Bot­tle to the ear

Maryland Independent - - Southern Maryland Classified - Twit­ter: @right­meg.

As a kid, I loved noth­ing more than paw­ing through my par­ents’ things.

Mom’s closet was our happy place. Be­ing pint-sized and all, I was an ex­plorer tan­gled in a busi­ness-ca­sual jun­gle: Mom’s sum­mer suits and sweaters, feather­weight blouses and heels.

Sun­days were spent with Mom at the iron­ing board, get­ting her of­fice wardrobe ready for an­other busy week. The scent of Magic Siz­ing starch is em­bed­ded in my mem­o­ries. My sis­ter and I would play with the jewelry on her night­stand, crash­ing on the bed as Mom caught up on the past week of “The Oprah Win­frey Show” on VHS.

Even now, decades later, the tchotchkes in my par­ents’ room come back in my flash. I was al­ways pre­oc­cu­pied with Mom’s grown-up be­long­ings, slip­ping my clumsy feet in her shoes and try­ing to walk in them.

We of­ten played the neck­lace game — a ver­sion of “store” us­ing fash­ion jewelry. I started my ca­reer in re­tail early, por­tray­ing a snooty clerk as­sist­ing Mom with shop­ping for “her mother.” My tod­dler sis­ter gave an Os­car-wor­thy per­for­mance as Mom’s par­ent.

Be­yond the sparkly baubles, my par­ents had a cu­rio cabi­net of sorts along one wall. On a high shelf was an ob­ject of much fas­ci­na­tion: a ce­ramic father holding a baby.

I have no idea where it came from; it could have been hand­made. I re­cently searched for it on­line and found noth­ing (save the rude awak­en­ing that my ’80s-era mem­o­ries are now “vin­tage,” but we won’t wade into that pool).

Look­ing back, it’s a clas­sic de­pic­tion: tired father up late feed­ing a new­born, as mine of­ten was. Dad and Mom tell the story of how they fi­nally sprang for ca­ble tele­vi­sion af­ter I ar­rived, so of­ten was Dad bored at 3 a.m. while I ate.

So this fig­urine I re­mem­ber? Prob­a­bly true to life. It fea­tured a father re­clined in an easy chair, swad­dled in­fant in his arms. The man is asleep — head lolling back, mouth hang­ing open — while his sur­prised baby stares out . . . with a bot­tle in his ear. A bot­tle. In his ear. This was non­sen­si­cal, bizarre, hi­lar­i­ous to a child — a kid with no con­cept of the soul-crush­ing ex­haus­tion and delir­ium of those early days. I thought it was a toy. Mom fre­quently took it down from a shelf so I could ex­am­ine it, cau­tioned to hold it tightly. It was funny.

What would have to hap­pen, I thought, for some­one to stick a bot­tle in a baby’s ear?

Decades later, I got my an­swer.

Even sleep­ing through the night since last Septem­ber, our 10-month-old still has oc­ca­sional 2 a.m. wake-ups that start as chat­ter and end in screams. Oliver is re­cov­er­ing from surgery, so I’m happy to cut him some slack — but it’s tough think­ing ra­tio­nally when you’re star­tled awake that early.

Last sum­mer, when Ol­lie was still a mewl­ing new­born, I slept so lightly I’m not sure it was sleep at all. I wor­ried Oliver would need us and we wouldn’t hear him . . . you know, from the bassinet right by my head. It seemed rea­son­able that we would nap only briefly, ready to jump up should any­thing — that scary, all-en­com­pass­ing “any­thing” — hap­pen.

But when we got over that hump and Ol­lie be­gan sleep­ing for hours at a stretch, my hus­band and I set­tled back into fa­mil­iar pre-baby rou­tines. We got spoiled. We got soft. And then it started up again. I heard the stir­ring just be­fore 2 a.m. Tues­day. The chat­ter­ing is usu­ally fol­lowed by me fum­bling around for a clock, hop­ing it’s close to morn­ing, but that’s rarely our luck. Spencer went in to get the baby as I pre­pared a bot­tle, and we both col­lapsed in the dark­ened liv­ing room while Oliver en­joyed his late-night snack.

I looked at my hus­band holding our son. Spencer’s head was back, eyes closed, breath­ing deeply. By con­trast? Oliver was wide-eyed, smil­ing against the bot­tle, gaze flick­ing be­tween his lov­ing, di­sheveled par­ents. He kicked his feet. He arched his back. He grabbed the bib, wav­ing it like a flag. Sur­ren­der.

The bot­tle didn’t wind up in an ear, but it was close.

It was the ce­ramic statue come to life — a real-life de­pic­tion that took 25 years for me to un­der­stand. I thought of that old trin­ket in­stantly.

My par­ents don’t re­mem­ber it, likely from hav­ing cared for Katie and me through so many dark hours . . . but I do.

And maybe some­day my son will un­der­stand, too.

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