I can say: That is a hawk. But not: red-tail, red-shoulder. I can say: Deer. But not: white-tailed. I can say robin. I can say raven. I can say bird, but not: bunting, wren, warbler. Sometimes: gerbera daisy. Sometimes: crimson glory rose. But not the name of the creeper that edges my neighbor’s lawn or the flowering stands near the car park.
I can say blackberry in every season: fruit, flower, and vine. I can say poison oak. I can say: watch out for the thistle. But not what the berries are that grow at the base of the park’s redwood trees (I can say redwood. I can say Sequoia sempervirens).
I can say: California poppy, nasturtium, tiger lily. Eastern fox squirrel (like me, not native). I know so much about this part of California, but if I had to make my way to you by naming everything that I encountered, I’d never make it home.
I want to say border collie, not just dog. I want to say king snake, not just snake. I want to say aloe and agave, not just cactus, which would, anyway, be imprecise. I notice, now more than ever, what I don’t know, and what I want to know, and what I want to share with you, Callie Violet. I want to name the world correctly. One day this will be your language, and I will have been the first to present it to you.
There is a story I heard, when you were the tiniest baby, about a waiting room in someplace close to Heaven. After death, that’s where people go to wait to be forgotten. This was a place people wanted to stay for a while. No one wants to be immediately forgotten. Family reunited in the room, if I remember the story correctly. I imagine enemies would confront each other there, too.
When we mourn, we give memory a name, and in this room those memories were corporeal. It feels like a long time ago, when you were the tiniest baby and I listened to the story while we drove from one place to another in the car. For a while, the bodies thought it was nice to be in the waiting room. It was nice to be remembered.
But after awhile, names lose meaning. Living speakers stop associating some real body with the body’s name. In the waiting room in the place that was close to what we might call Heaven, if I remember the story correctly, a man who drowned in a New England well waits to be forgotten, while everyday a tour guide on some idyllic college campus walks by the well and repeats, with less reverence than she bestows upon the well stones, the still-not-completely-forgotten man’s name.
Naming is a kind of claiming. In the Judeo-Christian tradition which is your inheritance, Adam named all the birds and beasts of the world, including Eve. Even after his exclusion from The Garden, even after the all-consuming loss he suffered when he acquired the deeper knowledge that brought on his expulsion from Eden, and hardship and death, Adam possessed the names of everything with which he’d once shared uncomplicated communion. The ability to name even a lost world keeps that world alive. I imagine this was both painful and potent for Adam who, like the drowned man in the story I only half remember, must have wanted some days to return completely to a world he remembered. That world was gone, though. In reality, if not in memory, his past was irrevocably erased.
You are named Callie Violet after my Grandmother Callie Madge and your father’s Grandmother Violet. You are my grandmother’s first great-grandchild, and there was no question that you would be the next Callie. My grandmother’s grandmother was also a Callie, and now our family spans three centuries through women who have born one name.
It was the continuity I wanted. Persistence personified.
Some people are surprised I named you after someone who is still alive. What if the angel of death came for the old one, got confused, and took you instead. I want to say this never occurred to me. But sometimes I worry that I left no room for you, my daughter, in this old woman’s name.
When you came to be outside my body, the name we bound you to seemed limiting.
I call you Abena because you were born on a Tuesday. I call you Abeni because the name means we asked for her and she has arrived. These are Fante and Yoruba names, for these, too, might have been your people.
The next time I hold you, I call you Butter Bean because, when you were a newborn package of squirm and gas smiles—my stinky little Cochina—you, like three of your great grandmothers before you, were the color of a butter bean.
There is no escaping history.
Your aunt calls you Minukee, a Louisiana Creole endearment with afro-indigenous roots. She calls you, mon petite chou, my little cabbage, my precious little girl.
Because you coo-coo-coo in the morning, you are my Mourning Dove. Not just any old bird.
Your godmother calls you The Boo Boo, because that is what her father called her and so that is how she knows to show you love. Your grandfather calls you CVDB. I call you CV. I call you Argentina, because I do not want you to cry. Your father calls you Little Bit.
