The Birthday Story

By Mary Sexson

 

My mother always told me the story on my birthday, no matter how old I was getting to be. I could close my eyes, when I was only twelve or thirteen, and remember every detail of the story by heart. I’d memorized what I thought the delivery room looked like, because of course I had no real picture of it. I did have one photo, with dog-eared corners, of a nurse with a cotton face mask on, holding an anonymous looking baby up to a camera. I had the perfect memory of how that story went and the look that would get on my mother’s face when she was telling it and getting to the good part. And there was the other story that went with it, the one about my name and how it’d come to be, and of course I didn’t know anyone else on earth who had a story even remotely like this one.

Whenever my mother would get ready to tell me the story, she would get this sort of dreamy look on her face, as if she were affirming the memory, checking it for accuracy, making sure the details were in place and everything was ready to go.

This was how the story went: in those days they used to knock you out when you had a baby, they would give you ether and you were asleep when you had the baby, you woke up and it was done. So, my mother was asleep having this baby and she woke up and she knew she’d had the baby. The doctor was down there in between her legs, which were still up in the stirrups, cleaning her up, like they did after you had a baby because you needed to be cleaned up. My mom wanted to know why he was doing that. It was a nurse’s job to clean her up. He told my mom that he was doing it because all the nurses were busy right then, because there were a lot of babies being born there that night.

There was my mom, laying on the table, the doctor was cleaning her up, and all of a sudden, my mom realized that she didn't know anything about the baby. She got excited and asked the doctor what she’d had. The doctor told her she’d had a little girl.

This completely blew my mother’s mind. My mother never said that in the story, she just said she was tickled, but to me, it blew my mother’s mind, because my mother wanted a little girl in the worst way. She already had four boys and only two girls, she was really hoping to even things out a little, to balance that boy/girl thing in our family. The doctor brought over the baby, which was me, to my mother. And he showed her that yes, it was a girl!

My mother was really excited, and she commented on how little this baby was. The doctor told her that for her it was a small baby, only seven pounds, nine ounces. He said she was tapering off, since she was older, and her last baby had weighed eleven pounds at birth.

I always laughed at this part of the story, because I would figure out ways to use this ammunition against my older brother, who did weigh eleven pounds at birth. Anyway, she was excited and she promptly named me Jean Marie.

There was nothing unusual about this name. I knew the extraordinary thing was that the name was not the name I was supposed to get. My mother told me that when she first found out she was having another baby, she knew that she wanted a girl. Being the religious Catholic woman that she was, she prayed to Mary, the mother of Jesus. She told Mary that if she would let her have this little girl baby, she, my mother, would name her Mary, in her honor. It seemed so dramatic and dreamy to me when I heard it that it became my favorite part of the whole story. My mother was praying on a regular basis, going to church, lighting those vigil lights, doing novenas, all of it just so she might have a baby girl to balance out her family. And now she had this little girl but did not keep her word. Instead she named her after her sister, whom she loved deeply.

Immediately, my mother was beseeched by unmitigated guilt. Every time someone cooed over me, calling me the name that was like blasphemy, she cringed and writhed in her guilt. It was an incredible mixture of joy and pain: she had the baby girl she wanted but she had cursed this event with her broken promise.

The only logical thing for my mother to do, she said, was to go to the priest. The priest was incredibly level-headed. He asked my mother if the child had been baptized. She said she hadn’t done this yet. The priest offered my mother her own salvation. Baptize the child with the name of the Blessed Virgin. My mother’s chance for absolution was at hand. All wrongs could be made right with one fell swoop. The baptism date was set. Now there was only one small problem. This child had the middle name of Marie. My mother couldn’t possibly name me Mary Marie, it just wouldn’t do. Again, the priest stepped in, offering the middle name of Ann, the mother of Mary.

And so, the girl who had been Jean Marie became, on that mild spring day, Mary Anne. My mother, in a last-ditch effort to gain control over the situation, had stuck the “e” on the end of Ann for good measure. It was something unique, innocuous, but special, like the girl who slept then, content, in the curve of her mother’s arm.

 
 

 
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Mary Sexson - Mary Sexson is the author of 103 in the Light, Selected Poems 1996-2000 and co-author of Company of Women, New and Selected Poems. Her poems have appeared in various publications, and in many anthologies, including Reckless Writing, and The Best of Flying Island. Her newest work is in HoosierLit and Tipton Poetry Journal. She was recently a part of the DaVinci Project. Her poetry is part of a year-long installation at the Prophetstown State Park in Indiana.