Birth Mother by Tom Holmes

Birth Mother Journal Entry From Mid-October, 1967

Three books line the windowsill, and I rest my elbows on them and look for Arthur. A man walks by after the morning rain. He has mud on sleeves, mostly on his longer left arm. He’s a slight limp and manages the puddles, as he walks with his head to the ground. He turns a corner, and I think he shivers as I do.

The Men with Mittens are shovelling coal. They sweat despite the fall chill. The Mirror-Glasses are fogged up and step in dust-covered puddles. They walk over to the Men with Mittens and talk to them, and the Men with Mittens nod, then shovel slower, more deliberate.

It’s dry in here. The book bindings crack or maybe it’s my elbows. I write long letters on yellow paper to Arthur night after night. I haven’t slept because I don’t trust they’re being mailed.

The Milk Bottles walk down the hallway reminding everyone of lunch. Today it’s tomato soup. I like the warmth of it but not the taste of it. They should know this by now. They don’t listen to me. I wonder if they like milk or chocolate. Arthur used to give me chocolate from a confectioner in downtown Buffalo, but here the chocolate is just dry wax in aluminium foil. The sink’s brown water is just as tasty, unless I brush my teeth first. The leaves look like chocolate today. I bet they’re crunchy, but they don’t let me outside, so I can’t taste them to know. I’ll never know.

When it’s night, I want to eat the white chocolate moon, even though I can’t reach to eat it. When it rises, the Mirror-Glasses walk away like the man with muddy sleeves. Confident. Arthur’s confident, but not in me. Sometimes I take off my clothes and wave my books in the window. Surely he’ll see the books or smell me.

Today I found a cicada and ate it instead of the tomato soup. It cried like a bullfrog with a goat in its throat. So many tankas lost meaning when I chewed it.

Autumn cicadas
singing Japanese delight
crackle in my teeth –
winter snow will soon arrive
as premature cocoa beans.

Even now the chocolate trees in arboretum are frosted over, as the aluminium bushes. There’s so little to hope for but sleep and washing my feet in the toilet. The Milk Bottles say, “You cannot run away, even with clean feet.” Still, I try. Still I flirt with the Men with Mittens to dig me a tunnel. I think they are. Sometimes I see a red glow below their shovels. I’d think they are digging too fast, but the Mirror-Glasses told them to dig slow, so there’s hope . . . or hell . . . or Arthur finding me reading a book in the window.

The mud-stained man returns. His face is red, and he leaps to pull a leaf from a tree limb and eats it. He waves to me like he’s cleaning my window. I wave back to dirty it up. He’ll be back, and I’ll lick his chocolate teeth and ask for stamps and a library card.


Birth Mother Journal Entry From Early December, 1967

The people here are bald and wear bandages on their heads, and the Milk Bottles wear masks and walk with purpose and clipboards. One Milk Bottle escorts me to a side room, lowers its silver hat, looks into mine eyes with its homogenised eyes, and says, “You will want family to participate in this stage of your life and next. Where are they? Why aren’t they here?”

“Sir, I’m new here. My family is Russian nesting dolls back in Idaho or Morocco or Istanbul. They unstacked when I was young. I’m here with you. I offer my hand to you. Why are yours in your pockets?”

I don’t hear what it says after it raises its silver hat and adjusts its mask, but it homes me in a good room with a view of the arboretum, where there are men in shorts and mittens. I realize either a mid-day boxing match is about to ding-ding to a bout or I was near The Lab of Incurable Dreams, but that’s for the women, not the men. Their confusion angers me, and the windows don’t block them from looking in on me, so I unpack my bag of books and heart-shaped stones and stack them tight in the window. A bug’s eye can’t fit through, but still the light. I’ll patch the cracks later with toothpaste and cotton swabs.

“Do you have any money? Do you know where you are from? Do you know how to cook or tie an apron? Do you remember what you said last time?”

I don’t know why the Milk Bottle is so frustrated. I brush my bangs to the side as I try to recall a memory of this previous inquisition it referenced. I can’t, so I feign, “I imagine I can cook if I read about it. I’ve no money today, but people often leave me money when they go away, usually on the night stand. Do you need some? I’ll see what I can do. How soon do you need it? I hope it’s not for booze or cigarettes.

“Do you need me to make you a meal? Oh darling, I’d advise you to do like me and just go down to the diner. It’ll barely cost a thing, except a good conversation and maybe helping a tourist find his hotel. It’s all good fun. Better than being alone over a hot pot and under a spinning fan.

“And no, I don’t own an apron to tie. Besides, I’d buy a slip-on one, like my shoes, because I don’t know how to tie those either. I hope you don’t expect me to tie your shoes. I’d just make a knot of things, and you’d fall over and shatter on the floor. Milk and honey I like, but not milk and shattered glass. You sure are needy. You should wear loafers if you’re so needy. Why are you here? Do you need someone to take care of you?”

