Silver Sunflowers and Buried Umbilical Cords; Ch. 1
“Your umbilical cord is buried in Albuquerque, New Mexico.”
My dead mother’s words echoed strangely through my bones and into my stomach, where they rattled around, reaching their sonar into my womb and whispering their strange chorus to the little girl growing there. Mom’s ghostly echo was more eerie wailing than melody, more under-worldly than other-worldly, and more Bean Sídhe – Banshee – than angel.
“Your umbilical cord is buried in Albuquerque, New Mexico.”
My mother told me so long enough and often enough that I was desensitized to how bizarre it was before I was even old enough to know what an umbilical cord was, let alone go any further than the Dairy Queen. So, instead of being the obscure oddity it obviously was, it became, to me, just another little scrap of the blanket I managed to stitch together with scattered recollections, photos, and overheard whispers; creating the constantly flowing patchwork quilt of belief about the person I had been, as well as the person I was becoming. My umbilical cord was buried in Albuquerque. I had always known this.
“Belll-eeee-buh-tawhn,” I enunciated loudly, aiming my mouth at my still flat belly.
“Mine is buried in Albuquerque. You still need yours,“ I told the sprig of life growing inside of me. “But don’t you worry,” I cooed, patting my navel, the stub left over from what had once been the lifeblood connection to my mother; “our cord is running top-notch. You may well turn out to be the healthiest baby girl ever to be born.”
How did I manage to miss a sentence from my mother about a buried anything, let alone a buried belly button? Part of it, I think, was just the passé way in which she had mentioned it, like it was the most normal thing in the world. I’m pretty sure that for some length of time I simply believed that all mothers’ buried their infants’ umbilical cords. That is the way she said it.
“Your umbilical cord is buried at such-and-such a place. Your Granny’s Uncle Stan’s niece’s mom buried hers in Maui. And Nixon’s belly button is under the frozen tundra of Siberia, which explains a lot, when you think about it,” I could almost hear the slightest judgmental twang in Mother’s imaginary voice as it loop-de-looped through my overactive Neocortex. The truth was, I simply hadn’t given the slightest bit of thought or attention to anything about my navel other than how it looked in a bikini since I could remember. I will freely admit there was the obvious slip on my part of only half-listening to almost everything Mom said since I turned the ripe-old-age of about eleven, because it was then that I decided my particular model of mother was a little strange. Still, I would have expected even me to catch that freakish “buried umbilical cord” turd out of all the other mess.
So, I went off to college, graduated, got married, and life was going fine.
At least, life had been going fine until everyone started dying.
Dad had been easier to understand than Mom from the start. He snorted cocaine throughout the 80’s, bought me a red convertible when I turned 16, and taught me to wire anything electronic by the age of eight. My dad was the kind of dad to get you the best pot you ever smoked for your 18th birthday. He was also temperamental, brilliant, volatile, and hopelessly in love with my mother, so normally, he’d almost surely know about the Buried Belly-Button Brainteaser. Unfortunately, the day we found out Mom was knock-knock-knockin’ on heaven’s door, Dad jumped 21 flights off our fire escape, essentially breaking down heaven’s door.
Dad always did have to hog all the attention.
Still, it was Mother who managed to get in the last word, true to life.
The day of Dad’s Fire Escape Fiasco was just a day before Thanksgiving, and Mom took her last breath in my arms as a cold Christmas Eve rolled into the sunrise of a windy Christmas morning. I sent Giovanni, my husband, home to bed, while I held on to my one and only Mother, watching her gently slip between the Here and the There as if the separation between the two was merely the finest of membranes; as if death was a circus act, and my mother was the only soul fortunate enough to find the surprise in even this Cracker Jack box. She would slip away, again and again, only to revive with the softest of giggles, until, finally, the giggles ceased to return. I stroked her hair in wonderment and smelled her barely detectable, sweet almond smell, drawing in every possible molecule of her so that I could remember the way the softness of her arms felt, inhaling and inhaling until I knew I had to let go, because she had let go, and this was her show, this was her ovation, this was her curtain call, and this, at last, was her final bow.
As an only child, emptying Mother and Dad’s apartment was almost two long months of sacred and very solitary business. Thanksgiving and Christmas sliced frozen tree limbs and downed power lines through me, until I thought I would snap like the branches breaking all around me.
“I can’t wash my hair, it smells like my mother!” I screamed the day of her funeral when they tried to make me take a shower. I could hear them whisper their worry-clad gossip about me at the house after the service, but I didn’t care.
I did bathe at some point soon after that, but mainly I stayed in my bedroom at first, filling journal after journal, becoming successively stronger with each one, until, thanks to the nine hour drive by Dad’s sister, Aunt Marie, we managed to see that my childhood home, filled with the memories and mementos of my dead parents, was emptied on time. We went through everything, step-by-step, together, until that final day, when there was no choice but to hire some trucks and men to move furniture, either to our house, or to a nearby storage unit. I was so tired by the end of the day that I told the movers just to leave an impossibly heavy mahogany bookcase in the corner of the living room. It was silly, because we’d moved everything else, and I’d always expected to have it. As a young girl, I used to imagine it in my home one day, but on this day I was just overwhelmed, and couldn’t, for the life of me, figure out what truck to put it on. I didn’t want to stick it in storage, but even in our big house, I had no idea where to put it.
