Thursday, February 18, 2016

Thursday, February 18, 2016 - No comments

It Takes a Village, Not a Bookstore

The best thing about a delayed flight is that it means more time in the airport bookstore.

Last month, on my way up to Istanbul to meet my newborn niece, I spent almost four hours waiting for what would be just over an hour-long flight.  And so, naturally, off to D&R I went.  

I’d already made a gift for Baby Nil - a pair of tiny onesies on which I’d doodled her name and “Cutest girl in Istanbul.”  And I couldn’t resist a few extras I’d found at the pazar:  “My auntie loves me” and “My mom is super, but my auntie is something else!”  (It’s convenient that my “Turkish sister”, Didem, is an only child like me - I have no other auntie-competition!”)  I’d also been thinking about getting Didem a book - something along the lines of “What to Expect the First Year”, so I headed up to the cashier and, guessing at the translation of the title, asked if they had anything along those lines. 

Bookshop Girl quickly located the one I was looking for, but one glance at its 800+ pages told me this wasn’t a book Didem would have the patience for.  I paused, wondering if it was silly to even be looking for a book for her - she’s much more the “ask Uncle Google” type anyway.  But no, I decided, she has grown up and is a mom now and wants to do the best job possible.  Surely a resource like this would be helpful.  Maybe just one with more pictures and less pages...  

We pulled a couple of others off the shelf - less daunting, more visual ones along the same lines as “What to Expect”, as well as a couple of those “Baby’s First Year” journals and photo books.  But would Didem actually sit and write about the day they brought Nil home from the hospital, what Aunt Dilek bought for a baby gift, and about their first attempt at solid food?  Doubtful.  Pretty sure this kid’s life is going to be more of a Facebook documentary.  

I finally settled on a visual-but-informative hardcover book called “Motherhood and Baby Care.”  It had all the standard fare of baby food recipes, sleeping positions and what to do with diaper rashes.  Same price as “What to Expect” but less daunting and, equally important, way less bulk to have to squeeze into my backpack.  I paid for the book (and maybe one more for myself....) and had it gift-wrapped, satisfied with my contribution to my little niece’s upbringing.

It was after two in the morning when I finally arrived at Didem and Bülent’s.  “It’s okay,” my sweet sister whispered as I kissed her hello. “These days, we’re always up at this hour anyway.”  

I tiptoed into the living room where a perfect little three-week-old peanut lay swaddled in a hammock, eyes glazed but still awake.  I planted an awestruck kiss on her forehead and then sat and just stared at her while Didem spread sheets and a pillow on the couch for me.  

“I hope your ear is plugged up tonight,” Didem whispered.  “She doesn’t stay this cute all night long.”

Between exhaustion from the journey and the earplugs I’d been wise to pack, I slept straight through til ten.  When I woke up, I could hear female voices coming from the bedroom.  Groggy and contact-less, I padded down the hall to see who the visitor was, and smiled when I made out the kind face and silvery-blond hair of Bahriye Abla, Didem’s mother-in-law.  The two of them were bent over Nil, changing her diaper together.

“I’ll just wash my face and then I’ll come kiss you,” I whispered.  She smiled.  I’ve always liked her.

When I emerged, Bahriye Abla was at the kitchen window with a cigarette.  I chatted with her while she finished it and then we joined Didem in the living room where she had Nil laid out on a receiving blanket on the couch.

“Can you show me again how to swaddle her?” Didem asked with a pout.  “When you do it, she stays in there, but when I do it, half an hour later, her arms are all over the place.”

“I’ll tell you, but you’re going to do it yourself,” said the older woman quietly, smiling down at her grand-daughter.  “Put her a little further to the right, and then grab that corner and pull it across her.”  Didem did as she was told, pinning the baby’s left arm against her body.  “Good, now roll her up a bit and tuck it under.  Yes, like that.”   

Nil scrunched up her face and made a fist with her free hand, clearly not happy about all the rolling and pinning.  

Following Bahriye Abla’s instructions, Didem grabbed the bottom of the blanket and folded it upwards, then took the left side and tucked Nil’s other arm down along her side, and then brought the blanket across her body, tucking it under her left side.  And voila!  A snug little bundle.  With her white cap on her tiny head, she reminded me of the Glow Worm I had as a kid - the one that lit up when you squeezed it but was actually not cuddly at all, thanks to the battery pack in its belly.  

“See how calm she is now?” said Bahriye Abla.  “Think about how she was in your womb - all tightly curled up in there, feeling you on every side.  Now she’s out and doesn’t know what to do with all the freedom, with her arms flailing everywhere.  You need to make her feel safe, like she was inside.”

Didem looked up at Bahriye Abla with a half-smile.  “Well, we’ll see if I can do it again when you’re not here every day...”

“You can and you will,” she said reassuringly.  I was enjoying watching the exchange between these two.  It was so unlike so many “my daughter-in-law will never be as good as me at _______ (making lentil soup, washing windows, loving my son) ” scenarios I’ve seen here in Turkey.  The more I got to know her, the more Bahriye Abla was proving to be an unusual treasure.

“Now she’s all set for you to put her to sleep.  Get the pillow.”  Bahriye Abla picked up the little glow worm while Didem got situated on the couch.  She arranged the pillows behind her back (those patterned pillows on that blue-grey L-shaped couch that we - along with both sets of parents - spent a million hours picking out in the furniture store before the wedding two years ago), stretched out her legs and put a little blue flowered pillow just above her feet.  Bahriye Able carefully set Nil down in the crook between Didem’s legs, the pillow cushioning the upper half of her body.  

