>Operating Instructions


As I was about to leave Memphis to fly to Denver on Tuesday to spend a week with my son, Jason, and his wife, See, and my granddaughter, Grace, my dear friend, Deb, came over with a gift for Grace—a wonderful Richard Scarry book. But there was also a book for me—Operating Instructions—by one of my favorite authors, Anne Lamott. Her memoirs and novels are terrific, but I had never read this book, which was put together from her journal of her son’s first year.

I read over half of it on the plane coming over… making use of the extra hour we sat on the runway waiting for the thunderstorms to pass over. No matter… the book is amazing. Such a preview of what I was going to walk into… spending a week in the home of a couple with a newborn baby. Nothing could have been better preparation. It has been 32 years since my oldest was a baby and yes, you actually do forget how exhausting it is, so that the species will continue, whether by birth or adoption.

, a single mother who helped care for her father as he died, says:

“No one ever tells you about the tedium…. And no one ever tells you how crazy you’ll be, how mind-numbingly wasted you’ll be all the time. I had no idea. None. But just like when my brothers and I were trying to take care of our dad, it turns out that you’ve already gone ahead and done it before you realize you couldn’t possibly do it not in a million years.”

She writes candidly about being totally in love with Sam (her newbown) one day and wanting to kill him the next. Or even the same day. It’s not post-partum insanity. It’s really quite human. That’s one thing I love about Lamott… she allows herself—and us—to be human. (My favorite books of hers are Bird by Bird, Grace, Eventually, and Plan B.)

Listen to her talk about what happens when Sam finally goes to sleep and she has time “to herself”:

“I start to think about the millions of things I could do around the house or at my desk, and I decide on just one thing that could really make a difference in the quality of our life, and then I usually end up thinking, Gee, that sounds like a lot of work for a woman who hasn’t brushed her teeth in three days.”

I’m not even the mother here… just the grandmother… and I found myself not washing my hair for three days and yes, not brushing my teeth until the afternoon one day. And you might laugh, but I went four days without even getting my computer out to write on my blog, FaceBook, or Twitter! (Yeah… I did check email on my Blackberry…. but only minimally.) The point is, taking care of a newborn baby is the most demanding, exhausting, job there is. Exhilarating? Sometimes? Rewarding? Sometimes. So why do we do it?

Survival of the species, I guess. And for me, this week with my granddaughter holds a special significance… a healing of sorts. You see, my son, Jason, Grace’s father, was abandoned by his birth mother when he was less than three years old. We don’t know anything about those first couple of years… but seeing him with his own daughter, as he says, his own “flesh and blood,” takes my breath away. I’ve cried almost every day since I got here.

And for me, a woman who couldn’t bear children, holding the birth child of one of my adopted children is like a bridge to the stars. Tonight, Jason and I talked about the miracle that Grace is—for him and for me—and there was this connection that was pure gold.

One minute we’re hugging and crying and the next we’re watching stupid movies on TV while Grace sleeps and laughing at the words on the inside of the beer cap that Jason just opened: “Nuttier than a squirrel turd.” Now that’s flavor for you. (We’d usually be grossed out, but once you’re used to diaper duty, nothing really bothers you any more. Did you know there’s a section in What to Expect: The First Year called “The Scoop on Poop”? It describes in fairly good detail, the various colors and textures of your baby’s diaper contents and what they mean. Grace has already moved from “Grainy, greenish yellow or brown—transitional stools which start turning up on the third or fourth day after birth” to “Slightly formed; light brownish to light yellow to dark green—normal formula stools.”

See’s mother has come over a couple of times this week to visit, and to bathe Grace. See’s family is Hmong, and her mother passes on many of their traditional ways of doing things… including an accomplished talent for “swaddling” the baby so that she feels secure and sleeps better. What a joy to be taught this skill and see its benefit to Grace.

And I’ve even learned how to cook the traditional Hmong chicken and rice that the new mother eats for 30 days following childbirth to strengthen her bones and replace the energy she lost while carrying the child and giving birth. First you skin the chicken (we used Rock Cornish game hens for better flavor) and cut it into pieces and boil it for 10 minutes, skimming the yucky stuff that floats to the top. Then you pour off the water and add fresh water and a bunch of green herbs that were flown in from Hmong relatives in California and cook it some more. See eats it three times a day with rice. That’s it. And I thought the traditional Orthodox fasting regiment was boring.

Oh, before I leave Anne Lamott’s book altogether, I want to share something she said that I thought was profound. Lamott is a Christian, a recovering alcoholic and drug addict, and a successful author living in a liberal community. She talks candidly about her faith throughout all her books, and in this one, she talks about the crucifix she has on the wall in her house:

“I went in and stared at the crucifix for a long time and breathed it in. I believe in it, and it’s so nuts. How did some fabulously cerebral and black-humored cynic like myself come to fall for all that Christian lunacy, to see the cross not as an end but as a beginning, to believe as much as I believe in gravity or in the size of space that Jesus paid a debt he did not owe because we had a debt we could not pay? It, my faith, is a great mystery…. I have a photograph on my wall of this ancient crucifix at a church over Corte Madera, a tall splintering wooden Christ with his arms blown off in some war, under which someone long ago wrote, ‘Jesus has no arms but ours to do his work and to show his love,’ and every time I read that, I always end up thinking that these are the only operating instructions I will ever need.”

If I thought my readers would hang in there with me, I’d write about the three trips I’ve made to Baby Depot to exchange the Boppy baby swing that had the wrong parts (twice) and we couldn’t open the battery compartment… or the craziness when I took the shuttle to the Hertz rental car place and left my cell phone on the shuttle and spent over an hour getting it back (thankfully) and then I had to get the instruction book out of the glove compartment to figure out how to start the ignition on the Nissan Murango I had rented, and then my GPS shut down as I was driving from the airport to Jason and See’s apartment but I finally got there. But those were just frustrations preparing me for a week with a newborn.

And now I’ve only got one day left and I miss her already. I am smitten. I’ll just put a few pictures here, and an album on my FaceBook page, and let you decide how long you want to spend oogling her.

Oh, and I’ve really enjoyed getting to know a few of Jason and See’s friends here in Denver… actually, one couple with a new little boy are coming over tomorrow, so they won’t make this post.

Sleep deprivation is setting in (and I have a sore throat and cough) so I won’t try to wax eloquent… I’ll just close with the best: one of my favorite pictures of Grace. God, I love her so much. I’ll be home Monday and will return to subjects much more mundane on Tuesday! Enjoy! And check out my FaceBook page for an album full of pics.


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