As I think of you turning 35 today, I remember how my mom would always call me on my birthday and tell me my birth story. I’ve forgotten bits and pieces of it now and wish she were still here to ask. Though I forget her words, I can still hear her voice, just as I can still imagine your soft, sweet baby’s breath against my neck, hear your coos and cries, and crave the chocolate chip cookies I ate while I nursed you.
Your story requires a little set up so bear with me. Your dad and I were working our way back to NYC from a season at Steamboat Springs Repertory in hopes of some summer theatre work at Flat Rock Playhouse. I remember the night we stopped for a beer after our auditions and all I wanted was oatmeal. Our savings had pretty much been depleted when the transmission of our Ford Van, Hamlet, went out and we had to back down the main drag in Abilene, Kansas. We spent a couple days in Kansas while I ate a fair amount of ice cream.
With a new transmission, our arrival in North Carolina was nothing short of dramatic when our brakes gave way coming down the treacherous Appalachian pass just outside of Franklin. Somehow we coasted to a stop and were able to connect with your dad’s friend, Bill Hidgon, who invited us to stay as guests at his parents’ home while they were away in Hawaii. I remember doing barre on the patio and feeling thick in the waist. I blamed it on the Frosties I’d stop for every day after rehearsal in Steamboat, and the Little Debbies I was now eating every morning for breakfast.
Then one day that week, we were splitting a tuna fish sandwich at the town drugstore soda fountain and reading the classified ads, when I suddenly went in search of a pregnancy test. As we were scraping money together to make our purchase, our waitress noticed and told us we could get a test for free at the clinic. So that’s what we did. I remember sitting in the lobby when the nurse came out and showed us the way to her office.
Now we were in serious need of jobs. Your dad knew of a resort called High Hampton not far from Franklin, just beneath the foothills. We walked in without an appointment and asked to meet with the owner. W. D McKee, a tall stately, balding man in his late 70’s, walked up to us, shook our hands and granted us an interview. He asked us to join him for lunch in the dining room—an extravagant spread of southern specialties from golden fried chicken to peach cobbler and coconut layer cake—and told us to fill our plates. We ate our fill as we talked together and he told us to return that evening to join him and the guests for activities. We played a game of horse racing which we later found out W.D. had rigged for us to win. Knowing we were short on cash, it provided us enough gas money to get our belongings and return to the Inn the next day. That was our interview and we began a new life as social directors at High Hampton Inn.
Sucking in my expanding stomach, my job was to model clothes from the golf shop in the dining room during lunch, serve tea every afternoon at 4:00, and sing during Happy Hour in the little basement cabaret bar. Your dad entertained guests with skeet shooting, fishing and hiking and also helped manage the front desk. W.D. was fond of him, of us both I guess because he would sit and sip his tea in the chair beside me, and listen as I talked to the guests each afternoon. We hadn’t disclosed the fact that I was pregnant but had to fess up when we were asked to take the guests on a bumpy moonlight hayride and I threw up. After that, W.D. said I only had to serve tea. The rest of the time I spent painting wildflowers with my acrylics from college and ate all I wanted—three full meals each day from the buffet.
At the end of the summer your dad was offered a job managing a fancy hotel in Florida from one of W.D.’s partners, but I said no. Then W.D. offered to renovate an apartment for us on the property and stay on and work for him. The Inn was several hours from any hospital and I dreamt of living in a white farmhouse. I wanted to live in a community. A theatre company in the Appalachians was what your dad had told me he wanted ever since we first met in New York. I couldn’t see myself living at a resort in Florida or in North Carolina no matter how much money we made. We were offered two great opportunities but we moved on to Boone where your dad had gone to college.
We quickly discovered the white farmhouse he had told me about (and probably inspired my dream) in Valley Cruses—Valley of the Cross—was for rent. It sat on a couple acres of land just across from the General Store where locals gathered around the black pot belly stove. The rent would be affordable if we could find work, but we also discovered the floors were sinking and the ceilings were dropping, not to mention the heat would be pretty much nonexistent through the winter months. We decided to let that dream go and look around.
This was the time of the NC Highland Games and the heavy rains. There wasn’t a single room available in any of the motels so we pitched our tent. With the help of High Hampton’s room towels tucked around all the tent seams, we stayed fairly dry. I was seven months pregnant by this time and would get up at night in the rain to pee beside the tree that sheltered the tent, and me. We spent many days studying the classifieds for jobs and a place to live, hanging out at Joe’s Drug Store on Main Street and eating pimento cheese sandwiches. Joe was a great guy and soon offered your dad a job at the grill. Life still seemed fairly romantic to me. We didn’t have money but I never felt poor. We were artists with more dreams yet to unfold.
We drove up and around the winding mountain roads that led to precarious looking overhangs in search of a place to live. The houses looked to me like a good wind could blow them off their supports and were out of our reach in more ways than one—we couldn’t afford them, but I also discovered I was developing a fear of heights. I would hold my breath as we backed around on narrow roads near the mountain’s edge, high above the little college town. “I lived in that one once,” your dad said pointing to a three level chalet. “I poured cereal into a bowl one morning and a mouse landed square center.” He laughed. I shuddered. I didn’t see any way that our 1960’s Ford Van could scale those heights in the icy winter months and suggested we stick to finding something closer to town. So in the wooded hills surrounding Boone, we looked at bungalows that smelled of mildew and in my condition made me gag. They were overpriced and run down by many students’ careless wear and tear.