The act of naming who you are to us may never end.
I walk with you daily because the confines of our apartment are too small.
I point out the trees we walk beneath: plum, crab apple, lemon, mulberry. Eat this, not that, eat this not that, I tell you, as if it is never too early to teach you what might cause you most harm.
I want you to know a violet when you see one, Callie Violet, and though they are lovely, just as you are lovely, I want you to know the calla lilies growing in every other garden have nothing to do with your name.
Rhododendron, rose, I say, daisy, daisy, chrysanthemum.
White flower, purple flower, pretty yellow flowers, because I can’t name all of them.
The walk is long, the hill is steep, and I am often out of breath.
Ma Ma Ma Ma Ma Ma Mama is your latest sound, and I’ve known better than to think that when you made that sound you made it for me. But today you looked at me when you said, Ma ma mama, and when I came toward you and lifted you up off your play mat, you giggled and repeated the words that had brought me to you: Ma Ma Mama. And just that quickly, I had a name.
The jury is still out on whether your infant brain can consciously drive action in the way that my brain receives the things I see. A jellyfish swimming in my direction is not consciously moving toward me, a mosquito who favors my skin over your father’s may be responding to the higher levels of carbon dioxide I release, not making a statement about my relative sweetness. In both cases, the hardline objectivist will assure me that what might feel like intentional attention is not. Electrical impulses, hormonal imperatives, these drive action. Not emotion or reason or thought.
These same hardline objectivists are liable to tell me that animals do not feel in the same way humans feel. Without the capacity for language, a dog or a whale or a stork is incapable of human emotion. To say a stork is sad when it loses its mate is to risk anthropomorphizing, to lose scientific objectivity, and to falsify the intellectual potential of the stork. I will not make distinctions between emotional capacities based solely upon what we know of language. I know the orphaned elephant wakes with nightmares, knowing what happened to her herd, and mourning that loss. This is why the caregivers of orphaned elephants sleep with the foundlings, so they do not have to wake up afraid and alone. I know that whales express gratitude when released from a bind. I know that captive baboons store anger and express it, intentionally, with the calculated hurling of poop.
I know that you are only now acquiring language, after hearing us speak it during your six months out of my womb and forty weeks inside. I know that the Ma sounds, like the Da sounds from earlier this month, are merely your way to explore the range of sounds available to you. When the sounds first started, I had no illusions that you meant anything by the expressions. But I know, also, that you are smarter than I have the capacity to understand, and I know that when you look at me and make a sound, and when I recognize the sound and respond, and when you repeat my new name without losing eye contact, this is not an accident. And I am filled with unspeakable gladness.
One of the easiest ways to strip a person of her power is to take away her right to choose her name.
The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavas Vassa, chronicles an 18th-century man’s journey from an African (Igbo) boyhood through the seas and hands and lands of Europe and its colonies. In the book, the young protagonist is forced to answer to at least four different names. In his own autobiography, Frederick Douglass writes about resisting renaming. So do Solomon Northup, Harriet Jacobs, and characters imagined—with the help of a narrative written by Josiah Henson—by Harriet Beecher Stowe. Abolitionist literature is riddled with stories of people who recognize that freedom is measured, in part, by the freedom to choose one’s own name.
When we take a man’s name, he disappears. Sleeping car porters in the early 20th century were referred to, by the white passengers in the segregated train cars where these porters worked, as “George.” This is if they were referred to by any name at all other than “boy” or “you there” or some more brutally dismissive term. A man in prison is sometimes known only by his number. In many morgues, a body without a history is called John or Jane Doe.
At some point you will decide what the world will call you. Callie or Callie Violet or some other, as yet undetermined, name. I can’t know what the future will name you, but when I call you Sweet Pea or Turtle Dove, Abena or Pumpkin, Callie Violet, or my sweet girl, I do it always in the same tone, so you have learned to turn when I speak. I think you turn not to the names but to the sound of my voice when I speak your many names, the sound I hope you already recognize means you are truly and completely loved.
