Everyone has emerged from their mother, tiny, slippery and crying. But where? How? Here’s my story, excerpted from my new memoir, From the Period. To the Colon: Memoir of a Child Writer.
Remember that scene with Billy Crystal in City Slickers when his mother called him on his birthday to tell him the story of when he was born? He’s amused, disgusted.
All at once he is a baby who wants to be loved and an independent adult too. Can you remember the details of your birth? No, I didn’t think so. I can’t either. But I can remember the details of when my daughters were born in Cambridge, England, and Ann Arbor, Michigan, and I like to tell them their stories. I myself was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Here’s my story:
When my mom was almost 84 and still wonderfully sharp, I called her up in Delray Beach, Florida to ask her the story of January 10, 1956 — the day I was born.
She said, “I can remember it clearly. It was Tuesday morning and the doctor had said… (she burped and then said “excuse me, I’ve been having a lot of gas”) if I didn’t go into labor before Tuesday, that I should come in on Tuesday and he would induce me. The reason was that when I went into labor with Gary [my older brother], the baby came very fast and I think he was afraid to let me stay home too long.”
“I didn’t go into labor by then so they induced me. In those days they put you out. When I woke up, the baby was born. When they told me you were a girl, I went into absolute ecstasy. After they told me, they brought you and I was able to hold you. It was just very very exciting. Then I called the paperhanger and he came and put the pink stuff up.”
It is amazing to think that although I have a mother who tells me she loves me at every conversation, I still felt deeply fulfilled with some childlike desire to be wanted when I heard how excited she was at my birth.
It was also relieving. I knew the days and months leading up to my birth were plodding. Four months before I was born, my mother’s father, David, suffered a sudden heart attack. He had lain in a white metal hospital bed for three weeks in stifling Philadelphia heat until my Uncle Herman, a young doctor in his 30’s, walked up three flights in the hospital muscling a room air-conditioner and installed it.
Mom was five months pregnant at the time. She said “it was very hard for me. Everyone worried about me, that I would lose the baby.” I was the baby. She didn’t lose me. She hung on, and I hung on too. I’ve always felt driven by a sense of persistence. Perhaps that was the beginning of it.
The loud air conditioner eased my grandfather’s discomfort, but there was no cure in the day before modern congestive heart failure medications. My mom said her father “knew he wouldn’t make it. He said to me as he lay there ‘Just think of me as going on a long vacation.’ He died August 20, 1955. I was born January 10, 1956.
Sometimes stories change in the telling: sometimes with omissions, sometimes with exaggeration, and sometimes, like this time, with new facts added. It turned out that mom’s family knew their way all too well to the hospital where I was born because her own father had passed away there just four months earlier. Mom called it “Jewish Hospital,” but it had actually been renamed Albert Einstein hospital three years before I was born. The building’s memories stymied my grandmother, a deeply religious, serious, devoted, and very loving woman. She refused to drive her blue 55 Chevy to see my mother (and me) in the hospital, despite the fact that mom was there for a week.
I’m guessing that it wasn’t just her husband’s recent death that held her back from going to the hospital. She also had to contend with the memory of the hospital stay in which she had given birth to my mother.
Grandmom, Bessie Rudnick, cared about quality, cared about pleasing others, and her third child’s — my mother’s — birth on November 4, 1922, wasn’t perfect. Herman and Jean’s birth had gone well, but my mother was a big baby and didn’t seem to want to exit her world through the front door. So the doctor went in after her and pulled out my mom with forceps, pinching a nerve in her neck in the process.
My mom ended up with a birth injury that required her to have four rounds of surgery as a child, a body cast for two years, and one arm and hand with limitations on strength and function. It was a bodily condition that was always there as a visible reminder of family anguish and a tradition of difficult birth.
Finally though, at the end of mom’s stay, Grandmom did come to see me and my mom in the hospital. Aunt Bebe, Herman’s wife, had talked her into going.
Despite all the family drama around my birth and the pink girly bedroom room that was to greet me, clearly I was determined to be born. That’s me in a dress in the next picture, trying my hardest (despite the obvious challenges) to look cute and feminine.
Debbie Eisenberg and Helen Eisenberg, April, 1956
I know I didn’t look like much to brag about. But grandmothers don’t need a reason to love. My mother said, “Once you came home, my mother was still driving, and she would drive over every day to see you, she really adored you from day one.”
Thus began the closeness that I have always felt with my grandmother, and still feel today, even though she has been gone for over twenty years. A psychic said to me in 1997, “The connection you have with your grandmother goes beyond words — there’s a real soul connection” and I do still feel my grandmother’s accessible and comforting presence.
Did I help grandmom’s grief? I was named Debbie after my Grandpop David Rudnick, and given the Hebrew name of Davida. With Grandpop gone, there was no more reasons for Grandmom to go to work everyday at their tailor shop under their home where she sewed hems. Grandmom moved to a one-bedroom third floor apartment on Tyson Ave. and we were a couple of miles away in a duplex on McKinley St. She walked to synagogue every Saturday and called my mom every day. We spent a lot of time together. “Mama Shana” she would say to me, and stroke my short, curly hair.
Here is a photo taken when I was seven and we went to the flower show at Friend’s Hospital in Philadelphia (which I wrote as “Frinend’s Hosp.” when I wrote a description on the photo’s other side):
When I was twelve, I left my parents and Grandmom and went to overnight camp, a huge step for me in leaving my safe home base. Mom and Dad wrote frequently, and I saved some postcards that they sent when they flew out for a car trip up through northern California:
With me at camp and Mom and Dad away, I was on my own and so was Grandmom. She wrote to me at camp when my parents were away. I believe I saved Grandmom’s letter because it was so unusual. It had errors. My grandmother, who learned English at the age of 18 when she came here from Russia, had great pride and always insisted that my mom proofread her cards and letters. But this time, of course, mom couldn’t, because she was out of town. Here is a letter I saved that my grandmother wrote to me, I think, in the summer of 1968.
I cherish the fact that Grandmom felt comfortable writing to me unedited. I always felt her total acceptance and in return, I’m hoping I gave the same thing back to her.
Now I have my own grandaughter, Jordyn. Her story will be different. She won’t have grandparents who can speak Yiddish as a second language or that owned a tailor and furrier shop. But I hope that Jordyn will read this one day and know how much she is loved, as she learns a bit more about her family.
[Read this story and more in Debbie Merion’s new memoir, From the Period. To the Colon: Memoir of a Child Writer.]