These are the very first photos of my mother with me, and 69 years later they keep touching me deeply.
Click on the images to enlarge them. Yes, they are very grainy: they were taken just a few months after the end of World War 2: my Dad was never much of a photographer, but more to the point, my parents and their country (the Netherlands) had just been liberated from five terrible years of occupation and oppression. But despite the obvious poverty of the photography these images capture enough.
My composed mother
Photos of a yummy mummy with her first baby are usually drenched with glowing pride, obvious health and radiant happiness. Sadly, both these photos are somewhat different.
Despite being a devout Christian committed to a life of serving others as a Jesus-follower, Mum’s life of 28 years to this point had not been easy.
- As a child she had sustained a head injury which left her with frequent and severe migraine headaches and later, early onset Alzheimers.
- During the early Depression years she had left home in an idyllic small town and moved 200 km north to Amsterdam, hoping to study medicine. But her frequent headaches forced her to abandon her studies.
- The student with whom she fell in love was a good man but also a compulsive networker and more interested in following lectures and making new friends than in finding work so that he could marry his fiancée. In later years she would still remember the nightmares she had in those years.
- During World War 2 the Dutch witnessed ruthless Nazi destruction and atrocities, the programmed dehumanisation and then menacing removal of Jews, and the brutal suppression of Dutch dissent. In 1943 my father at last obtained a church appointment which enabled my parents to marry. But this also meant that my Dad as a public figure in town was sought as a hostage whenever the Germans carried out reprisals for some act of the Dutch Resistance. He survived this time but did develop TB (which we are grateful was treated without apparent damage).
- As was normal at the time, my mother was never very open about her inner life and its stories. Not only did she not speak easily about herself; she batted away questions she found uncomfortable.
- Early in 1945 she became pregnant with me, her first child. The joy and glow of pregnancy must have been somewhat clouded by living over 300 km from her parents and sisters, a relatively small distance today, but not in the ravaged Netherlands of 1945.
- The day after I was born Dad wrote to his parents: “he loves sleeping and eating, in this he is like both his parents, not to mention one of his grandparents… we don’t need to tell you how much we have enjoyed and been thankful for so much good fortune and wonder, for answered prayer and dreams fulfilled!”
- Less than a week later my parents’ firstborn was vomiting himself to death and was diagnosed as suffering from infant pyloric stenosis. On day 10 my lanky little form lay on an operating table, bundled up for warmth and strapped to a small cross to keep me still, as general anesthetic was usually regarded as too hazardous for infants under 2 years old.
- Infection was still a huge hazard in 1940s hospitals and particularly after surgery on tiny people in an emaciated condition. This meant a standard of two weeks of post-op care in hospital, and for much of that time, isolation from family including even a nursing mother. Mum had to express milk daily and deliver it herself to the hospital 15 km away by steam train.
These two photos were clearly taken after my return home. As is fairly usual after pyloric stenosis is corrected, my weight and condition quickly returned to normal, and this is confirmed by the weight chart my parents sometimes showed me (but sadly, later tossed out).
On one photo my mother is uncomfortable with the bright sunshine. Both show her as young, well and caring, but also as formal, unsmiling and preoccupied with her damaged child. All this is how her children remember her.
The sleeping baby
On both these photos I look well but am not just asleep: this baby looks exhausted! I can only wonder whether this was the truth or whether it just showed my parents’ lack of (or disinterest in) photographic skill!
To me these photos reflect sadness. Under all those warm clothes was a scarred little body which reminded them every time my parents bathed or changed me of what they and I had just endured. By the time I was allowed home, the incision wound would have healed to the point that the scabs were crispy crusty and starting to fall off. But the wound had been sewn up with heavy and deep stitches to prevent it rupturing as I cried and strained, and in case there was more vomiting (as there often is after this operation). These sutures would have been only recently removed, leaving longish wounds with dried blood where the threads had cut through the tender young skin. Although the photo I have posted here is of an adult male it accurately conveys what my dear Mum had to confront many times each day.
But this violence and ugliness had also given me life – in fact one that would enjoy great length and blessing! We can also be grateful that all wounds soon get past their unsightly worst, and most people’s scars soon fade: after a year or two the damaged tissue has changed into white or pale-pink kanji markings. Despite this, the unevenness and lumps often remain and the incision line, especially in babies, can become disfiguringly sunken. My scar is sometimes hardly noticeable but it can also look like hollowed pockmarks left by a shotgun blast.
As I have mentioned elsewhere, my mother seems to have struggled with how best to help her damaged son but did this in ways I have always regretted. She stonewalled and procrastinated, promising to explain “sometime” but talking to friends within my hearing, she made a variety of clothes that sometimes framed and sometimes hid my scar, and she embroidered words based on the word “pylorus”… Clearly, she had been deeply affected by the pyloric stenosis of her first child, the hospital stay that followed, and the 1940s scar that became a kind of sacrament (or is it a “scar-ament”?).
Strangely for some, unsurprisingly to me, my gnarled midriff was something I hated and hid from public sight for many years. Although I now feel pride in being a survivor and belong to a community of people who share my experience and understand my emotions, every time I see my body I am still flooded with mixed emotions.
Sharing some of these feelings and reflecting on my parents’ and my experiences with one of the maladies of infancy, with infant surgery and with being “damaged goods” all help me and have helped countless others among the many readers of this blog.