I love when you notice me, when you direct a new skill toward me as if to purposefully engage me in your growth. When you learned to kiss me, I felt as if every expression of love I’d ever directed toward you had been returned sevenfold. Now you pull my face toward yours and with your mouth wide as a whale shark, smooch my chin or cheek or forehead, whatever part of my face happens to be near. This must be what my mouth feels like on your face, my lips covering huge portions of your skin. Yesterday, you pulled back and reapplied your smooch several times, as if to duplicate my muah muah muahs. Sevenfold times sevenfold times sevenfold, that blessing.
When you meet someone new, you meet them as a blind person might meet someone who matters. You lift your little hand to the new face and work it over the eyes and the nose, the mouth, the cheeks. You learn the contours of the primary points of interaction, and when you are satisfied with what your hands have learned, you smile, maybe even coo. This is how you say hello to strangers and to whatever it is we parents and guardians are to you. Lovers? We kiss you so much, cuddle you and caress you, we love on you. Sometimes your kisses catch me full on the lips, and I wonder when I will need to teach you not to show your affection in this way. I try to turn my face lest my hunger for your displays of affection appear indecent.
We are not supposed to conflate these two worlds of physical affection: the kisses and intimate touches of the lover of the body and the kisses and intimate touches of the lover of the babe. But it is like that. I take big whiffs off the top of your head, let your hair tickle my chin. I want you close close closer. When I am with you, mon petite chou, I feel good good and close and happy. I’m not talking about a kind of sexual good good feeling, though what I am talking about is mixed up in the same general neighborhood, which is why this feels like such a dangerous thing to be saying, to be feeling, to be acting upon. I’m talking about a good good feeling. A forever kind of good feeling. A whatever you need, whatever you want, take it, I don’t ever intend to be too far from you again good feeling. A you make me feel—you make my brain and my heart feel—better than I’ve ever felt before feeling. People pay with their lives for feelings like this, these high kinds of feelings, and I get them from smelling your little palm when you cup my nose by way of greeting.
When you devour my face, taking hold of me on the far side and pulling my head toward yours, the force is sometimes so strong I can hardly believe you are only a six-month-old baby. Sometimes, when you hold me like that, or when you resist being held, my mind flashes to stories of smothered children, and I understand how intentional those crimes have to be, how actively a person would have to work to over power even an infant’s resistance. This is what happens when I am with you, Mourning Dove. I can be intensely in the presence of our pleasure when your mortality manifests, a specter undeniable as my joy when you slay me with kisses.
I think I was expecting you to kiss like a guppy might kiss, swift cold pecks that were nearly imperceptible. But, little whale shark, you devour me.
On February 4, 1846, a ship called The Brooklyn left New York with 238 voyagers, mostly Mormons from the east coast. After being blown nearly to Cape Verde, after being caught in the doldrums in the South Atlantic, after rounding Cape Horn without incident then being gale blown south again, after detouring nearly 400 miles from their desired dock at Valparaiso and stopping over in the Juan Fernando Islands, after taking on fresh water, fruit and salted fish, after burying one dead woman in a cave on the island, after more time on the Pacific, after laying over in the Sandwich Islands, after leaving one woman and her mortally-ill infant son on Oahu, after many more days on the open ocean, after nearly 24,000 miles, on July 3, 1846, The Brooklyn docked at the small settlement of Yerba Buena, its passenger load more than doubling the settlement’s population, which was about 150 people at the time.
The Mormon settlers arrived just as United States forces seized control of California. Within a year, the settlement of Yerba Buena was officially known by its current name. Now when we say Yerba Buena in relationship to the San Francisco Bay, we don’t mean the community that grew up around what we call Mission Dolores in the city we now call San Francisco, but the small island through which runs the tunnel portion of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge. In 1846, there were village ruins on this island, abandoned pots and pestles. Tuchayunes buried their dead in the hillside, sitting up, knees tucked near their chins. But these are not things the people who came off The Brooklyn would have known.