“Your feet are a little too open - put them together a bit.”  Didem obeyed.  “Okay, now you can rock her.”

I glanced around the living room.  The baby hammock sat in one corner, a little foam anti-reflux incline bed laid across it.  Behind the couch, a musical baby swing was stashed.  But here, with a motion I’ve seen in a hundred living rooms all over Turkey, Didem started rocking her feet back and forth, Nil’s head snug in the pillow, her body swaying gently from side to side.  Village or city, conservative or secular, the foolproof tradition passed down through generations prevailed over modern contraptions, it would seem.

I thought back a few months to the time I was on a plane that sat queued on the tarmac for a good half hour, a young mom in the back trying hopelessly to get her baby boy to stop wailing.  The flight attendants took turns bouncing him up and down the aisle and blankets and toys were passed back from other passengers with kids, but the infant kept screaming.  The mom was amazingly calm, considering her child was the unmutable soundtrack for a whole plane full of people.  I was trying to read, distracted by the baby’s crying, praying for peace for him - and the rest of us - from ten rows up.  

Then all of a sudden, as if someone had flipped the “off” switch, he stopped crying.  Wondering what had finally been the magic trick that calmed him, I turned around in my seat and looked up the aisle.  And laughed in wonder.  There was the mom, sitting on the floor in the back of the plane, rocking her baby on her outstretched legs.  Just like that, no more crying.  Wanting to make sure he was out for good, she began to sing a lullaby, and her voice, like an angel’s, mesmerized the entire plane into a hush.  The flight attendants let her stay down there as we started to taxi, right up until the moment she had to put her seatbelt on for takeoff.  But the Magic Turkish Leg Cradle had done the trick, and we didn’t hear a whimper for the rest of the flight.

Nil wasn’t quite as easily pacified and started to fuss a bit. 

“Remember,” Bahriye Abla whispered, “she has to feel safe.  Put your hand on her belly if she starts to cry - it will calm her down.”  

Didem did as she was told, and within a few minutes, Nil went from fussy to drowsy to conked out.  She slowed her rocking down, letting the baby fall into a deep sleep.  

“Great ab workout, huh?” I said.  

“It really is,” she agreed.  “I’ll lose this baby weight in no time!”

When Nil had been transferred to her hammock, I grabbed my phone and snapped a couple of pictures of her angel face.  

“Just don’t put them on Facebook or anything,” Didem said.  “We’re waiting until her fortieth day.  You know, the evil eye...”

I nodded.  And then stifled a laugh when she asked me to iMessage her the pictures so she could Whatsapp them to her mom, her aunts and her best friend.  Apparently the media ban only applied to those who hadn’t already seen Nil in person.**

The rest of the afternoon passed in a stream of conversation between mother and daughter-in-law about everything from how to use the little snot-sucking gizmo to clean Nil’s stuffy nose to rubbing salt water on her eyes to clean out the goop in the corners to why cotton balls in water are better than baby wipes.  And I marveled as my normally headstrong, independent little sister took in all the wisdom she could, making a few notes on her phone, with a strong peppering of “I’m so glad you live so close” and “I couldn’t do this without you’s” mixed in.

That night at supper, I glanced up and noticed a book on the bookshelf:  “Pregnancy and Motherhood.”  I thought of the neatly gift-wrapped book in my suitcase.

“Hey, did you read that book?” I asked Didem, pointing to the shelf.  

“I read most of it,” she said.  “But it wasn’t super helpful.  You could tell it was a foreign book translated into Turkish, but it didn’t fit with our culture at all. What Turk is going to follow a feeding chart?” 

She had a point.

Once Bülent was home, I pulled a package wrapped in Winnie the Pooh paper out of my suitcase and presented it to my sister and brother-in-law.  

“Winnie the Pooh was my favourite as a kid!” Didem giggled.  “I loved Piglet the most. And sometimes I call Nil ‘Piglet' for fun.”  She held the paper up closer and squinted at it.  “What kind of an animal is Piglet, anyway?”

I told her.  And watched her chocolate-brown Muslim eyes grow wide.  She dissolved into embarrassed laughter as Bülent glared at her in mock disapproval.  

“Shall we?”  She held up the package, changing the subject.

Together they tore into the present.  After the appropriate oohing and aahing over Nil’s personalized onesies, Didem immediately set about snapping a photo collage and posting it on Facebook.

The other present stayed in my suitcase the whole weekend.  

Cousin Filiz came over the next night and, upon declaring that the house felt like a hamam, told the new parents that they should turn the radiators down because, contrary to popular Turkish belief, you really can overheat a baby.  The next hour was spent discussing how she’d gotten little Atakan to finally sleep through the night, and showing Didem how to tear off Nil’s tiny fingernails without having to use the clippers.  The night after that, Aunt Nazlı and her daughter Özlem arrived, cookies and presents in tow, and expounded on the secret to preventing baby acne - washing the baby’s face in her mother’s milk - and listing the things Didem needed to arrange in preparation for Nil’s fortieth day Qu’ran reading.

Now I was even more certain I’d made the right choice about the book.  Turns out, around here, even if you live in a fancy apartment with a doorman and order take-out on the internet and Facetime your best friend to show her how much your daughter has already grown in three weeks, it still takes a village.  Not a bookstore.  Not even Uncle Google.

I was grateful for the D&R gift receipt tucked away in my wallet.  And I bet that mommy book would be right around the same price as the new Orhan Pamuk novel they just translated into English....

**Nil is now two months old and the online photo frenzy is well underway!  Just in case you thought I was breaking the rules... :)