“Leave it,” I verbalized monotonously, making a swatting motion toward it with the hand still inside the house. My other hand, as well as half of my body and the entirety of my mind, was already gone from that tomb. I was suffocating, and between a bookshelf and a breath, I took the desperate person’s way out. Let it be gift for the next tenants, or the apartment manager. Let it roam wherever it pleases, was my attitude about it.
A big Yugoslavian man – a man I secretly thought of as “Igor” in my internal dialog – a man who did not speak English easily or comfortably, got up his courage to overrule me.
“No. You must take,” Igor near ordered. “We bring to your home. You see. It make you many days with your family.”
“I’m done. Let it be for someone else. Leave it for someone less sad. Someone less –” I put my hands on my shoulders and did some slow knee bends, pantomiming to Igor, to myself, and to the entire world in general, “—someone less burdened.”
But Igor, big, strong, Igor; hired for his muscles, not his mind, refused to let go.
“Your parents love you.” Igor stated as if he had known them intimately. “Your parents, give books you. Your parents, they want you have book box.“
“You think it’s so great? You take it,” I swatted one last, fading time in the direction of the shelf that had held night after night of magic stories, and then attempted to cross the threshold of that apartment for good.
“Not for me. From them to you,” Igor insisted, bending down low enough to find my gaze, and then somehow pulling my eyes to his by just the force of his need.
For you,” Igor emphasized with all the weight of his blue round eyes and stubbly square chin. “No just for them, no even just for you. For them, for you, for yours and theirs. For the many’s.”
The ”many’s,“ huh, Igor?
“The generations?” I both ask and correct simultaneously. I know what he’s saying. I knew it as soon as he drew my eyes to his. “Family.”
Them and me and all that shall follow.
Igor, apparently sensing progress, exclaimed, “Jes, the generations! The many’s!”
His childlike joy was so boundless I almost expected the big Yugoslavia to begin jumping up and down in the empty living room. Pure happiness, however, is short lived. Igor has a mission, and it is not yet fulfilled.
“So you take,” he reiterates to me with the heavy heart of one who has left much behind. Whether I must take a “book box” or not was becoming a far less important issue than the time and trouble I was wasting arguing with a big Yugoslavian mover.
“Fine,” I shrug. “Find room in the truck to the house.”
Igor and another man who was nearly as big as Igor and spoke only in Slavic syllables, unintelligible to me, hoisted the last vestige of my parents from their now barren apartment with considerable joy considering the heft of it, and as they did, a wrapped, gray box with a silver ribbon fell off the top of the monstrous mahogany and right into my little child-sized hands. Despite the curls of silver ribbon falling from the top out onto all sides, Mom hadn’t bothered with a card for the package. Instead, she had chosen a black Sharpie for her final message; written artistically and boldly in a beautiful, horizontal, scrawl across the backside of the gray wrapping paper:
“Open immediately after your newborn daughter’s umbilical cord stump falls off.“
In somewhat smaller writing, just underneath that, she wrote, “Congratulations.”
Igor was so joyous he could barely contain himself.
“Oh, ju have baby? Ju see? For the many’s!” my big, Yugoslavian mover seemed a frenzy of rightness too bright not to acknowledge, even on a day of such impenetrable darkness.
So that was how I found out that I was either pregnant, or that my mom was far crazier than she had appeared.
* * *
That was also why I hid the gray package with the silver ribbon, and the pregnancy, from my husband. The man I married began to turn a little sour the weekend of Dad’s wake, and by Mom’s death he had started strangling me for sport. The trauma unit at the local hospital confirmed the pregnancy after Gio believed he’d strangled me to death, just days after the bookcase and the strange posthumous present my mother had left me.
I had saved my life by managing to pee all over myself in the hopes that Gio would conclude I was dead, leaving him just enough time to rip the wedding ring off my lifeless finger and run like hell. They never caught him that night, and they haven’t caught him yet. Had life not gone so twistedly awry, I almost surely would have honored my mother’s wish that I wait until this little growing life inside me lost her dried up stump of what had once been her only true connection to nourishment, to me, and to life: that left-over remnant of her cut cord. Somehow, though, after the way things went down, I got the feeling my mom would forgive me and I wouldn’t be banished to purgatory if I hurried the ritual on a bit. It might merely have been Mom’s mark of mystery, transferred to me on that swollen-mooned night, but sitting in my new, safe, room on that first night at the YWCA, I could have sworn I heard her voice whisper, barely audible under the Bean Sídhe’s hollowed cry of impending death, that it was time. I felt her fairy dust-filled eyes leaning over my shoulder, smelled her soft almond skin, and somehow felt sure she was there and that we opened the gray paper and silver ribbon together.
Still, when I tried to ask my mother why she buried my umbilical cord, the scent of almond turned to dust, and the Banshee’s wail drowned out the song of my only mother, and though I strained with all my heart, all I heard was the Banshee’s plaintive keen.