The new arrivals might have called the island Goat Island, as some did at the time and for many years after, though there had already been a fairly effective slaughter of the goats that had earned the island that name. Soon they might call it Wood Island to memorialize ships wrecked against its shoals. Spanish-speaking settlers called it Isla de Yerba Buena. Some U.S. surveyor must have liked the sound, for Yerba Buena Island remains the official name. No one for a long time has called the outcropping Sea Bird Island nor have they used the word the Tuchayunes would have used to call it by that name. The Padres at Mission San Francisco de Asis had already killed most of the Tuchayunes with overwork, unfamiliar diet, and European disease.
It was to ward off ill health that the Tuchayunes used the California mint, the “good herb,” whose vines trailed all around the Mission settlement and also draped the island in the bay. People say tea steeped from yerba buena tastes like a cross between mint and pine. Perhaps someday I’ll make some of this tea for you.
Babies are like chocolate. Like that first bite of a phenomenal steak. That rich and delicious. Umami and sweet. Umami most of all, that fifth, most crucial, taste we Westerners loved but didn’t have a name for until the word umami came along. To get to umami we have to stew meat all the way down to the bone.
I’m not talking about oppression, suppression, or power plays, though I am aware of how all these things could manifest and corrupt the love that I love. I am talking about love. Consuming love. I’m talking about acknowledging our animal desires, both yours and mine. When you kiss me, Sweet Pea, I want to eat you up. Reading a passage about running or eating cinnamon activates the same parts of our brain as would be activated if we were actually running or eating cinnamon. When I say I am going to eat your little baby thighs and little baby stomach, the parts of my brain that activate when I eat something delectable must go wild. You kiss me, and I am hungry for more kisses.
Since you came to live inside me, much of my sense of propriety is gone. It’s as if there were many doors to our apartment, and every door is open, and anyone can walk inside. Strangers talk to me about their own incontinence and I tell them about my weeping breasts. Women I don’t know walk into my bathroom to double check my strategy for mitigating hemorrhoids. Nothing is private. Nothing is sacred. There is nothing I keep to myself. Being your mother has required one act of vulgarity after another, and I’m so strung out on you I couldn’t care less.
I don’t know if I can define myself anymore, now that I’m your mother. You’ve consumed me. Being your mother cooked me right down to the bone.
Your Grandmother Julie, far more restrained than your mother, has devised a greeting that doesn’t involve kissing but allows for eye contact and smiles. When your Grandmother Julie was here, she taught you to press your forehead to hers. She never threatened to eat you up. We all have our own ways of telling you we love you.
You picked the gesture up in one day and every time Grandma Julie was near, you’d run your little hand over her nose and brow ridge, and then you’d bump your tiny forehead right against her head.
She was proprietary about this demonstration of affection. She would tell you and anyone around that this was how she greeted you. None of the rest of us gets your forehead pressed against our foreheads. It’s your secret handshake with your Grandma Julie. Your father and I get the wide-mouthed kisses. Soon, you’ll be waving like your Grandmother Dungy when your Grandmother Dungy is around. Already you are flapping your little hand, rotating at the wrist and collapsing the fingers toward the pad of your palm, in the specific way your Grandmother Dungy gestures hello, my love, and goodbye, my love, and I’ll see you soon, my little darling.
What is language but the way we communicate with each other? You are already multilingual, aware of the proper greetings for the various micro-cultures you come in contact with. As we would be if we were in a foreign country and heard someone call us in our native tongue, when we are in your world, we are always delighted that you make the effort to greet us in a way we understand.
Around you, I am in a foreign land: the land of infancy with its particular laws and language. With its specific names for things. Its confounding customs. Like an American who lives for awhile someplace where the plumbing consists primarily of pit toilets and buckets for hand washing, I’ve learned both that I need not be grossed out by human waste and that there are more or less sanitary means to discard of it. So much of my energy is taken up learning new information that I am tired tired tired all the time. I have nearly given up dreaming, and when I do dream, even my dreams seem foreign to me, and so I cannot rest when I am sleeping.
