook full of data. You have a head for discovering patterns, and a heart for loving them.
So do I, darling Eva, although the patterns I care about are made mostly of language and memory. To a surprising degree, marriage is made of the same ingredients. You begin, if you're lucky, with a rush of romance, but you continue at the slower pace of shared history, a history that stays with you in stories, habits, recipes, photographs, clothes, art on the walls, rumpled sofas, potted plants, and, just maybe, in children. The two of you talk. You touch. You reminisce. You plan. You cook and clean and cope. Together you weave a fabric that neither of you could have made alone. The strength of that fabric depends on circumstances beyond your control, of course, but also on the care and patience and commitment you bring to the effort.
I started out this rambling letter by recalling your birth, because a wedding is a birth of another sort. In becoming husband and wife, a man and woman do not cease to be individuals, yet they become in addition someone new, a compound self. Two shall become one, as Jesus said. Maybe in this paradox there is something of what twins experience, each one distinct and yet each one dwelling in constant awareness of the other. Living with a mate is harder than living alone, but also richer. No learning in my life has been more difficult, humbling, or surprising than the daily lessons of marriage. As you begin your own marriage, I want you to know that I still rejoice in the wife of my youth. After thirty years, I am still infatuated with her love. I don't count this fidelity as a virtue of mine or hers, but as a great and enduring gift.
Since I held you on your first day of life, dearest Eva, I have been fretting about the cruel and belittling images of women that circulate out there in the big, bad world. I would erase them all if I had the power. And while I was making the world safer for you, I would work a few changes on men, as well. The prospect of your wedding has made me worry afresh about my half of the species, with our penchant for selfishness and surliness, our insecurities, our aimless hungers, and our yen for power. I keep reminding myself that you are not marrying men in general but only one man, and by all appearances a good one. My wish for your marriage is that you and Matthew may fashion your own history of shared work, talk, music, nourishing meals, memorable journeys, fine friends, and mutual aid and respect and joy. Being married is a life's work, as demanding and rewarding as anything you will ever do.
Scott Russell Sanders is the author of more than twenty books, including novels, collections of short fiction and essays, and stories for children. His most recent titles for adults are Staying Put and Writing From the Center, and those for children are Meeting Trees and A Place Called Freedom. A chapter about his daughter Eva's wedding appears in his 1998 book Hunting for Hope (Beacon Press). He lives with his wife in Bloomington, Indiana, where he teaches at Indiana University.
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