“Davies' collection of essays soars.... It's a memoir that locates the profound within the ordinary.” —Entertainment Weekly
If you’re looking for a typical parenting book, this is not it. This is not a treatise on how to be a mother.
This is a book about a young girl who moves to a new town every couple of years; a misfit teenager who finds solace in a local music scene; an adrift twenty-something who drops out of college to pursue her dream of making cheesecake on a stick a successful business franchise (ah, the ideals of youth). Alone in a new city, she summons her inner strength as she holds the hand of a dying stranger. Davies is a woman who finds humor in difficult pregnancies and post-partum depression (after reading “Pie” you might never eat Thanksgiving dessert the same way). She is a divorcee who unexpectedly finds second love. She is a happily married suburban wife who nevertheless makes a mental list of all the men she would have slept with. And she is a parent who finds herself tested in ways she could never imagine. In stories that cut to the quick, Davies explores passion, loss, illness, pain, and joy, told from her singular, gimlet-eyed, hilarious perspective.
Mothers of Sparta is not a blow-by-blow of Davies’ life but rather an examination of the exquisite and often painful moments of a life, the moments we look back on and say, That one, that one mattered. Straddling the fence between humor and, well…not humor, Davies has written a book about what it’s like to try to carve a place for oneself in the world, no matter how unyielding the rock can be.
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About the Author
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It was Thanksgiving week and my husband and I were living far from the South that I loved, far from deep-fried turkey, and my mother's stuffing and my mother-in-law's candied sweet potatoes, far from watching gauzy curtains wave in the breeze while the warm sun shone over the holiday feast. My family would pray over the meal, then consume it fairly quickly, after which the men would groan up and lumber like zombies for the football game while the women started coffee and headed off for the shade of the back porch where the fans were running. Thanksgiving week in the South usually afforded us some decent beach time, too, and I knew what to expect of it. But it was snowing all over this new place. In fact, New England had been blanketed by an early snow that lingered and depressed me, bringing with it a cold that stopped me in my tracks. There was no sun. I had had a baby fourteen days earlier and my hormones were starting to settle in that place you have to be careful about, the place that, if you don't watch it, will lead you into a postpartum land empty of color and joy, but I didn't know that yet, I was so bewitched by this little baby girl.
My husband's friend, David Blueblood, who had a kind heart and didn't want to see a couple of transplants spend the holiday alone, had invited us to his parents' house for Thanksgiving Day. On the Tuesday before, I called him and asked what I could bring. He reminded me that we must be exhausted, he urged me to not bring anything, but my mother didn't raise me to be rude — you don't show up to someone's house empty-handed — so I volunteered to bring a pie.
"Don't bring a pie," he said.
"It's fine. I'll bring a pumpkin. I do a good pumpkin."
"Honestly, I hate to say this, but my mother is very particular about her pies. In fact, our entire Thanksgiving dinner is homemade. Please don't trouble yourself."
"It'll be homemade. Don't worry." I had easily baked pumpkin pie a dozen times before. When I hung up, I decided that I would make it the following day, Wednesday, so it would be fresh for Thanksgiving. This pie would be a piece of cake, so to speak.
That night, the baby had her first real bout of screaming colic, the kind where a kid's face gets all stiff and dark and you can see it trying to shit itself in desperation, but it can't so it just screams instead. I stayed up most of the night with her because my husband, who had already worked thirty-six hours in three days, had to work the next morning as well, and I could at least nap during the day while the baby was asleep. At first we rocked in the living room, where her shrieks echoed off the bare walls and funneled into the bedroom, and then we ended up in the front room office, which was unheated and freezing cold. I stayed in there for several minutes, hoping the chill would startle her into shutting up. When that didn't work, we took a drive around the neighborhood in the car, where I had my first taste of loving the baby fiercely while simultaneously resenting everything she stood for. Around six in the morning, she fell asleep, and I did too, for about two hours. By eight, she was up screaming and I had my hands full of salty, angry, drippy, writhing baby for the rest of the morning. I was exhausted beyond any previous knowledge of exhaustion, and I knew I still had to bake that pie.
