…or maybe not. I was driving to work the other morning, on my hour or two-hour commute (depending on traffic, of course), and passed the huge dairy on the west side of Highway 101 north of Novato. I saw this dairy cow, black and white spots, in a weird squatting position, and I thought with morbid fascination, “Great, just when I look, it’s going to pee,” or worse. And then I saw this grotesque red mucus sac protruding from its hindquarters and I realized as I flashed past at 70 mph that this cow was giving birth, standing on four legs in a muddy paddock with hundreds of other cows around it, and hundreds of weary commuters passing by without a care. And I thought, there must be a reason that I saw this.
Life is hard enough without being dropped from your mother’s warm womb into cold mud on a sunny but very cold Thursday. It’s hard enough that some days I want to stay in bed between skin-warm flannel the color of lilacs, and close my eyes against the drabness of rain, fog, slick roads, ceaseless deadlines. I want to lie in bed and listen to the trees in the woods creaking in the wind, hear the rain pelting the roof along with leaves, acorns, eucalyptus nuts, whatever else flies down. I like to hear the screech of the hawks who sit up on top of the tallest eucalyptus and spar with the crows, and the sound of the goats in the field across the road. At night the darkness isn’t frightening; it is cozy, like a blanket, and the stars are brilliant pinpricks in the sky and the owls hoot in the trees.
In the morning I find my way to the mirror and see every detail — the lines that seem to magnify by the day, the weirdness of the shape of my face, the imperfections that distort every photo. I hear my mother when I cough or sneeze, I see my father in the lines in my forehead, my sisters and brothers in the shape of my eyes, the jut of my chin. I see genetics in the faces of my children, in the way my eldest two look identical from behind, the way their voices begin to sound more alike, in the Doppelganger effect of looking back to my childhood when I look at my youngest — she is me at that very age.
And I am my mother — my father told me so the other day, when I sat reading with my glasses on and a clip pulling my hair off my face. “You look just like your mother,” he said with an edge of gruffness in his voice. My eldest daughter, who is half Nicaraguan but might as well be full-on, has never looked like me. She has now dyed her hair raven black, and her shoe-button eyes glitter like warm brown gems. She has a oval-shaped face to my heart-shape, and her eyes tilt slightly, so that she could more easily be Japanese or Native American or Filipina than half Scottish-English. And yet, there, in her black-and-white photos that we just bought for her auditions, the ones that cost me a fortune, she smiles her mother’s smile, and there is a ghost of me around the eyes, Will-o-the-wisp in nature, almost impossible for me to see — and everyone else says, “Jeez, she looks just like you.” Amazing stuff, DNA.
And where do we go from the double-helix? Backward to the old black and white photos in my family album, the ones of my father, a little boy during the Depression, in trousers that were much too large because his mother had cut down some man’s pants for him to wear. My grandmother, my great-grandmothers, great-grandfathers line up in this old photo, their grim, lined faces that are staring down the photographer as they also stared down hunger, and before that, the road from Canada, and before, the long ship’s passage from Glasgow or Oxford or even further back, Wales. My great-grandfather’s eyes are pale, probably as blue as my brother’s and sisters’, and even in this ancient photo, as bright as the eyes of a child.
I feel like a sojourner on this planet, carrying bits of the past into the future, in baggage I can never set down. If there is a ray of hope in anything, in the crude birth of a calf on a chilly morning, it is that life happens when it must, unexpectedly, miraculously, in all its bloody, mucky glory. And it is that I, too, am sending on my own message through my three daughters: go forth, live your lives, find your paths, send forth your spirits into the next little lives, and the next. That is comforting. As much joy as I get from seeing my girls in every step of their lives, I can’t wait to see what comes next. I’m looking forward to great-great-grandchildren. Won’t that be a treat?
Advice to aspiring writers: Seize the metaphor and run.