We spent one clear night under the stars alongside the outdoor amphitheater stage near campus in our sleeping bags with a chorus of mosquitos buzzing in our ears. And then, just like our jobs at High Hampton had come along, we found the perfect little ranch style duplex in a neighborhood near the Watauga County Hospital and within our price range. We were the first to live in the brand new little two bedroom abode.
We moved our bags, pots and pans, and assorted dishes in and bought a handmade wooden lawn set with your dad’s first paycheck from Joe. It served nicely as our living room furniture with the addition of a few pillows from the Dollar Store. With his cooking ability, knowledge of wine and innate style, your dad landed a job at a chic little restaurant just outside of Blowing Rock and began to make some money. I bought some classical cassette tapes and worked on putting together a ballet class to teach children—there were no classes offered in the area. I met a girl named Nanette who was due about the same time as me. We became friends and we went to the evangelical church she attended in a storefront. Only a couple times though, if I remember correctly—your dad wasn’t too fond of it and I was a little uncomfortable that the women had to cover their heads. But there was dancing in the aisles! Nanette and I shared our faith, our stories and tea, and I settled in to have a baby.
I had read somewhere that Brewer’s Yeast was good during pregnancy if you planned to nurse. I mixed the foul tasting powder in water and downed it daily. I’d also read that if it tasted bad, it meant you were especially low in B vitamins and needed it all the more so I doubled the dose. I was a little undernourished and had some catching up to do. For years, I ate as though wine and popcorn covered the basic food groups. Soon I was consuming whole watermelons, entire chickens, and sending your dad out at night for celery and such. When my doctor told me I needed to go on a diet because I was gaining too much, I found a new doctor.
Fifty-two pounds later, on a chilly fall evening, I was not feeling well and decided to take a walk while your dad was at the restaurant. The only thing that fit was one of his big jackets and it barely covered my belly. I went to bed that night without dinner and woke up around 3:00 a.m. with sharp pain in my back. I put my hair in pigtails and took a hot bath. Your dad wasn’t sure what was happening but when the pain grew worse, he called the emergency room and they told us to come in. We had only had one week of our Lamaze classes and all I could remember was to take extra pillows along and pack hard candy—which we stopped to buy on the way. I watched from the car as your dad held up sweet tarts and licorice in the window before waddling in with the pillows still in my arms, grabbed a bag of hard candy, tossed it on the counter and made it back to the car without a contraction.
Driving up the one-way exit at Emergency, someone tried to stop us but your dad sped past him. At the desk they asked me if I needed a wheelchair and I told them no just as a contraction came and I fell to my knees. So they put me in a wheelchair, checked me in and found out that I was already three centimeters dilated. They sent me up to prep just as the doctors were changing shifts. The a.m. doctor told me to slow down so he could wash his hands and within an hour you were born. Ten fingers and ten toes, I counted. The nurse laid you on my chest and you looked up at me and winked. I had never felt such love. And I’ll never forget the look on your Grandpa Charlie’s face when he walked into the room and saw you. No one has ever looked prouder.
So you arrived five weeks early weighing in at five pounds six ounces. You had jaundice so we had to stay a few extra days soaking up the bilirubin light. Grandma Wenzler came and bought us lots of groceries and took me shopping for a new pair of shoes. I remember eating red grapes together at the kitchen table, and having hot fudge sundaes at Joe’s as you laid in your bassinet taking in the sunlight. You had a little catching up to do too. Thanks to the Brewer’s yeast, my milk flowed and you plumped right up.
I’d hear your cry in the night and the moon would light up your bedroom just enough for me to make out the line of your little form. I’d find you curled up like a snail—arms tucked under you with your tiny rump perched high in the air beneath your soft cotton nightshirt which tied at the bottom. I’d wrap you in your blanket and cradle you in my arms as you searched for what you knew instinctively belonged to you. This was our special time—just you and me and the moonlight. We’d head to the kitchen and I’d pour some milk into a saucepan for me, bringing it to a simmer while I filled a plate with my homemade cookies—big discs of oatmeal, full of chocolate and butterscotch chips, walnuts and raisins—and I’d nibble while you nursed. I made a new batch every several days—they were my comfort, along with whatever book I was reading which would be waiting for me at the kitchen table. The table had been a gift from your grandparents. Bea and Charlie had brought it to us along with two straight back chairs and your crib. I could have cried when I saw the gifts but I was too happy. I had dreamt I’d brought you home without diapers and had to put you in a drawer. It all seems almost magical now. I really think it was then too. I was getting to know you.
So that’s your birth story Charlie Grimes. We never did make it back to New York. Our lives in the theatre changed when you came into this world. You might say we changed from struggling determined actors to struggling determined parents…? With all the constant transitions in our traveling gypsy lifestyle, the one constant was our love for you. I’m sorry that after 16 years, our marriage didn’t last. But our love for you grew and grew and the three of us will always be connected by that love.
What I want to remind you of through this, your birth story, is that when things don’t go according to plan, they have a Way of working out, even when it might seem impossible at the time. Life can push you past what you think you can’t bear, but you’ll discover you can. I can hear your Uncle Ed say, You gotta have faith! I can hear else someone say, What if you turn what seems to be working against you upside down and try letting it work in your favor? I just can’t remember who it was…
Happy Birthday sweetheart. I’ll love you forever, I’ll like you for always, as long as I’m living my baby you’ll be.