“There was an old woman, who lived in a shoe; she had so many children, she knew not what to do….”
Playing with Barbie, Ken, and Skipper was my first experience with dolls. I think I had a drink and wet baby sometime before that, but it wasn’t the Chatty Cathy like Bonnie had and I never saw any point in holding or cuddling a hard chunk of sculpted plastic with blank, glass eyes. For me, since mum was a seamstress, it was just about changing their clothes, whole outfits she would wrap or tuck into the Christmas stocking after hours of arduous toil handsewing tiny hooks, snaps, and lace trim. In spite of her loving and expert efforts, I think the shoes captivated me most – on Barbie, especially the backless dress slippers.
I don’t remember a baby, in our house, though Paul was just two years behind me. The playpen was my home inside ours, me with my crayons and my favorite, the record player, whose 45s I could place on the turntable for singing along. If Paul was to be held and cuddled, it wasn’t his big sister allowed to do any of that. Instead, after first throwing the Fisher Price percolator at my head and drawing streaming blood, he would become my playmate, even my roommate, us talking together in the dark each in our twin beds in the one downstairs bedroom big enough for the two of us.
So, girls with any affinity for baby raising populated a world outside of mine. But, I can remember when they’d be born of the ladies at the Assembly Hall on Sunday morning – wrapped, held, cooing and inevitably crying during what was intended to be a solid hour of quiet meditation interrupted only by a hymn sung or a prayer, stood to be given solo by the occasional man. Most of these cherubs were out of my close up view, being a toddler knee high to their mothers who gathered between Morning Meeting and Sunday School out on the sidewalk or clustered in the gravel parking lot. And, once every summer for a week, they’d pepper the evening humidity at Crawford Hall Auditorium in Grove City during Gospel Meeting at the Eastern Bible Conference as, one by one, their mothers would make the ritual trip up the aisle to the lobby carrying their crying cargo. As I grew, I remember wondering how many of these young women waited all year for their turn to be part of the display.
When I became a teen, there were neighborhood girls who expanded our ranks and who seemed completely enraptured by each new addition born to the fellowship. They would take turns holding the babies. I might have as well, once or twice but, always feeling a bit clumsy, preferring to just look as closely as I could whenever they were nearby. Newborns seemed especially strange, with no ability to keep their heads from wobbling or their faces from forming odd expressions. Yet, the ladies made sounds of adoration, all smiles, talking about not much of anything with each other until I walked away to see if the piano was free.
My cousins Kathy and Cheryl, the former the last of my generation and the latter the first of hers, were the first of the real babies to enter my family scene. Kathy’s family lived in Ohio and the story was that she needed a heart valve surgery in the months after her birth, so I don’t remember seeing her until she could talk. But, Cheryl came with her parents to our large family gatherings regularly hosted by mum’s eldest sister, her parents driving all the way from the Detroit suburbs to present her. Cheryl was nearly perfect, and she wore a tiny pink silk bow attached to the top of her head with clear plastic tape. I remember her mother, Bev, holding Cheryl who sat on her mother’s lap already for the endless pictures being taken by everyone.
Beyond all this, babies really never entered my sphere of fantasy. I don’t remember any desire to have one of my own and, once I found out how they came into the world, even less. Looking back, I suspect the cause was hormone levels slightly out of balance, a lifetime of low progesterone. I didn’t much care for children either, and my first baby sitting job was a night shift where I only had to check on the one sleeping in the crib and spend the rest of the time watching late movies on the Tv we didn’t have in our house. Though naturally messy, I found myself cleaning up after the mother of these much as my own mum might have.
Even the epiphany, which came decades later while driving home from Fredonia ( when I realized I could return there to college and train to become an elementary music teacher) did not draw me to the children themselves; rather, I’d decided that working with the youngest would mean I wouldn’t have to produce conducted concerts.
And, even learning to become that teacher never focused on children or their needs; I was preoccupied becoming their most effective leader and instructor. It was all about me.
Four years after my first teaching placement in the high school, on advice of a colleague I bid down into the elementary system – 34 years old, engaged to be married, and happier than I’d ever been.
Preparing that summer for the first day of school, I enjoyed a surge of creative energy – making large, colorful props, and devising costumes, planning the opening presentation like a Disney producer. The kids took to it like birds in a nest. I had them, transfixed, and would for the next five years solid. They became my willing audience. All the painful years growing up the weird kid at school with few friends dissolved, in the realm which had now become mine. In my insular mind, I was their creative hero.
But, something else also happened. I began to experience the thrill of a child running up and clasping me by the knees. Their cheers in the cafeteria rushed through my body. Their hilarious spontaneity, their endlessly creative questions, their crowing a song together….I fell in love. I fell in love, with children – by the dozens, by the hundreds, by the thousands. It was me and the kids, singing at the tops of our lungs, playing violins and brass, wind, and percussion en masse, dancing (dancing!) and filling the stage for, yes, bi-annual concerts of the entire student enrollment plus ten years of fully staged musicals.
I was the old lady who lived in the shoe and, by last count, had tried to help raise probably four thousand or more. Many of these grew to become my lifelong friends, bearing their own babies, faces I now view with a grandmother’s adoration as they appear in the social feed. I couldn’t love them all equally; that was impossible. But, my best efforts were made, hopefully weaknesses smoothed over by a genuine heart for their creative spirits. I pray, likely as most mothers do, that these were never irreparably broken by anything I said or did.
We teachers are a mixed breed. Many are mothers, themselves. Some have managed to cover hundreds of students per week like I did and still make dinner for their brood and help with homework. My private music students who have come to the house for 34 years, with their parents, have in so many cases felt like the nieces and nephews I never see. Their parents have allowed me to be a part of their lives, like the sprinter who takes the race in short, intense spurts, many of these for nearly a decade at a time. I could not ask for a better gift, after having missed motherhood.
Happy Mother’s Day. Happy Mother’s Day, to those who bore the children of each generation, and to all those who raised them. I’ll be here, in the shoe, with the rest of the women who live in it, doing what I learned to do from you, if and when you need me, baby.
© 5/8/22 Ruth Ann Scanzillo. All rights those of the author, whose story it is and whose name appears above this line. Sharing permitted by direct blog link, exclusively – no RSSING. Thank you for respecting the writers from the village.