THE GOD BOX
One day I bring my daughter from our home in Washington, D.C., to New York to visit her father and his family. My daughter’s aunt Anna introduced the family to the strangers hovering at our table at the kosher restaurant on the Upper West Side: “This is Nagy, my mother, and Jacob, my brother; this is my brother’s baby daughter, Amalia, and this,” she hesitates, then nods toward me, “this is the mother.” It feels exactly like a slap. And just as unexpected.
Earlier that day, Anna had cornered me in her kitchen and quietly and efficiently informed me that if I did not marry her brother, she’d not open her “pocketbook, [her] heart, or the hearts of [her] children” to me. I had just assured her that my daughter would be as much a part of their lives as they wanted her to be, and that I’d do all I could to facilitate her relationship with them: “See, I’m here now, as you’d asked me to be.”
To Anna, I was an agent of chaos: a woman procreating without a socially formalized and acknowledged male sponsor.
Single mothers are not agents of chaos. Rather they—we—are merely witnesses to chaos. We don’t even try to order it. Epics, fairy tales, folk stories are all ways of ordering the eternal chaos, the inhuman forces that surround and create the necessity for civilization. But what Muriel Rukeyser (and Mina Loy before her) does is to witness and note the chaos which is made by humans. Muriel Rukeyser has always been my hero, though, until last year, I’d not even realized she was a single mother.
* * *
Because of my upbringing in a religious and socially conservative family, I had to at least consider marriage. But to my relief everyone I respected advised me against it. Here was my orthodox rabbi saying, “I never thought I’d ever give this advice to anyone in your position, but just tell everyone it was a sperm bank.”
I announced the pregnancy to my family through the postal service with ultrasound images pasted on homemade cards. My parents called, but to inquire, “Are you going to marry?” I said, “Why don’t I bring him to meet you, then I will do as you say.” My parents said, “I never thought I’d ever tell a child of mine this, but …” and I felt relieved.
My brother and his wife said, “It’s good you’re having the baby and not getting an abortion. But if you don’t marry the father, then you should put the baby up for adoption. It’s immoral for you to raise the baby alone, out of wedlock.”
* * *
I’d always found that word sinister, wedlock. It reminded me of the phrase “kept under lock and key,” and I invariably thought of rifles and hard liquor. But when I looked it up, I found that lac is an Old English noun-suffix meaning “actions” or “practices” or “proceedings.” There were about a dozen compounds formed from the suffix lac originally, such as feohtlac or warfare. But wedlac, meaning “pledge-giving,” is the only word that survived with its suffix.
I was not concerned with maintaining anyone’s patriarchal lineage when I gave birth to my daughter. But with a couple of MA degrees, an MFA, and a PhD, I was professionally committed to institutional power structures and linear logic. I’d also considered the convent seriously, even doing a year of pre-candidacy with the Holy Cross Sisters, before converting to Orthodox Judaism. Thus, even my religious affiliation lay with established order.
When I think about it now, I might conclude that my brand of feminism was misogynistic. I simply hadn’t wanted to inhabit the cultural or economic roles traditionally assigned to women. I could see that these roles of supporting others, giving birth, caring for the physical needs of others, were necessary, thankless, unpaid, boring, and that I benefited from the fact that others had to do it. Just don’t let it be me.
For the first two years after I gave birth, I could not write as I used to—I felt a veil or screen between the world and me. There were certain emotions I did not have the luxury of allowing myself to experience. I couldn’t access my lyric I. Now I don’t even try to access my lyric I. The idea of the lyric I comes from a very privileged place to begin with. I don’t want it any more.
I’d discovered I was pregnant the day I’d come to New York to end the brief relationship with Jacob, and I’d found myself sitting, numb, next to a little stick ringed with pink. I felt with utter conviction that I could not not have the child. I was 37. Having been anorexic for most of my adolescence, I hadn’t even been sure I was fertile. But it’s one thing to understand that you will have the baby. It’s another to understand how on earth you’re going to stand doing it, and how you could possibly make it work.
Growing up in rural Texas, I had known about single mothers the same way I knew about snow and maple leaves, skyscrapers and subways—I’d read about them in books. Later I knew about them because I volunteered to teach GED preparatory classes to single mothers who had dropped out of high school. They passed their GEDs—all my students did. It did not help any of them get jobs. But they said they wanted the diploma to set an example for their children.
* * *
I’d had such lovely partners before Jacob, who had wanted to take care of me, had entertained me, challenged me. I’d let them go because I just wasn’t in love—and I’d been promised by my copious reading of Victorian literature all through adolescence that someone would sweep me off my feet.
