13 January 2010

O Pioneers

For most of my friends here (whether peers or younger than I), 20 years ago was still a time of carefree youth. Peter and I were among only a handful of people in our group of friends/family who made the decision to marry and procreate whilst in our early 20s. We were the youngest sibs in our families, but we birthed the first grandchild on both sides. Peter was literally fresh out of college...he was by far the first in his class to become a father.

These decisions were not made by us momentously--that is to say, we were still carefree enough to see our marriage and life together as a flow, and we just went with it. We started out with the proverbial nothing, and added to our early days of frugality was the sudden responsibility of caring for my grampy, who came to live with us two months after the wedding. We learned as we went along in every way, because we really didn't know anyone else dealing with the circumstances we faced. Grampy was experiencing physical hardships that required a lot of supervision; Peter had to bathe him and help him get up from a sitting position at times, while I had to cut his nails and hair, clean his dentures, feed him, clothe him, entertain him (a lot of "Golden Girls" and "Murder, She Wrote"), and generally help him understand why our roles were suddenly tipped over after decades of the reverse. His mind was impaired in unpredictable ways--he knew who I was, and who Peter was, but he couldn't recall why he had had to come live with us, and was mortified that his handwriting had been impaired enough that I had to pay his bills for him. I would be writing the check for his Blue Cross payment, and he would be sitting alongside me saying, "Here, now, what are you doing that for??" and I would say, "Grampy, you can't write just yet, remember?"

(As if I knew anything about Blue Cross, back then. Talk about baptism by fire. Don't even get me started about the Medicare snarls, the hospitalizations, the desperate attempts to keep psychotropic drugs off his doctors' prescription pads...)

But let's go to the happy place of that retro era. The place where, at age 25 and juggling this brand-new hybrid household, I was surprised to find myself pregnant. Only surprised, in hindsight, because I'd staved it off so well during my wild college years, yet when Peter and I thought we'd experiment with not staving...well, kerwango. I stood alone in the kitchen with the telltale stick, Pete's laughter echoing on the porch as he left for work, and Grampy still waiting for his breakfast (not to mention, an explanation...that was delicate). I had no other family within a 500-mile radius. In fact, we had only lived in that house--our first real rental--for a month-and-a-half. After getting Grampy situated, I went across the lawn to my next-door neighbor's house. Her name was Fran, and she was a 60-something mom of 4 boys who had the least flappable demeanor you can imagine. An oasis of no-nonsense womanhood, and none too fussy about housework, all of which endeared me to her.

Fran and I sat down at her '50s metal kitchen table and perused the Ellsworth phone book to try and figure out who the OB/GYNs were nowadays. We chose a doctor and I made the appointment right there, on Fran's rotary wall phone. Having Fran's company and advice on that bewildering day was everything. I stumbled home in a daze to call my mom and deal with reality.

No Internets, my pets...we are talking retro days. In my usual way, I obsessed about what the heck was going to happen to my body, myself. Lacking health sites to peruse on a glowing screen late at night, I was left to take long walks to the local bookstore, where I ruminated on all the books on pregnancy and childbirth as I stood in the aisle. This was an extravagant purchase for us back then, so I had to be choosy. Ultimately, I decided on three books:

--Dr. Spock, mais oui (and did that ever get a workout).
--Sheila Kitzinger's Book of Pregnancy and Childbirth--because she had given birth five times without drugs, and she said labor felt like standing in front of an oven door and having sudden whooshes of heat and sensation come over you. Plus, her week-by-week descriptions of gestation were stellar.
--some 1980s-era, first-person motherhood narrative that was like having a knowledgeable older friend whose writing style you liked.

I needed so desperately to know what all of this was going to feel like, what were the potential complications, was I going to be able to breastfeed, and how could I make sure I wouldn't get drugs during labor (in 1989, midwifery and natural childbirth were still not the norm). Those books were companions that I read, reread, and read again for months.

Aside from these concerns, Peter and I were faced with clothing a baby and setting up our household on a single starter-level salary. That was the era when credit cards were fairly easy to come by, so we began our lifelong tango with debt and repayment. Nevertheless, money was still very tight, so we became connoisseurs of rummage and yard sales. Every Thursday we snagged the Ellsworth American and the Bar Harbor Times, heading straight for the classifieds. Our objectives were actually trifold:

--check to see if we could find a better house rental
--check to see if there were any jobs for book editors or writers (ummmm, no)
--review the listings of yard sales

This latter exercise was the sole means by which we became familiar with downeast Maine. Starting out first thing on a Saturday morning (and without GPS), we would clutch a map and compare it to the two-line sales ads, plotting out a logical circuit from one sale to the next. Obviously, we sought sales that specified baby clothes and goods; fortunately, there were many of those. Those early spring forays are burned into my memory...meeting other families, sorting through cardboard boxes or pawing over long tables in a church basement, and assembling everything we could have needed for our baby-to-be. I can still remember where I bought well-loved items that went on to be worn by all four Reifsnyder babies. I was (and am) firmly of the belief that a good hot water washing and drying will take care of almost anything and make it wearable, and most of the sellers had taken good care of the stuff, anyway. Pete and I also benefitted from generous friends and co-workers who shared bags of clothes with us--not just for our first baby, but the ones to follow. We were blessed in every way.

I look back on that era and recall that my overriding emotion was wonderment. Peter and I found ourselves in the land of New, as surely as if we had taken a covered wagon to get there. Behind us were urban childhoods, elite high schools and a prestigious college. I swear to you that neither of us regretted pushing forward into this spousal, parental, semi-rural lifestyle, and though we never discussed it as such, we fashioned our own way of living and parenting that has endured for 20 years.

When Zoë arrived, the light in our lives got brighter. We never stopped venturing out and learning; we just added another passenger who was just as curious as we were. Both Pete and I adapted to baby tasks in that flow-going way, and Zoë helped immensely by being about as even-tempered and manageable as a baby can be.