When last we met Pokey Mama she’d finally achieved conception and was about to reach another milestone, the publication of her first book. This collection of poems had made the rounds; it made short-lists and long-lists, it was honorably mentioned, semi-finalized, reshuffled, revised, excised and augmented, to the point where the current manuscript was as close to the original as third cousins twice removed. Nevertheless, Pokey Mama was in it for the long haul, and continued to paginate and print, collate, clip and attach. Thump! Another one out the door.
So here she was, a few months pregnant, standing in her kitchen, probably making some kind of food that didn’t clash with her morning sickness: rice, potatoes, vanilla pudding. (Everything goes with white.) It was a warm fall day so she was shoeless. Yes, dear reader, Pokey Mama was in the kitchen, barefoot and pregnant, when she got the call from Alice James Books. They wanted her book. They wanted HER book. They wanted her BOOK.
Need I describe her joy? Can you picture Pokey dancing on the torn linoleum, hooting and tossing her wooden spoon around like a badly schooled majorette?
Perhaps it’s better not to.
Yes, I was happy. For a brief, frabjous time I was truly in a state of ignorant bliss. Forget all that nonsense about babies and art being mutually exclusive—I was doing it! Not for me the abandonment to domestic obscurity, no sirree. I was on the glory train.
You see where I’m going. Way in the distance, at the end of the bright, open meadow, where the train tracks meet the horizon, you see the edge of the cliff, don’t you? Because you know more than Pokey Mama did. You’re experienced, or you’ve heard tell.
But Pokey Mama didn’t know. By the time I was pregnant my mother was sunk deeply into illness, and even if she wasn’t, I’m not sure we would have talked about it; we didn’t have that kind of foundation. I think my older sister may have tried to warn me; if she did, I’m not sure Pokey was listening. Listening maybe wasn’t her strong suit. (Is it now?) And I didn’t have a circle of Mommy friends—for various reasons, most of my friends were childless.
So Pokey Mama made her plans. The baby was due in May, the book would come out that fall, and I would be on the road, reading, selling books, basking in the minor but o-so-honorable splendor of small press publication. The baby? She would come with me!
(Do you hear something? That’s Pokey Mama, in the background, humming a little tune while Rome burns.)
Shortly after I got word about my book, I also got a call from the (then) administrator at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, who wanted to know if I would consider returning to Bread Loaf the next summer as head waitress. It doesn’t sound terribly glamorous, (especially to someone like me who was a real waitress for years) but I guess it’s kind of a big deal to be asked, and I was flattered. Wasn’t this just the icing on the cake? Pokey Mama back at the fancy conference, hanging with the big kids?
So I told her how pleased I was to be asked. Then I gave her my good news.
That’s her pause. She congratulated me on the book and asked when I was due. I gave her the date, yammering on about available housing, and bringing the baby or maybe just leaving the baby home…yes, you heard that right, I thought maybe I could leave my three month-old baby home for 11 days, or bring her with me while I worked all day supervising the writer-waiters, attended workshops, readings and of course, dropped in at cocktail hour.
This lady knew better. She spoke slowly and clearly, gently but firmly, like I imagine you talk to someone holding people hostage in a bank heist or standing on a narrow window ledge. “Oh Amy,” I remember her saying, “I think after that baby’s born you’ll find things are really different.”
I was a little miffed, or maybe just mystified, but she wasn’t being mean; she was trying to enlighten me. Once again, however, Pokey Mama didn’t really receive. And maybe that’s just the way it is—we survive through deliberate obtuseness.
I didn’t want to believe my life would change, other than that I would finally have what I’d wanted for so long. I couldn’t imagine all the ways in which it would change; I couldn’t know that there was no way I’d be able to leave my baby anywhere for long—I wouldn’t want to—and even if I did, that she’d have trouble nursing and that would mean trouble for me, too, and that for the first three months of her life my husband and I would spend every night from about six o’clock on, walking, strollering and driving our wailing, colicky baby around, exhausted and demoralized not just from sleeplessness, but by our inability to soothe her.
“OK,” I said, “Well, maybe I can do it next summer, when she’s a little older.”