My only memory of my birth place is when I had to go back, years later, to retrieve a copy of my birth certificate. Dave and I took PATCO across the river from Philly and went straight to City Hall. I put in my records request and sat to wait. There was only one other person in the waiting room, and she looked at me suspiciously, with eyes like slits.
“Cooper?” she asked.
“Yes,” I replied.
“Yeah, I thought so,” she said, and dismissed me quick by crossing her arms and turning her back to me.
My number was called, I collected my records, and we went home.
I imagined the woman in the waiting room was judging me because I was clearly a Camden interloper. She’d been referring to Cooper Medical Center, where I’d been born. I’d only come to town to be born one time, at a medical facility that seemed to have some specific connotation for this woman, something unpleasant in its association with me. I was a person with no clear ties to this place or its people. I’d come into the waiting room after she did and left before she even stirred from her chair. I was only temporarily waiting, just like I’d only temporarily been in Camden. It was my first stop in life, and it was more than twenty years before I came back.
My parents didn’t live in Camden, but in Merchantville. They were working on law degrees at Rutgers’ Camden campus. I briefly considered quizzing my parents about this time in our lives, the only time when it was us three, and what it was like when they were just two, but instead I’m relying on my faulty memory of hearsay and rumor, random overheard remarks, and the few anecdotes I’ve heard enough to repeat in my sleep.
Here’s what I know/don’t really know for sure. My parents were married for at least a good few years before I was born. They’d met in Boston, both at BU, where my mom learned to smoke unfiltered Lucky Strikes because it made her feel like she was in the movies. She had a roommate. She met my dad in a class, either Shakespeare or Botany for Poets, or none of those. She was a year older, had already left school once and came back. (No wonder she was horrified when I did the same.) My dad thought she was very beautiful, he told me once she was the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen. For some reason they transferred to UMass Amherst. They started spending time with my aunt Meredith, who still speaks of my mom with real fondness. My parents had lived together in Boston, too. I don’t know when they got married, but I do know they got a dog.
My dad collected a puppy from a litter of puppies whose mama dog had been killed by a car. The mama dog’s name had been Boozer, so they named this puppy Boo 2. Boo was a gift for my mom. Boo peed on my dad’s pillow in their tiny apartment on Beacon Hill. I’d like to reiterate that I don’t know any of this for sure. Boo travelled with them to UMass and eventually died on my parents (mom and step-dad’s) kitchen floor in Philly PA. My mom laid on the floor with Boo, who was too feeble to climb the stairs, and snuggled her until she died. Boo was a collie sheep dog mutt who was afraid to walk over sidewalk grates. She let me lay on her and scratch her ears. She was a lover. She made a sound when a person she loved would leave. She meeped. She went: meep meep meep! My aunt Meredith kept the tradition. With Meredith and uncle P we all meep at each other as a sign of true love far away. Cousins, brothers, sisters, aunties, uncles, nephews, long lost friends and faraway ones: I meep you.
My mom wanted to go to law school, and the story goes that she filled out the applications for both of them. They got into a school in the Pacific Northwest, and really wanted to go, but Rutgers’ gave them loads of cash, or perhaps was super cheap, so that’s where they went. They’ve both mentioned to me: I wonder what it would have been like if we’d moved to the Pacific Northwest? One thing is for certain: everything might have been completely different, or it might have been exactly the same. How much does place play a role in life decisions? Surrounded by that pounding cold ocean, tall trees and mist, family so far away, with a chance to truly start fresh, would they have stayed together? Also I might have been named Jordana.
Between one school and another, perhaps after college graduation, I don’t know when, they travelled to Europe. They backpacked and rode bikes. The camped out and all their clothes got soaked in France. They didn’t bring jeans because they didn’t want to look too American. They ended up buying jeans in France. They visited Norway, where some of my Gramma D’s family still lives. They saw the houses in the fjord where my Bestemor and Bestefar grew up. My Bestemor skied to school. My mom learned “shiftinabreeze” is a Norweigian weather term that means just what it says, that a “huta” is a perfect little tiny vacation cabin where everything is exactly in its own place, and that “flink” means super clever. The Norweigians weren’t real huggy people. My dad looks just like them, and his hugs go on forever. My parents stayed up all night and the sun never went down. Norway is beautiful. They went to Italy, where my Nona still had family. The Italians hug like crazy. The Italians look just like my mom. There’s a worm in a cherry picked fresh from a tree. My mom exclaims to her cousin “there’s a worm in my cherry!” “They’re all like that,” says her cousin, bites one in half, and shows her. My parents eat the bowl full, worms and all. My mom gets a fever in Florence, my dad explores the city on his own and with another cousin, who is young and pretty and likes to practice her English. My mom is shunned by northern Italians when she mentions that her father’s family is Sicilian.