To be swept off one’s feet—this metaphor does not come from the motion of a broom. Nor does it come, lamentably, from a long practice of gallant young knights lifting brooms from their girls’ hands and saying, “From now on, I’ll do the sweeping. My love, go braid yourself some flower wreaths.”
I offered Jacob the choice of not claiming paternity, and I promised him he’d never hear from me or my baby again.
Jacob is an immigrant to America and the only son of two Holocaust survivors. His own father was the only survivor out of seven siblings, and he survived five camps. Another brother died next to him, in the fifth camp, at liberation. We were on a train through Hungary when he told me. I was five months pregnant. I’d accompanied him to see his one uncle remaining there, his mother’s brother. His mother and her two brothers survived in orphanages run by Catholic nuns. After being sure that he understood I was not going to marry him, I was willing to establish a relationship with his family, for my daughter’s sake.
I wondered how much of his decision to get to know the baby was really his sister’s and mother’s decision.
* * *
My daughter sweeps me off my feet in the way things are swept up or away by the wind, or by a wave of the sea. Sometimes she knocks the air from my lungs and the floor from under me. Even from the minute she was born I lost autonomy.
It had been a difficult birth. Ten hours of a single constant contraction. I was yelling in pain.
“Quit being dramatic,” my mother commanded.
“You—outta here!” I dramatically countered. She left. Good mother.
I’d wanted a homebirth or a natural birth with a midwife, but what I thought was water breaking was blood from my tearing uterus.
“Okay, five more minutes and your baby’s dead. Can we operate now?”
These days my daughter and I take turns being the drama queen. She gets Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.
* * *
When visiting my parents with my newborn, I sometimes lied when neighbors said, “Oh, you have a baby! I hadn’t even known you were married!” I didn’t exactly lie lie. I simply smiled and pointed out how much I loved motherhood. Quite frankly, I chafed at lying. But I didn’t want to hurt my parents, and didn’t know what they were up for yet. I guess I didn’t count on their unconditional love. Muriel Rukeyser’s son told me his mother had made up several stories about his parentage, as well. But that was 1947. This was sixty years later.
* * *
My essays and poems since motherhood have become filled with branching etymological roots, a concern for the dictionary meaning of words, and how words came to have their dictionary meanings. Because, I realize, being a single mother has made me question and rethink every single prejudice and preconception I had about the world and my place in it.
But if I had a vexed relationship with my parents, I have felt what I call a blood bond with my grandparents. Not its institutional expression, its conservatism, but its love. And love is a radical element that legislatures and conventions cannot control. The bloodline that holds us together is also the invisible line that the soul navigates, freed from time and space.
One night my grandfather found me in Germany and came to me in a dream, in his blue striped bathrobe and his tan house shoes. “I’m coming to tell you I am dead,” he said. I felt him everywhere when I woke up; I still do.
My father phoned from Texas a few hours later. “I know,” I said before he uttered a word.
* * *
When my daughter was two, I finally filed for custody and child support because I wanted to move to Israel. Before, my child’s father had put up such a fuss about getting a legal agreement and child support that I’d just let it go. He’d been helping, a little—what he thought I ought to need: “If you took a yoga class you’d be a lot less stressed. I’ll pay for it,” he declared.
“If I had some babysitting, so I could work, or at least brush my teeth, I’d also be a lot less stressed!” I’d reply.
He’d respond with organic Omega 3 supplements or a water filter.
Only after he began paying a regular percentage of the court-mandated child support did he start to have regular contact. These days, we Skype once a week.
* * *
Today, in Tel Aviv, my five-year-old daughter is drawing. Suddenly she circles furiously, in black, all over the page. She is drawing a picture of a God box.
“A God box,” she explains, “is this thing here. And whatever you put inside of it becomes part of God.”
This will possibly be the first thing and the last thing I ever write about my daughter. She has told me not to write about her again.
My daughter is named for my great grandmother. I am named for my grandmother. We are all eldest daughters. In Hebrew my daughter’s name means “a work of God.”
—from Rattle #41, Fall 2013
Tribute to Single Parent Poets
Marcela Sulak is the author of two collections of poetry: Immigrant (Black Lawrence Press) and a chapbook, Of All the Things That Don’t Exist, I Love You Best. She has translated three book-length collections of poetry: Karel Hynek Macha’s May and Karel Jaromir Erben’s Bouquet, from the Czech, and Mutombo Nkulu-N’Sengha’s Bela-Wenda, from the French. She directs the Shaindy Rudoff Graduate Program in Creative Writing at Bar-Ilan University, where she is a senior lecturer. (www.marcelasulak.com)