I still blame my birth on a factory worker in St. Louis.
You see, my father and mother had four children in a mere four years. Their first son, Marlowe, was barely walking when he was joined by their second child, Kevin. Then my sister Glendine joined the family. After Glendine, a brief pregnancy ending in a miscarriage kept the tally at three children.
The miscarriage should have been a warning, as Mom’s fourth viable pregnancy was fraught with difficulties; she suffered from toxemia throughout the pregnancy and had her leg in a cast for the last stretch.
Mom went into labour with Bentley after working through the night to can the final fall harvest of vegetables. After stacking the jars in the pantry, she finished a few loads of laundry, then packed the three children into the car and drove them to their caretakers.’
Since the drive was an hour each way, once she arrived at the hospital, Mom was fully in labour. It was only then when she let my father know where she was.
Dad was out of town on business, of course. (During one of the previous labours, he had asked a nurse if he could help. Her reply: “Haven’t you done enough?” Dad had been banished from the delivery room ever since.)
After numerous seizures, Mom recalls hovering over her body, hearing the doctor say that if his last attempt to revive her would not succeed, then he would be out of options. But revive her he did, and Bentley was born.
It’s likely this near-death experience brought Mom and Dad to decide to purchase the unmentionable: birth control.
A few years ago, my mother gave me a box containing a number of items from around the time I was born, including congratulatory notes and cards, my birth certificate, and an advertisement pulled from Family Circle magazine, March 1968 edition. It was for Emko Foam, stating: “2 MEDICAL REPORTS show why thousands of doctors recommend this modern BIRTH CONTROL product.” (The clinical validity of those two reports may be questioned by today’s slightly more modern standards. And by my very existence.)
Emko was located in St. Louis. I imagine its factory to be a large, noisy building, fitted with steaming vats filled with brewing foam, a veritable distillery of pesticide for those nasty sperm. From the vats run conveyor belts, carrying the freshly brewed concoction to its various stations of packaging.
As the belt noisily twists and turns through the factory, I imagine a solitary worker, sitting at her station, her hair shoved into a crepe paper shower cap, wearing factory assigned grey overalls, a cigarette dangling from her angrily lipsticked mouth. She is the QUALITY CONTROL inspector. Even more, in my mental machinations, she is the NIGHT-SHIFT QUALITY CONTROL inspector. And so, with ashes falling onto her lap, she nods off, just for a moment.
But, as so many factory personnel are aware, it only takes a moment for a mistake to occur.
The faulty vial missed by the NIGHT-SHIFT QUALITY CONTROL inspector is packaged into its Emko kit, and put into a feminine and attractive-looking case. From there, it moves along the line to be boxed with a larger quantity of identical Emko kits. How innocent it looks, seated benignly with its sister kits. So innocent, in fact, the receiving druggist in Revelstoke, B.C. could not tell the difference between the regular kits and the single kit bearing its ominous ware. So innocent that my mother, a genuinely wise woman, was also tricked by its packaging when she brought it to the counter for payment.
When I was three, I watched with prune-like regularity and worshipful fervor as David Suzuki expounded on The Nature of Things. One particular show revealed the nature of human things born. I was fascinated. The rapidly fluttering tails of the tiny tadpoles (unimpeded by any Emko products), their almost vicious attack of the egg that was so much larger than they, followed by the climax of the story: the single sperm that badgers and weasels and snakes its way into the egg.
Armed with the entirety of formal sexual education I would receive until I found myself in my early 40s and in a therapist’s office, and bubbling with even greater levels of enthusiasm, I marched into the kitchen.
I told Mom that David Suzuki had taught me where babies came from.
It was, I am certain, with some trepidation that Mom asked me to elucidate on my new learning. My bold statement was witnessed not only by my mother and father, but also by a number of Sunday afternoon guests who were enjoying a post-church visit with my parents.
And she had reason to be worried: a few weeks prior, my mother had found me sitting on the kitchen floor with all muscles relaxed, like a floppy rag doll. When she asked me what I was doing, I stated matter-of-factly, “I’m a loose woman, Mom.” And then, holding my hand above my head and turning it as if tightening the lid on a mason jar, I added, “Somebody needs to screw me.”
After I had declared the depth of knowledge David Suzuki had imparted to my fertile mind, the room quieted for my educated response. I felt like a highly revered teacher in front of those many guests, the pastor and his wife, the elders and their wives. I was an educated person now, about to reveal the mysteries of pro-genesis.
“The fish are all in a race, and the winner gets the prize.” What more did I need to know?
Unfortunately, there developed some confusion in my growing mind, as David Suzuki aired an episode about the salmon run shortly thereafter. To this day, I can’t look at an aquarium without my mind wandering to procreation.
Even now I imagine the millions of potential babies racing within my mother, each with its own personality, height, weight, promise and abilities. Like the salmon, they race upstream to make fertile the purpose of their journey, a journey which will surely end in a form of death for all but one of the contestants.
They swim with purpose and aim and Olympian passion. They swim knowing this is their one chance, their one shot at winning the prize. Meanwhile, neither Mother nor Father was aware of the faultiness of the Emko product, momentarily mindless of the conception about to take place — their fifth child. All because of the inattentiveness of that paper-hatted, angrily lipsticked factory worker in St. Louis.
Well, thank God for her.