They come back to New Jersey. They move in with a bunch of other law students. They study. I am born. My Gram comes down from Long Island to pay the hospital bill. My mom says she brings me and Boo to class and we are super chill the whole time. She says she and my dad switch off child care and classes, and she keeps me in a seat on the table while she studies. It sounds much like the way Dave and I have been doing what I call the child-care juggle: switching off who’s at work and who’s at home.
Then my parents split up. I think I was about ten months old. I’ve heard different reasons why, from my dad, my mom, my aunts. But I don’t really know, like know in my heart for real, what happened or why. My friend Rachel is a social worker who works with kids, and for research purposes she asked me about my parents’ breakup.
“When did you get over your parents’ divorce?” she asked.
“Never,” I replied truthfully, and realizing for the first time that it was true.
Perhaps I’m over sensitive, or particularly melancholy in some genetic way, but ‘never’ is still my answer. Rachel was surprised. I was surprised. I’d been asked the question once before, in a junior high guidance counselor’s office. In sixth grade I’d replied “duh, they’ve been divorced my whole life, I’m over it.” Guess not though. I’m not carrying around some broken hurt all the time, I’m pretty well adjusted, but it’s a thing.
After graduation I lived with my dad. I’m not totally square on the details, but my dad has told me again and again over the years that he wanted me real bad. I always believed that, and I’ve always felt close to my dad because of it. But I’ve equally believed that my mom didn’t want me, not at that time in her life, not full time. This had seemed like an okay thing to me, she wanted to pursue her own deal. Who wouldn’t? Kids can be a rough and not a particularly welcome adjustment. It was the late ’70’s, it was about the be the ’80’s, my mom is incredibly bright and she must have felt that power and drive to succeed. As a woman, as my mother’s daughter, I completely understood that. I would make off the cuff comments about how my mom wanted to pursue a career instead of raise me. I would think, who wouldn’t?
After I had my son, and looked in his little face, and took care of him every day, thinking, when we were not together, how best to take care of him, considering his needs, how best to serve them, and feeling joyful about it, my perspective on my mother’s choice began to shift. It didn’t change from the perspective of a career woman to the perspective of a mother, but from the perspective of a career woman to the perspective of a 10-month old. I looked at my son, how much he counted on me, how much he wanted me to hold him all the time, how he wanted me over his father sometimes, how he wanted to just be with me, his mom, and it made me tear up to think of how I must have felt as a baby to not be with my mom. I didn’t know how to deal with how I felt about this. I tried to talk to my brother D about it, but he was kind of like, “I’m not your guy.” I tried to talk to Dave about it, and he was like, “your feelings make sense.” I talked to my dad briefly, and he was like “you should talk to your mom.”
The best way to talk to my mom is while she’s driving. She loves to drive. I think it’s because she quite literally can’t be expected to do anything else: she’s driving, that’s enough, so if there’s talking or listening to audio books, that is instant multi-tasking. I decided to talk to my mom while driving. I geared up. I was ready to do it. I began to broach the subject, which was basically all about me, all about how I felt bad, abandoned, unwanted, everything that had been bubbling up in me since my son turned 10 months old and I’d realized with certainty exactly what she’d left behind. But before I could really start, I realized with a greater certainty that all of these things hurt her. Not only did she feel hurt for her past choices, but that hurt was unhealed. That open hurt had been stitched and restitched over the years so that the itch from the stitches was a familiar feeling. The windows were down, the breeze was warm, my son was in the back seat, my mom loves to drive, and I decided that the last thing I was going to do was to rip out stitches on such a pretty day.
It also became clear that we didn’t need to talk about it; she already knows everything that’s really important. And when she hugs me, releasing a breath she’s held for a very long time, I know it’s true.