I called my mother and asked what to do for colic.
"Put her down," she said. "Let her cry."
"I can do that?"
"It's called self-preservation. For you, not her. Trust me; you'll need to develop this skill if you're going to make it eighteen years."
I put the baby down on her quilt on the floor and she hollered herself hoarse while I preheated the oven of the old gas stove and chopped up the fresh pumpkin. I set the timer and baked the pumpkin chunks in the oven while I paced the dining room with the baby, clutching her like a football between my forearm and ribs. It was noon before she agreed to take the boob, but it only seemed to agitate her, and she screamed harder. At some point while she was trying to nurse, I smelled pumpkin, looked at my watch, and leaped up from the settled place we had gotten to, then ran to the kitchen with her tucked into my armpit, causing her to scream again. The buzzer on the old stove had not gone off and the pumpkin was turning a deep brown and starting to steam. The baby screamed and screamed. At around two, Sister Mary Clare, one of the nuns from the convent next door, came over to see if I was beating the baby, under the guise of asking if she could do anything to help.
"It's just colic," I said, as I stood in my doorway. The baby screamed over top of me.
"I've got it covered," I said. I held the baby up against my shoulder and rocked from side to side by slowly bending one knee at a time.
"I see that. Are you still in your nightgown?"
"It's been a long day." My bottom lip quivered, and something broke in me. I began to weep quietly. "Nothing I do makes it better. She won't stop."
"Give her over," the nun said. She held out her old, bent hands and I handed her the baby, who took a deep breath and stopped yelling. She rested her chin against the nun's shoulder like nothing had been wrong. The baby, whose eyes were learning how to focus, looked around curiously.
"We're going to go next door for a little while. Between me and the three old fools I live with, we should be able to pass a crying baby back and forth. Go relax. Take a bath. Come get her in a half an hour."
I did not have time to take a bath. I needed to make that pie crust and roll it out and get it in the oven, then I needed to peel and puree the pumpkin, and make the filling, then bake a pie good enough for a New England family that liked everything homemade. I made one pie crust properly, with Crisco and vinegar, rolled it out, lifted it into the pie plate, fluted the edges of the crust like my grandmother had taught me, put it in the oven, set the buzzer correctly this time, for five minutes, then went to the bathroom for the first time since early that morning. I sat there on the toilet with unease, feeling strangely alone, then I got up and brushed my teeth, and brushed my hair, then had time to put on a pair of jeans and a clean sweatshirt before I realized the buzzer had not gone off again. I ran into the kitchen and opened the oven. Smoke rolled out. I had burned the pie crust black.
They don't tell you about the level of exhaustion you will face when you have a baby. They say you won't get much sleep for the first few months, but they don't tell you that it will affect your ability to think, that you will become so tired that you will fail at the simplest of tasks, because you are so exhausted that your brain is impaired. I quickly made another crust, then put it in the pie plate, then fluted the edges, then set it on the counter while I pureed the pumpkin. As soon as I turned off the beaters, I could hear the baby screaming from next door, so I grabbed a blanket and went over to get her. It was snowing harder. The twenty-foot walk between the two houses seemed to take a considerable effort. I could feel my thighs burning and I was afraid I was going to slip in the new snow. I knocked on the door.
"She's a pistol," Sister Margaret Mary said. I stepped in and Sister Mary Theresa handed her over. Sister Mary Clare prayed over the roaring baby while we stood awkwardly in the foyer of their little convent.
Back at the house, I put the baby in the baby sling, a bright cotton granola-head gift from a hippie friend, a gift that I had had no intention of using, and hoisted her onto my back, swaddled tightly onto me as if we were from some other country, a place where women routinely cook difficult things from scratch over hot fires with babies hanging on them like possums. She immediately quieted, and I put the pie together, rocking my way through the kitchen, singing softly, admiring my own brilliance. I gently placed the pie in the oven, set the buzzer for fifty-five minutes, then lay down on the floor quilt with the baby, who was now soundless and sleeping deeply for the first time in two days. I closed my eyes for a moment and it was a beautiful moment.
