Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Katherine's Son--Jack, Part I

About ten months after that picture was taken, Katherine and James welcomed Jack into their life. (Notice that I used the singular—“life”--and not the plural “lives.”) Katherine and Jack were so in love and so happy to have found each other that each day they entwined the tendrils of themselves more firmly around the trunk of the other. Being two separate people, of course they had two separate trunks and root systems connecting them to the world.
But all of their new growth was in the direction of the other. Each was a heliotrope and each was also a sun. By the time little Jack was born it was hard to tell where Katherine ended and James began.

It was easy to tell where Jack began and ended. He began at the end that cried and gurgled and screamed when he was hungry. And he ended at the end that emitted some pretty foul substances at disturbingly regular intervals. The distance from one end to the other increased substantially and by the time they celebrated his first birthday, Jack was walking, albeit unsteadily, across the length of the small living room that made up most of the MacArthur family’s apartment.
Jack was cute. If you know babies you know the hidden horrible truth that some babies are ugly. Sure, everyone will say to the parents, “Oh, he is SO cute. He looks just like his father.” Then, on the way out of the house and back down the street those same people will whisper to each other, “Poor kid—he looks just like his dad.” No one said this of Jack. He was a beautiful baby. He shined.
He had that smile of Katherine’s—the one from the wedding picture. But his eyes were entirely untroubled by whatever it was Katherine saw as she looked into their future on that wedding day back in City Hall almost two years before.

Details? You want details? Okay, I will give you some details. (But not too many, mind you. Too many details can get in the way of a good story sometimes.) There was no universal Pre-K in 1952. When a woman had a baby in America in 1952, she quit her job, stayed home, and raised her baby. This is exactly what Katherine did, too. She cleared out her desk at Peabody Publishing and handed the ledger books over to a new accountant—a young man just back from the war in Korea.
Pregnant women sometimes have odd dreams--vivid dreams of giving birth to a monstrosity or of losing their newborn child amongst the cabbages in the grocery store. The dream Katherine had was nowhere near as frightening. She had just one odd dream and it was about the marble that she found in her desk as she made way for the new guy. In the dream she was holding her new baby boy and he was staring at a pendant dangling from a simple black leather string around her neck. The dream was from an outside observer’s point of view so that she could see both herself and her child.
When he let go of the pendant she could see that it was her lucky marble—the one she had gotten in her stocking one Christmas so many years ago.
She could also see the look of pure rapture on her baby’s face. So, near the end of her pregnancy she took the marble to a jeweler and asked him to make it into a simple necklace for her. She put the necklace on that first morning as a stay-at-home mom and it somehow made her feel okay—as if she knew what she was doing.

Back then, the job of the man was to go out into the world and bring back a paycheck. And this is what James did. He continued to write children’s storybooks for Peabody Publishing and these books continued to bring in modest, yet steady, royalties.
While James left their apartment on Mott Street in the lower half of Manhattan and got on the train to head up to Peabody every day, Katherine stayed home with Jack. Katherine loved her Jack more than she thought it possible for anyone to love anyone else.
It scared her sometimes how much and how deeply she felt for this little life. She could never tell James this, but she secretly looked forward every day to his leaving so that she could be alone with Jack. When it was just the two of them, Katherine would tell stories.
Some of them were the stories she used to tell herself back in her undergraduate days as she crossed the bridge back to Brooklyn and her parents’ apartment. Some were her own variations of stories she had read as a girl during her long hours at the public library, reading to stave off the hunger in her stomach. But some of them were new stories—stories Katherine made up on the spot for her audience of one.
And some of them were good. Really good. At first, Jack was too young to have any idea what his mother was saying. But still he followed her with his eyes and smiled when she said something funny, grew wide-eyed when the princess was facing danger, and filled his diaper when the troll menaced the town. There was no way he could know what, exactly, she was saying. But he was his mother’s son and he had the same love of stories she did. He knew the rhythm and meter and pace of a story. He could tell when the words his mother was saying were everyday words, like “let’s see what is in the fridge that we can cook up for Daddy’s dinner”, and when they were special words, like “The king’s wizard sometimes took the form of a rooster and roamed around the town, gathering information.”
As little Jack listened to his mother narrate a tale, his eyes would often focus on the green marble that seemed almost to change color, depending on what was happening in the story. Sometimes it glowed with the menacing light of a tornado sky. Sometimes it danced with the green of a shaft of sunlight slicing through sea water. Sometimes it turned dark like a stand of spruce on a mountainside. It was as if the marble translated the story into a sort of pre-language that didn’t need words for Jack to understand.
The marble took the plot and translated it into pure feeling and Jack ate those feelings up.
Of course, Katherine knew nothing of this. All she knew was that when she was telling a story, Jack was as well-behaved a baby as ever there was. In her heart of hearts, she thought maybe Jack knew what she was saying. In her brain of brains, she knew this was ridiculous. Jack was one year old. How could he possibly know what she was talking about when he didn’t even know any words yet? He didn’t even know his A’s yet, let alone his B’s and C’s. Still, when Katherine told about the kingdom they had created together, Jack locked in on that marble and his face showed an understanding that was unmistakable.

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