Thanks for all the birthday wishes yesterday. Passing along this old column about the day of my birth. My mom was so French, she put sugar in her bourbon. This is a tribute to her, a strong personality and a beautiful person. She had morning glories all over her yard, and I think of her every time I see one. Props to my pal Dave Parker for flagging this old column. Thought I’d share it:
Indeed, it is the Season of Birthdays, which makes me hark back to my very first. Not the first birthday celebration, per se, but to the very November day I was born. As with all things that happened to me as a young man, I remember my birth vividly. And where memory failed me, my dear mother would fill in the blanks.
Now, please understand that, though French, my mom was a very funny woman and, as such, prone to some exaggeration. I have to confess that I don’t relate the story of my own birth nearly as well as she did, yet certain details stick with me. More than half a century later, I can still recall many of the highlights.
Mom was the first to arrive, Dad dropping her off at the curb and a bellhop helping her inside with her trunk and several other enormous bags. Back then, that was how they did it.I think it was a hospital, yet knowing Mom it might’ve been at a grand hotel, perhaps the Palmer House in Chicago — she always liked their salads. Besides, back then having a baby cost, like, 20 bucks. So you could live it up a little.
There were no selfies back then, so let me paint you a digital image of how my mother looked in the autumn of 1956: She was diminutive but striking: sandy-haired, like Mia Farrow, with tiny French wrists and a .38-caliber tongue that probably should’ve been registered with the police.
It was a different time, and hospitals (or hotels) didn’t rush maternity patients quickly in and out, the way they do today. Indeed, having a baby was supposed to be an almost elegant experience.
As such, my mother was a little overdressed for the occasion of my birth, her first. Though Plato may have scorned the material world, my dear late mother fully embraced it.
There were no men around, as was common in the maternity wards of the era, but she wanted to “look good for the other gals,” which is what they called women back then: gals … shortened from girl pals. Originally g’als.
As French women did and still do, my mother wore a floaty, diaphanous blue cocktail dress that showed off a little leg. She also wore earrings and a pair of tippy high heels. Atop her head, a small and tasteful tiara.
Back then, that was how they did it.
Though small, my mother was a very tough woman, in that deceptive way the French have — all bird bones and jewelry. On the day she was admitted, she looked far less pregnant than my father did. She might’ve put on maybe 4 pounds over the course of the nine months; him, 15 pounds at lunch alone.
From her accounts, the contractions started on a Tuesday and lasted well into the holiday season.
In fact, she often described my birth as the greatest four weeks of her life, for that’s how long it purportedly took. She made the most of the entire experience — the attention, the fuss — for she was one of those women who could stretch a routine lunch to seven hours or spend an entire afternoon having tea.
So, considering all that, four weeks to birth a baby was really not that long for her.
Through the entire ordeal — four weeks, maybe five — my mother was always surrounded by close friends and the nurses she overtipped. People came and people went, to do her nails and hair or to measure her for the new clothes she’d wear when she finally lost the 4 pounds she gained while having me.
Might’ve been a man around, probably a male doctor dropped in, though this has never been established. As the weeks passed, Mom spent them playing cribbage, listening to Eartha Kitt albums and taking visitors, who came bearing gifts and large bottles of Scotch.
Back then, that was how they did it.
In fact, as I recall, she delivered me with a cocktail at her side and wearing a Gallic nonchalance, as if giving birth were nothing … a hiccup, a sniffle. Big deal, c’est la vie.
Indeed, she was probably half-asleep.
“Mom, wake up,” I remember telling her. “I think they’d like us to go.”