I woke to thick smoke filling the house. I left the baby on the floor, raced into the kitchen, and pulled the charred pie out of the oven and tossed it onto a snowbank in the backyard. Then I opened all the windows and doors in the house and started crying. Screw this buzzer, I thought. Screw this broken buzzer and this Northern gas oven that I didn't know how to control. The baby, who was low on the floor, in the only space free of smoke, woke up and started screaming. Every time she cried, it made my milk flow, and two wet circles appeared on the front of my sweatshirt and grew clammy in the cold air that was beginning to fill the house.
By the time my husband drove up, the pie was generating a cylindrical smoke signal straight up through the neighborhood like a beacon leading him home. He found me in the kitchen weeping softly and fanning the smoke out of the open windows while the baby roared from her smoke-free space on the floor.
"I cannot seem to make this pie," I said.
"I'll go buy a pie." He picked up the baby, who yelled into his face.
"No. We can't. I said we would bring a home-baked pie. It's not that hard to do. I've done it a dozen times. And besides, if I stay in this house one more minute, I'm going to lose it." He rocked the baby back and forth and held his keys up on one finger.
At the Star Market, I was hefting the fresh pumpkins in the produce aisle, my eyes burning with fatigue, when I had a new thought: Fuck this pie. I went to the baking aisle and bought Libby's canned spiced pumpkin pie mix, and a ready-bake crust already in the pie plate, covered sweetly in a circle of wax paper to protect the tender, unbaked crust that looked every bit as good as the one I had spent forty-five minutes making two times over. My problem was solved, even if it was a hinky solution.
That night we almost called the nuns over for an exorcism. We passed the baby back and forth while she screamed so hard she vomited. We waited for her head to spin around. She writhed in our arms and hollered until each of us wanted to fling her, at which point we would pass her off to the other person and go and stand outside on the back porch in the snow, thinking of pre-baby days where we could do the things we wanted, normal things, like reading the paper sitting down, or taking a shower, or baking a pie. At two, the baby finally fell asleep on my husband's chest, and I put together the canned pie mix and baked it in the prepackaged crust. I sat in the kitchen and watched the clock, checking the pie every ten minutes while I drank several cups of coffee. It took fifty-five minutes from start to finish and I was pleased with myself. By this point, I had slept perhaps three hours out of the last sixty and I had never before felt so odd without having been ill. In the few moments before I finally fell asleep, I saw briefly, out of the corner of my eye, a small giraffe bending down to take a bite of the area rug in my bedroom.
We awoke the next morning to the memory of the previous day's storm, to rays of sun passing through the lace dining room curtains, to a peaceful, pink-cheeked baby, a dirty kitchen that still smelled like smoke, and one perfect, deceptively un-homemade pie in the fridge. I had slept four hours in a row, straight through to six A.M. for the first time since the baby had been born.
That afternoon we left Boston and drove to a nearby town with rolling hills and old colonials, a town I had never seen before, to break bread with the Bluebloods, the kind of proper New England family most people only read about. This was a family that went way back. A family that had a summer place in Maine or maybe on Cape Cod. A family that used different sets of silver for different occasions. A family that liked a completely homemade Thanksgiving. I held the pie on my lap like a Fabergé egg while the baby slept in the backseat like an angel. The snow that covered the Massachusetts hills turned the region into a series of postcards, and for a few minutes, I didn't miss the South.
You don't have to talk much when you show up to a place with a new baby. They take your things quickly, unburden you of your coat and your diaper bag and your baby. They shove you down in a chair, and begin drilling you with questions, while holding the baby improperly, in ways you know she doesn't like. But you are so happy that you are not holding the baby for once that you let it happen, you ignore the thought of germs marching up their hands and arms and onto the baby's face, and you sit back. They ask you questions about the baby that one might ask about a new pet: How much does she sleep? How much does she weigh? What does she eat? Does she do any tricks?
