Suzi Banks Baum
A Village: which originates between your legs
Human life begins in a fish state, this queer divine dissatisfaction that stays with you for nine months until you give birth. Little did I expect, when I was expecting, that I was bringing to life a conversation piece. As I spread my thighs and felt pain like no other pain, I opened a channel for a commerce of connection that developed a village around it without any effort.
My midwife. There she was on the other side of the stirrups in her green hospital robe. I cannot recall her face at this moment but I do hear her voice, feel her hands on my legs and the authority she brought to the room. And my husband, who without being the one to birth, stood and stands closer to me than any other on this ride of motherhood.
We were, in that delivery room, hammering stakes into the ground, marking the spot that would ever be known as our Village. From one to two to three to four and before you know it we had all the things a village needs, water, food, and people to eat it. At that moment in time, the area code of our village was 212. We began, there, at St. Vincent’s, which is no longer on 7th Avenue and Greenwich, our own Village.
When my mother-in-law, originally a 212 and no matter how many palm trees swayed over her 561, she was 212 through and through, gave me a copy of Hillary Clinton’s book, It Takes a Village, I had two small children in my arms. I looked at the signed front page. I hefted the book, as if in holding it I could glean it’s wisdom, and put it on a shelf to be read another day. Or year. But by the time I got to it, I was no longer interested in what Hillary had to say about a village raising a child. I was living in that Village and didn’t need to know more.
We stayed in Manhattan for a year and a half with a small baby in a very small apartment. For a while we were buoyed in the bliss new baby brought in to a group of friends who were all on the verge of their own first children. Our friends held Ben, cooed and caressed him, gave us breaks and dinner and promised to be with us for the long run. They stood and sang at his naming ceremony, which we held in the back yard of the tiny house we bought over in Hillsdale, New York. We were making a break from Manhattan a weekend at a time. We sang and dabbed water from Bish Bash Falls on Ben’s broad forehead and ate bagels and lox from H&H on Broadway and 74th Street. We were still 212s.
But in the following year we fully planted ourselves, some lilacs and all of our belongings in to that tiny little house on a very quiet road and moved our Village to the country. My husband set up his office in the living room, closed the double doors and commenced to make our living while Ben and I strolled up and down that quiet road watching blue birds, hawks, herons and tractors. Lots of tractors.
But not many Villagers. We found Jack in the Pulpit in the spring along the road. We watched the pond clear of ice and hundreds of geese arrive. We fed the chickadees and watched a tall old pear tree burst in to blossom that first spring. Ben and I were adventurers discovering a different way of life from the gritty playgrounds and noisy restaurants where a set of four one-year olds smeared hummus over everything and my group of mothers who were all taking a break from our chosen professions to be full-time moms, calmed our worries and looked for common ground beyond diapers and teething.
May I mention here how lonely that country road was? Ronnie, the farmer down the road was fine with us watching him work. Jonathan and Ben became very familiar with the variety of tractors, trucks and tools Ronnie kept in his many barns. But the rest of the neighbors were second homeowners only up on weekends, or retired teachers who had no interest, not one ounce of interest in this woman trolling the dirt road for hours at a time.
We started to attend the Mommy and Me playgroup at the Methodist Church. My heart leapt at the possibility of meeting new women. FRIENDS! I showed up early, helped set up, found Ben a truck to play with and then sat down at the coffee table.
Week after week, I would arrive with the same enthusiasm and no one would talk to me. Ever. I sat there studying the backs of the Shopper’s Guides and newspapers they read and talked over to each other. I sipped my tea slowly and started bringing a book to read, just to keep myself from crying.
It was not so easy moving to the country after all.
One neighbor, a beautiful petite woman who lived where our road teed with 22, stopped to visit one afternoon. She had a daughter with a child near in age to Ben. She invited us to tea in hopes of cultivating a potential friend for the day her grandson would visit. We struck up a friendship, this woman and I. She is a well-known actress and chef. Jonathan and I cooked food from a cookbook of hers and served it to her before we realized exactly who she was. We were naive to her celebrity and selfish with her attention. I visited often enough to confess to her just what the Mommy and Me sessions were like. I cried in to the tea she served me in cups so fine I feared the bulk of me would crush them just by holding them gingerly on my knee. I was so full of grief and loneliness, admitting it to someone, anyone who would look me fully in the face, gave me an ocean of comfort. But what she said has stayed with me even more.
“Susanna, (for she has the most elegant lilt to her mango flavored speech) you will always be a “212”. ”
I was too dumb with the admission I had made to understand her.
“Yes, my dear, you will always be a “212” here in Hillsdale. These women see you as a New Yorker. Keep trying my dear, and you will find a friend.”
So area codes did really matter after all.
I took this fine woman’s advice and turned my steering wheel north. I started going to Pittsfield once a week to a playgroup up there. I shopped slowly at the Big Y or the Coop in Great Barrington, lingering in the produce aisle, asking women with kids in their carts where they took their kids to play. Someone, thank you for this angel for I have forgotten her face, but not her advice, sent me to Lake Mansfield. There, on the shores of that sweet great pond as it truly is classified here in the “413”, I met a woman and her son by virtue of the pretzels logs we shared with them one afternoon. She and he became the first in what has now become a verdant Village sprung up around the Lake and this town and my family.
Turn to your neighbor. Most of us are 413s here, right? Raise your hand if you are or were a 212. How about a 517? How about 718? How about 973? Any 906s? That is the area code of my homeland and when I find another 906, things start to happen to my accent.
Once I had more than my immediate, albeit tiny, family gathered round, like kindling adds to a nubile fire, things started happening. We lived another year in our house in Hillsdale; weathered the loss of a pregnancy and a Halloween where the only knock on our door came from a car full of kids who were dropped off at the end of our driveway. I scoured the pages of my own darn copy of the Shopper’s Guide and one day, there was an ad for a house for sale by owner.
By this time, Ben had graduated up to drinking cow’s milk. The axle of my days spun around how much milk was in the fridge, where to get milk, what time I’d have it by and when in relation to his long afternoon nap would the milk arrive. (This intellectual exercise kept me only partly occupied. The rest of my mind was sure there was more to motherhood than milk.)
When I pulled up to visit the house I’d found pictured in the Shopper’s Guide, there were two bottles of High Lawn Farm milk delivered on the front porch. It did not matter to me what the house looked like, what the heating costs were or who lived next door, I was sold on the house by the milk delivery. We bought the house within a week. The owners removed the ad from the Shopper’s Guide and our life in Great Barrington began.