The ladies from the shelter and a couple of my new friends put me on a bus this morning for Santa Fe, New Mexico, headed to a shelter that is deep, deep, deep underground. I’ve been to New Mexico before, but never to live. The fingers of my right hand make their way carefully to my clavicle bone, feeling the James Avery circular silver wire, hooked gently in the back, then, finally tip-toeing their way down to the sterling silver sunflower hanging from it, the silver sunflower with hearts for leaves. The silver sunflower from the box with a silver ribbon; the box that fell into my hand because Mother put it there for me, and because Igor cared about the many’s. The box with the silver sunflower that brought all that buried umbilical cord business back into my consciousness. The box with the sterling silver sunflower that started me asking every single person I laid eyes on if they knew what it meant when a mother buries her baby’s umbilical cord. I asked all the staff at the shelter, and I asked the volunteers, as well. I interrogated each and every woman staying at the shelter, the homeless guys on the street, the checkout clerks at the nearby grocery store, bus drivers, drug dealers, freaks and geeks. Anyone within earshot got questioned, yet I didn’t so much as get a bite on my line. Last night a few of my new friends at the shelter took me out for some pool, but all I could seem to see was an untapped umbilical cord resource.
“My mother buried my umbilical cord. Do you know if that means anything?” I tried to casually question a guy in a Budweiser hat who was beating me at pool.
I had two girls from the shelter by my side, but they weren’t shocked, because I’d already been through the whole rigmarole with them.
“Your mother buried your fucking umbilical cord?” the man drawled, standing straight up in distain; looking like he’d just been slapped. A little bit of brownish, snuff-adorned saliva snuck down the corner of his thin bottom lip.
“Really?” he asked again. “And you wanna know what in the hell that means?”
Suddenly I realized that he looked like a toad. A toad in a Budweiser hat. Still, I decided to take my chances.
“Yes,” I answered sincerely. Who knows, I thought. Even a toad might know something. “I want to know very badly,” I said, naked in front of the toad, hoping for even the smallest clue in this offbeat scavenger hunt.
The toad lined up his shot and sunk the 8-ball, ending the game.
“It means she was fucking crazy,” he croaked, laying down his cue.
“That’s what I thought,” I sighed.
Although that was a lie. I didn’t think my mother was crazy, at least not in any DSM-[name-your-version-here] sort of way. “The thin line where genius and insanity meet; that’s your mother” was how Dad described her, and it was a dependable truth that if she ever did do anything that might finally make me truly begin to doubt her sanity, she’d always end up looking like twice the genius in the end. She knew her own mind. I could envision her, down on her knees, creating a tiny grave with her fingers in the sandy New Mexico dirt. I imagined her taking the fragile little stump of cord, wrapping it in a handkerchief, and lovingly putting it in the cradle of silver sand she had created. I pictured her taking one last look at the precious miniature package before pushing the earth back over it, hiding it away again, this time for the rest of her life. I could see her perfect nails, now grimy with Albuquerque soil. She had traveled a long, long way to perform this act, so it must have had a great meaning for her.
The question was what meaning?
It wasn’t till my first night at the hidden old mansion of an adobe on the outskirts of Santa Fe that I asked a beautiful Native American the question that had become rote for me.
“Do you know what it means when a mother buries her baby’s umbilical cord?”
“Of course,” Mahala answered, turning her copper face toward mine. She looked at me so long that I began to feel hypnotized. Then finally, her voice smooth and gentle, she asked, “Why?”
For some reason the question that began as an electric jolt only to melt away into the blurred lines and mocking tone of a marathon with no end – a cruel joke, an unsolvable riddle – crackled in the air. I felt neon, sure I would glow under black light. Mahala cocked her head ever so slightly, studying me without the slightest hint of challenge or judgment, her round, dark eyes adding a tranquilizing patina to my electric endorphins: an emotional speedball encapsulating all past and all future into only now. The question – “why?” – still hung in the air. Looking back, it’s easy to see that she understood a lot more about what that moment meant than I did. She didn’t need to ask “why” to understand that, but I’m so glad she did. So glad she honored the enormity of a seed planted long ago by my mother. And so glad that when my mother finally did find a way to reach up from the beyond the grave to speak it was through Mahala’s voice. And as I opened my mouth to repeat the strange words I had spoken again and again – every repetition a watering down, each recitation a thinning out – the words were reborn. Like the scream of an infant shocked from slumber–
[your umbilical cord is buried]–I heard her voice and the words of my mother were all there was. The seed she had so deliberately planted awoke. Suddenly I was certain that my dead mother was about to pull off some serious magic. And so, finally, as her words shifted again, as they had done so many times before that their meaning had almost become lost, they shape-shifted again as the realization of the weight of the words became perfectly sacred and momentous.
“My mother buried mine in Albuquerque, New Mexico—” I told her as tears filled my eyes. “And I never asked her why.”
“It is simple,” Mahala said, her eyes locked into mine. “That is where your soul is.”