These Bluebloods, eight in all, were gracious and proper and well educated. They read the classics and talked about them. They loved tradition and their vocabularies far exceeded mine. I felt like a hillbilly at the White House, and in situations like that, I knew to keep my mouth shut, so I sat quietly and smiled, and drank whatever aperitif they handed me in Great-Great-Great-Grandmother Blueblood's sherry glass that had come over on the Mayflower. The baby slept sweetly. Before I knew it, I had downed two Lillets and a Dubonnet, nibbling on salted nuts while they talked about things I didn't understand, but grew increasingly interested in as the alcohol took effect. When the baby woke up and mewed politely, I asked to be excused and Mrs. Blueblood guided me into a room not too far off the living room. When I walked, I felt my body pitch, and realized I was buzzed for the first time in many months.
Alone in the dim, well-appointed Queen Anne office, I sat in a wing-backed chair and nursed my daughter. All traces of yesterday's demon baby were gone, and she pressed against my bare chest and placed her rosebud fingers on my swollen breast. I touched her tiny nails. I could feel her relax, and the relief from the pressure of my boob while she drained it was magnificent. My body had begun to reward me with the hormones it gives new mothers — warm, happy, satisfied hormones, and I sat back in the chair, reminded of a nursing sow lying flat out on her side in an oxytocin-induced stupor, drunk with pleasure. While she nursed, I cried silent, happy tears that leaked out of my eyes and rolled down my cheeks. About 50 percent of the time we did this I cried in this way and it, too, was not unpleasant.
Another thing they don't tell you about when you have a baby is the amount of leaking there will be, and not just from the baby. Any time the baby cried, my breasts leaked milk. If I heard a baby cry on television, my breasts leaked milk. Occasionally when I simply thought about the baby, my eyes leaked tears, though I was not unhappy. Once in a while, when caught unawares and I didn't tighten up in time, I peed when I laughed. They make products for each all of these things and, in fear of losing control of something, either myself or the baby, I bought them all.
Breast pads are round, white pads made out of the same material as menstrual pads. They stick onto the inside of your bra and absorb the milk that leaks out of you every time you think about your baby. When the baby nurses from the left breast, the right breast leaks like a faucet, and you usually need to hold a breast pad up to it, or face squirting your lap, or the baby's legs, or anyone else in the room with you. I bought these breast pads, along with pads for leaking pee when I laughed, and extra tissues, and baby wipes for all the leaking the baby's back end did, and the rubber bulb for sucking up all the leaking the baby's nose did, and the plastic pads to put the baby on when changing her diaper, and many, many diapers, and the bibs to catch all the leaking that came from her face, and the spit-up towels to throw over my shoulder to catch the prodigious, spontaneous, post-meal mouth leaking. I kept all these things in a giant soft-sided trunk they called a diaper bag, and carried it everywhere I went, in case of emergency.
The baby was tiny enough to have no room in her digestive system for both new food and waste, so whenever she ate, she crapped, a full gastro-colic reflex, like a bird or a fish would do. I finished nursing her, then changed her diaper on top of the plastic baby-changing pad that came with the new diaper bag. In the dim light, I folded a tiny triangle out of the baby wipe, and I cleaned the poop out of the folds of her labia and her belly button. Baby poop moves forward, too, as well as back, and often leaks out of the top of the diaper, another thing they don't tell you. I rolled the soiled wipes in the old diaper and put the rolled-up diaper in its special pocket in the diaper bag. Then I snapped up the baby's little green velour footie suit, folded up the diaper-changing pad, and changed my breast pads. It was growing dark, and I fumbled with all of the equipment while joggling the baby, whom I wanted to keep happy. Outside the door I heard the stirrings of polite conversation, the kind you might hear through the door of a probate attorney's office, and a clinking of glasses and appetizer plates.
Excerpted from "Mothers of Sparta"
Copyright © 2018 Dawn Davies.
Excerpted by permission of Flatiron Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Night Swim 1
Three Places 5
Keeping The Faith 20
Games I Play 43
Fear Of Falling 69
Field Manual-Divorce And Remarriage: Suburban Ops 79
Men I Would Have Slept With 103
Kicking The Snakes 118
Two Views Of A Secret 135
Foster Dog 150
Soccer Mom 163
The Dress 173
King Of The World 196
Mothers Of Sparta 217
Four Animals 245