Tired as I am, I am that much more susceptible to emotions. I think that must be why, most of the time, I feel like I’m strung out. Living in your country has exhausted me beyond the point of reason.
I worry about the end days more now than I did before you were born. Your father has humored me and put track shoes, old jeans, and a t-shirt in a go-bag. In case of earthquake or firestorm, I keep food, water, and a basic first aid kit in an accessible place.
I am teaching myself to identify edible native plants. The berries on bay laurel can make a substitute for coffee. Acorns can be soaked and leached and mashed into a nutritious paste. Miner’s lettuce, which restaurants are serving in $20 salads, comes up along the creek path after rains. I’ve always liked to season my own salads with nasturtiums. Though it’s native to Mexico and South America, nasturtium has made itself at home in Northern California. The yellow-orange flowers add a peppery taste to greens and brighten the plate.
Juan Bautista de Anza, Junipero Serra, Fermín Lasuén, and the other colonists who walked to Northern California, planting missions and settlements and cutting the road we still call El Camino Real, sowed mustard seeds along the way, enacting the parable from Matthew, chapter 13. “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. Though it is the smallest of all seeds, when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds come and perch in its branches.” California, in the blooming season, is vibrant with mustard’s many-headed bracts of yellow flowers, on which I have often seen birds perch.
The Mediterranean grasses that cover the hills of California, historians think, came on the fetlocks of livestock.
Mormons were the first to grow wheat here.
Wild fennel, which must have been cultivated in some early settler’s garden, grows all around.
Sausal Creek runs behind our apartment and up into foothills where once were rooted Sequoia Sempervirens so dominant men piloted ships into the mouth of the San Francisco Bay by taking their measure. Along the creek path, native and exotic blackberries grow wild. Fruit trees thrive in the places where loggers and the farmers who came after the loggers once chucked their pits. An abolitionist from Iowa first brought the plums and the peaches.
Fennel, blackberry, mustard, plum: I point these out to you on our walks. We can eat these if we need to, I say. As if naming what could save us might save us one day.
Most states and territories in America were inhospitable to adherents of the word of God as spoken to Joseph Smith and practiced by members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Americans, busy claiming America in the transcontinental drive that caught the west up in its wake, struggled with the Mormons who were allegiant to their church and wanted a place to grow it.
Manifest Destiny was merciless. Not in New York, not in Missouri, not in Illinois, not in Iowa could the Mormon people stop and not be pestered. But California held promise, which is why those 238 believers boarded The Brooklyn in February of 1846.
Some historians presume that if the Mormons who trekked out of the Midwest hadn’t stopped in Utah, on land no one else wanted to claim, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints might not still exist today. But in Utah, the Church and its people found some measure of peace. Now, by many accounts, the Mormon Church is growing faster than the Christian Church did in the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD.
When Church fathers called the Californians to come build their homes in the desert, some of the new immigrants traveled east across the mountains. But many of them stayed, planting the Church in California as well as in Utah. California now has the largest population of Mormons of any state outside of Utah. The second-largest Mormon Temple outside of Utah is in Los Angeles. The sixth-largest is in Oakland.
The Oakland Temple is vast, with manicured grounds, green lawns, and gardens. It sits one and a half miles straight up a hill from our apartment and has spectacular views of the entire San Francisco Bay. The sidewalk on Lincoln Avenue, leading to the Temple from the valley where we live, is unbroken. A smooth path for the stroller. That sidewalk and those views are the reason I push you toward the Temple on clear days.