“In the future, you may need to care for someone, but you need not worry at this moment.”

As it leaves, it places a note with some beans on my nightstand. The note reads, “Eat these at bedtime.” It signed the note, “Rx.” What funny initials. I speculate, “Ronald Xavier, Reginald Xanxibar, Ricardo Xenograft, Renaldo Xcelsior, Rasputin Xenophon.” Now that it’s gone, I can patch the tiny sliver cracks.

I can’t determine if I patched all the holes or if the sun is down, but I’m hungry and tired. I should eat these beans it left behind. I wonder what they do, though they certainly aren’t a meal. Can I trust a Milk Bottle that hides behind a mask and asks so many personal questions?

Who’s in the hallway opening and closing doors? They think they are being quiet, but they’re so loud. They’re getting closer to my door. I wish I had a lock. Here they come, closer and closer. Another Milk Bottle opens my door and says, “Lights out. Time for bed. Be sure to take what was left for you. You’ll sleep well, and tomorrow is a big day. Hurry up please. It is time.”

“Yes. Ok,” I reply, then think, “What’s tomorrow?” My heart’s pounding and my forehead is perspiring. I don’t know. I’m not going to sleep. I need to calm down. I can still hear it walking down the hall, closing and opening doors. I can hear the leaves outside reassembling on the branches. They must be alive. They look different every day. The first day here they were green, the next day red, then orange the following day. Today, they’re yellow. They sure are moody. I wish my parents were here or anyone from home or the neighborhood or library. I love Arthur. He finds me all the books I need and doesn’t judge me based on what I check out, and he always trusts me to return them on time, and I do, except last time. I was late and he kind of ignored me. I don’t know. Maybe I think too much about these things. I mean, he was helping other readers, library-whispering to them about what books will be best for them. But he always said hello to me. At least he let me check out some more, but he didn’t even look at me.

I hear a big door slam and maybe some chains rattle. I don’t like it here. I’m not going to sleep. These beans are all different colors and sizes. Maybe I’ll take just take the small one first. The leaves are still too loud. I’ll take them all and sleep. It’ll be good for me, like the Milk Bottle said.

I don’t remember falling asleep, but when I wake there are three Milk Bottles looking over me, and one hands me a big, red tomato. I say, “I don’t like any fruit that grows in the ground. Take it away. I don’t want it. Just give it to someone else. On top of it all, I can barely cook, and Arthur never recommended any cookbooks to me.” Arthur knows me so well. I wish he’d write me. I can’t stand his grievance. He probably doesn’t even know where I am anyway. But he’ll come looking for me when I don’t return the window books. I should remove the books from the window so he can find me easier, but I’ll leave a few on the window sill just to catch his eye. I’ve lost too much today, and a Milk Bottle told me I don’t deserve a tomato anyway.

The Milk Bottles tell me to leave. “Your term is up,” they say. They put plastic boots on my feet and hand me my coat. They unchain the doors and pass me off to the Mirror-Glasses, who escort me outside to all the white leaves. They scream when I step on them. They do get louder the less green they become. People always leave me in the most precarious ways. I would never do that to anyone. I wish I had that tomato’s blue wool hat.

Notes from the author:

For the last nine months or so, I have been writing poems and short fiction pieces exploring my adopted life, but much of it really focuses on my birth mother, who I’ve never met. Most of this writing is done through a surreal lens or something nearby to surrealism. In this collection, there is a series of poems/stories which are concerned with The Lab of Incurable Dreams, an imaginary maternity home for unwed mothers during the Baby Scoop Era (~1945 – the late 70s). It is a place where families sent their daughters to give birth and give their child up for adoption, whether they wanted to or not. These homes were horrible and treated the mothers very poorly, especially on a psychological level. The workers made the mothers feel shame and uselessness and worthlessness. The homes were there to convince the mothers to give their child up for adoption, even if the mother wanted the baby and could take care of it. They made it seem like it was in the best interest for the mother and child, but really it was in the best interest of the mother’s parents to not have the reputation’s soiled and in the interest of the home to make money. So the birth mother writing these journals has gone insane because of the shame and lack of decision and dehumanisation, as can be evidenced by how she sees the world, which is also kind of surreal.

Tom Holmes

Tom Holmes

Tom Holmes is the founding editor of Redactions: Poetry & Poetics, and author of seven collections of poetry, most recently The Cave, which won The Bitter Oleander Press Library of Poetry Book Award for 2013. His writings about wine, poetry book reviews, and poetry can be found at his blog, The Line Break: Follow him on Twitter: @TheLineBreak
Tom Holmes

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