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How It Begins | Kitchens: 1959 | Conception | The Cold War: My Parents as Newlyweds | My Mother Giving Birth

Julianna Baggott

How It Begins

That spring when my parents' bodies were still pristine,  
and the sex so new that each time they were dazed, 
grinning like kids holding sparklers in the dark--
can she recall that giving in, knees first,
the ground folding beneath her, how only then 
she began to know fear, that it tallies up beat for beat
with love and the world can betray us because we finally 
want something from it?  For her it was the do-gooders 
always claiming the most common things will kill us
furnace pipes asbestos-wrapped, pesticide-sprayed grapes, 
even tap water radiated. And she began to wash her hands, 
trying to keep clean, to risk nothing; she became a genius, 

inventing the patterned travel of germs, from hand to mouth 
to vital organ and the lazy swirling ones that love to linger
in towels and sink drains, how detergent itself was lethal. 

She scrubbed for us, each plate and spoon, her hands 
cracked and bleeding, she boiled and boiled our meat. 
I've decided it is a sweetness no one deserves, her love 

for us grown too large, like the oversized heart ever-expanding 
to compensate for one weak murmuring valve,
and the weakness too is love, a constant falling.

Kitchens: 1959

The year Nixon showed up in Moscow
in front of Macy's Model kitchen and finger-poked 
Khrushchev's broad chest, my mother lost her first baby. 
Russians crowded the railed-off kitchen, 

a display of modern American living.
Imagine the potato-and-onion smell of so many wool coats, 
the cupboard hanging open to show off shelf space, 
the box of S.O.S. ready to scrub it all down.
When Khrushchev says to Nixon in his husky Russian tongue, 
Go fuck my grandmother, Elliot Erwitt translates the street talk,
shoots frame after frame that I'll find later in a book:
two angry men and the kitchen so small and tidy, I can only think
of my mother's first kitchen, her view the same as Erwitt's 
if she'd been sitting at the breakfast table
in the garage apartment on Fernwood Street in Portsmouth, 
a military town where they roll the mattresses 
up on the beds because of the bugs,  
but this one's not bad: a ceramic sink, 
a Frigidaire, and a Hot Point stove for $75 a month. 
My father's in his last year of duty,
the Russians are winning the final frontier,
and the A-bomb could drop from the sky
and melt every house on Fernwood Street,
but for now my mother is puffy and pale, 
the bleeding started fast, the tiny child 
lost in it somewhere--she never saw 
what she'd imagined: arms, legs, her own small face--
and now days later, she shuffles to the cold stove. 
It's on the blink, a wire coil model; 
one little wire overheated and the whole thing shut down. 
She turns it off, reaches in, fingers the wires,
twist-ties them. She's got a meat loaf 

from a neighbor on the counter. 
In a week or two she'll see the campaign poster 
at the grocery store, Nixon and Khrushchev chin to chin. 
She'll vote for Nixon, thinking maybe one day 
his toughness will save her, her husband, 
the small cluster of eggs inside her. 
But she has already begun to doubt things.
She thinks nothing is truly reliable, not her body,
not this easy American life. She starts up the oven, 
and as the wires solder themselves,
my mother smells smoke; something small is burning.


I will collapse beneath this tender task,
keeping the record, the sun-stroked mantel clock,

the chipped soup bowl, the hum of the dome hair dryer
pouring heat from its dim sky of little holes.
My parents are making love in early spring,
late in the day while her grandmother, up for a visit, 
sits at the diningroom table lifts the empty bowl
to her lips again and again, deaf
under the blue helmet her hair drying 
to an electric rise. I am swelling
and waiting, a ticking egg, a twisting tail,
a fly smashing against bright glass.

I imagine my mother's quiet breath in his ear,
his hands, blood-swollen from the metal grooves
and sharp-toothed gears in the motor pool, and Jesus 
hung above the bed, head lolled 

as if to get a better angle on their lovemaking,
a witness to all he missed. His wooden cross

trembles against the flowered wall.
Outside the window, a bird bobs on a branch,
a dog barks, a kid on skates clatters
down the sidewalk like a tin train,

and the daffodils give the first yellow twists
within their thick green tongues.

The Cold War: My Parents as Newlyweds

If the Russians pushed the red button,
my parents were to meet at a corner store
where Route One intersected Route Three,
toward Culpeper. My father was at ground zero;
he could see the White House from his window
in the patent office where he poured over
anything cleaned by air, the cotton mills' 
ceiling-track vacuum cleaners, 
giant street sweepers, even my mother's 
hand-held Hoover. They both knew 
he'd never make it out of the downtown traffic,
and so she was only to wait half an hour
before heading west. She'd get the news 
by radio in their new Arlington apartment,
pack the German Luger that her father had pried
from a dead enemy soldier, a family heirloom,
and a lock-box of cash, hidden in my father's sock drawer.
They kept the car tanked with gas, bottled water, maps.

I was a scab in her womb, something she was willing 
to sacrifice. Years later she told me 
she never intended to make it past the corner store.
She would wait forever, till the sky turned to red ash.

My Mother Giving Birth

They gave her a form of truth serum,
not to dull the pain, to dull memory. 
But she does remember
asking the nurse to take off her girdle--
not a girdle but her skin taut with pain--
that the nurse told her to stop screaming,
the girl one over was having her first
and scared enough already. 
she rolled my mother to her side, standard procedure,
handcuffed her to the bed rails, left her to labor alone.
My mother says her last thought was of Houdini,
that she too could fold the bones of her hands 
and escape. I want her to slip free,
to rise up from her bed and totter 
out of that dark ward of moaning women.
I want to be born in black dirt.
But her mind went white as cream lidding a cup. 
And she does not remember,
although her eyes were open, blank,
how I spun from her body, wailing, 
drugged for truth, my wrists on fire.