You have perfected the barrel roll and now you are sitting up without assistance. Sometimes, when I need a break, I can sit you down someplace and walk a little ways away. Once sitting, you’ll stay for a while, looking at books, playing with toys. Sometimes you seem a sovereign nation, my Argentina. When you cried all night in that first month, before I learned to burp you properly, and before you had a physical vocabulary for showing us your needs, I used to remind myself that one day you wouldn’t want me to hold you at all, let alone for hour after hour, and then I would miss the smell of your head as it nestled all day and all night just below my chin. I knew you wouldn’t be mine to hold forever, and sometimes that made me want to cry right along with you, Mourning Dove.
Today, after you called my name, I sat you in your crib where you could watch your mobile. No more Ma Ma Ma Ma, just a silent gaze circling with the plastic safari animals tethered over your head. That quickly, I was replaced in your attentions. If I were the jealous type, the mobile would have been removed before it could have done us any more harm.
I heard a story recently about a couple who grew jealous of their daughter’s mobile. They had so completely fallen in love with the way the baby gazed into their eyes that they didn’t want to share her attention, even with a musical crib mobile. Irrational, yes, but something in me understands.
When the elephant passed your head for the fifteenth time, you grabbed it and went along for the ride. Your upper body followed the mobile around the crib, while your heavy, diapered bum stayed put.
It all happened quickly and slowly, so I had time to multiply into many mothers: the one who would rush toward you like a rescue team and another who would stand by the wardrobe, mouth agape, watching as, kerplop, you fell onto your back on the mattress, nearly smashing the soft part of your head on the crib slats. I had time only to think, “Oh my God oh my God oh my God” and “That’s what you get for grabbing after something that cares nothing for you.” There was humor in your predicament, but also there was the fact that your fall nearly slammed a wood bar into the anterior fontanelle where your out-sized brain waits inside your as-yet-unfused skull.
How can I name what I felt when I saw you not hurt? Not this time.
Lincoln Avenue is steady and steep, and we walk up without stopping. I use the Temple Viewing station, with its map and information placard, as my excuse to rest, so I am breathless when I learn about The Brooklyn.
I read the bronze placard, look out over Oakland, the San Francisco Bay, Yerba Buena Island and San Francisco. You sleep in your stroller, and I watch you awhile. Then I read the placard again. I read one name and then another. A name and then an age and then another name. Your weight, and your stroller’s weight, and my extra weight, I pushed all of that up Lincoln Avenue, and now there is this new weight, this old, old weight. It takes my breath away.
Sarah Sloat Burr lost a boy, an unnamed one-year-old, and gave birth to another, John Atlantic, during the voyage on the Brooklyn. Forever after that, if she called him John Atlantic, would she remember the dead son she shrouded and slipped into the ocean recalled by the living boy’s name?
Was it meant as salt or as salve, his naming?
Jerusha Ensign Fowler (twenty-seven), traveling without a husband, left the East Coast with her parents, a sister, a brother, and sons ages six, five, four, and one. She arrived at Yerba Buena with no father, no sister, and no baby boy. Their bodies were left behind in the water.
What mixture of celebration and mourning must have accompanied her landing?
Jane Cowen Glover brought Joseph Smith Glover (age one) safely to California. Relief may not be the right word to describe her response to their arrival. When The Brooklyn nearly foundered in an Atlantic storm, the passengers sang hymns and prayed, assured that God would guide them safely through the voyage. Some people’s prayers were answered, some of the time.
Had she not died (pregnant) on the voyage, Laura Hotchkiss Goodwin would have witnessed the safe arrival of one-year-old Albert Story Goodwin and six other children, ages three to eleven, but she died, so her seven children reached Yerba Buena without her.
I try to imagine the lives of the women and children named on the placard.
Hardline historical objectivists would warn against emotional anachronism. What drove these women could not be the same things that drive me today.
You cry out, my little Argentina. I pull the blanket up under your chin to protect you from the hilltop wind.
Compelled by the story revealed in the names, I read the manifest again.
