Bottle to the ear
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.