The hope these women had for themselves and their children’s futures: Is there any other way to think of it than all-consuming? They must have been out of their minds with complicated desires. Sarah Duncan McCullough Griffith brought her two-year-old boy to California, and Caroline Augusta Perkins Joyce brought her one-year-old daughter. In addition to a five year old, a seven year old, a thirteen year old and a fourteen year old, thirty-four year old Eliza Hindman Littleman boarded The Brooklyn with four-month-old identical twins. What was it for her to nurse those two in the ship’s cramped quarters, water festering and roaches in the meal she needed to keep her milk production high? Did she feel good nursing the twins, even in the midst of that squalor?
When Octavia Anne Lane Austin left New York with children ages two, five, and seven, she couldn’t have known there was gold at this end of the world. It wasn’t that kind of materialism that drove her to California.
Alice Wallace Bird was one month old, so she had no say in the matter. What of Ann Eliza Corwin Brannan, who had a two-month-old son? Can anyone say what it was she hungered for?
There was new life, yes, but also much common, unspeakable horror. Thirteen people died in transit. Eight of the dead were babies. Scarlet fever took the first. Consumption, diarrhea, dehydration.
Sarah Winner, six months old when The Brooklyn set sail, never made it to California. Oren Hopkins Smith, ten months old when The Brooklyn set sail, never made it to California. Mary Ann Shunn Burtis Robbins, already the mother of three children under seven, bore and buried Anna Pacific Robbins in the ocean for which she was named. When she loved her living children, did she hug them so tightly, sometimes, she nearly squeezed the life from them?
Phoebe Ann Wright Robbins (thirty-four) lost five-year-old George Edward Robbins and one-year-old John Franklin Robbins somewhere at sea. A baby, born off the west coast of America, was a living memorial to her aunt’s and mother’s losses. Georgeanna Pacific Robbins. Was she salve or salt on their wounds?
You cry again, obviously rooting. I love that word, “rooting.” As if, by seeking your mother’s milk, you are planting yourself in this world.
I take you out of the stroller and bring you with me to a bench where I can hold you while I look across the houses of Oakland and out into the Bay. You nurse while I steady my gaze on Yerba Buena Island, known in a decimated people’s decimated language as Sea Bird Island, known later as Wood Island because of lost treasure. Arbor Day plantings of the 19th century installed invasive species that have mostly squeezed out the native plant the Spanish once called yerba buena.
I don’t know what I know now that I can name these losses.
I soothe your cries and look out over the Bay toward where, sometime in 1846, Georgeanna Pacific Robbins must have cried for much the same reason and in much the same way. As she nursed her, did her mother call her darling, sweet pea, little honey bee? Georgeanna? Pacific? When she looked out at the ocean where she lost those other children, what was there to say?
I don’t know if there is a name for this in any language, this hope and hurt and hunger I hold when I hold you. The story of The Brooklyn makes me breathless with sadness and a relief that borders on joy.
I haven’t lost you yet, I think. I haven’t lost you yet. I haven’t lost you yet. Oh my God oh my God oh my God.
Camille T. Dungy is the author of Smith Blue, Suck on the Marrow, and What to Eat, What to Drink, What to Leave for Poison. She is the editor of Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry, co-editor of From the Fishouse: An Anthology of Poems that Sing, Rhyme, Resound, Syncopate, Alliterate, and Just Plain Sound Great, and assistant editor of Gathering Ground: A Reader Celebrating Cave Canem’s First Decade. Dungy’s honors and awards include fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, The Sustainable Arts Foundation, the Virginia Commission for the Arts, Cave Canem, and Bread Loaf. She has won an American Book Award, two Northern California Book Awards, and a California Book Award silver medal. In addition to two NAACP Image Award nominations, Dungy’s books have been shortlisted for the Academy of American Poets William Carlos Williams Award, the California Book Awards, the Balcones Prize, the Foreword Magazine Book of the Year Award, the PEN Center USA Literary Award, and the Library of Virginia Literary Award. Dungy’s poems and essays have been published in anthologies and print and online journals including Poetry, Callaloo, VQR, and The American Poetry Review. Recently a Professor in the Creative Writing Department at San Francisco State University, she is currently a Professor in the English Department at Colorado State University. www.camilledungy.com