The Small Mercies of Traveling With a Baby
Camille T. Dungy on the Kindness (And Assumptions) of Strangers
If I keep the baby with me when I go to the bathroom, I have to struggle into the airplane lavatory, nudging my upper body over the commode far enough so I can turn around and lock the door, ignoring the crazed fear that the BabyBjörn securing Callie to my stomach might fail and force me to watch her slide past the flap at the bottom of the toilet. If I manage to turn the front of my body back toward the door without knocking the baby’s head against the lavatory walls or running her feet through the sink area’s standing pools of water, I have to balance myself over the commode despite my altered center of gravity. I push the BabyBjörn up and away from my belly to undo my pants, and then lower myself over the toilet. All the while, turbulence works to unsteady me. There is the awkward negotiation of toilet paper to contend with. Then I have to squat, jutting my tailbone out and dropping my chest, thus allowing the BabyBjörn-bound baby to fall away from my torso so I can pull my pants back up.
Buttons always prove my final foil. More than once I have walked out of the lavatory unbuttoned, returning to my seat before I can take Callie out of the BabyBjörn and finally fasten my pants. Like so much of motherhood, going to the bathroom while wearing a baby demands equal parts acrobatic prowess, fear management, and sublimation of shame. So, when a grandmother returning from Florida said, “I’ll be happy to help you,” and meant, I would love to hold your baby, as we boarded our flight from Logan to the Northern Maine Regional Airport, I said she could hold her as soon as we took off, hoping I could pee in peace.
As it turned out, using the bathroom, with or without the baby, was not an option on this flight. The moment the propellers began their one-and-a-half-hour sound show, Callie resorted to the infant’s best defense against chaos: deep slumber a mother dares not disturb.
We were in our final descent when the man sitting next to me leaned closer so I could hear him over the noise of the propellers. “I have to admit,” he admitted, “I was worried when you two sat down. Babies, you know.” He placed his earplugs in a carrying case he then placed in his backpack. “I commute every couple weeks. Three weeks on, two weeks off. Been doing that since I took a job with Exxon 18 months ago.” Jobs were, he told me, scarce in the part of Aroostook County he called home, and though the travel could be hard, the pay was good and the work steady. “I don’t usually like flying with babies,” he said. “These planes are loud enough as it is.” I nodded. I don’t usually like flying with babies, either. “But she’s a good one, isn’t she?” Yes, I said. She was. And then he told me about his girlfriend and how he wondered what their house would look like when he got back, seeing as the dog he’d bought her for Christmas took advantage when he was away. “You know how it is,” he said, because the baby provided him with a way to connect with me.
It was 9:30 p.m. and 19 degrees when we landed in the northeasternmost county of the contiguous United States. Before heading out across the tarmac, I wrapped Callie’s blanket over the BabyBjörn, and around this bundle I pulled the over- sized parka my husband lends me when I visit cold places. The oil rig worker carried Callie’s diaper bag down the airstairs. A businessman carried our backpack. I didn’t ask for any of this. Everyone just seemed to understand what needed to be done.
In baggage claim, I gave the baby to the woman whose grandchildren were in Florida so I could haul our luggage off the carousel. Immediately she plowed her nose into Callie’s hair. “If I could bottle that smell,” she said, because babies are simultaneously astounding and mundane and so are the things people do around them.
When I returned for the baby, she took one last deep breath, smiled as if she was genuinely glad for the opportunity to fly on a prop plane with us, gathered her own bags, and disappeared.
“This is the baby I was telling you about,” a man told his wife as he moved to fill the departed grandmother’s space. I’d noticed this man watching us in the waiting area at Logan. We’d smiled the smile of acknowledgment passed between black people countrywide, but he hadn’t approached us until now, with his innocuous-looking wife by his side. I was putting Callie back in the BabyBjörn to free my hands to move our luggage toward the cabstand. This process stalled as the man told me he lived nearby in Caribou, described Caribou (the second-largest city in the least populous county of the state), and shrugged off my query about the cold. “I’ve been in Maine such a long time I hardly notice the climate anymore,” he said, looking around the room to make sure I understood.
In the same way that we both understood our silent greeting in Logan meant, It’s nice to see another black person, he figured I understood what he meant about the climate. He was a black man, a big one at that, living in cold, white, northern Maine. I gathered people often eyed him with suspicion. People use foils to help them express their desires. They use excuses. They try to hold their tongues. They speak poetically, working through connotation and association. “I’d be happy to help while you carry your luggage to the cab,” he said. He wasn’t offering to help me haul the luggage. What he wanted was to hold the baby. Perhaps had wanted to do so since he first laid eyes on us, but to openly admit a desire to hold a stranger’s child can be risky.
The woman who held Callie while I got my luggage off the carousel had taken a long time to articulate her desire as well. At Logan, she positioned herself across from us in the waiting area. “Your daughter looks like a little angel,” she said. “I just left my three grandchildren in Florida,” she said. Then she pulled back into herself. It hadn’t occurred to me that she wanted to hold the baby. It is possible it hadn’t occurred to her, either. Part of the joy of watching the baby was watching her move.
Callie had been successfully crawling for less than a month, so she moved through space with the confidence of a master and the coordination of a novice. In January, she started crawling backward, not forward, which seemed to frustrate her. Then she began to skooch herself forward in such a way that I found myself comparing my darling girl to some sort of animal: a lizard with a low center of gravity and four unstrategically splayed limbs. She’d get a leg stuck on the wrong side of an arm, her little butt would shake, and down she’d go, forced to figure out how to roll off her side, sit back up, and try again. This was what we called progress in our house for several weeks. But during the last week of February, around the time her first tooth erupted, Callie began to propel herself forward in earnest.
First step, crawling, we said. Next step, the world!
It was the middle of March when Callie and I flew to Maine. On the plane from San Francisco to Boston, Callie kept her voice and body perfectly contained in our seat. She even chose her naptime to coincide with the entire in-flight movie, which happened to be the year’s Oscar-winning film The King’s Speech. A movie I had not yet had a chance to see. As we walked off the plane, people remarked on how quiet she had been, how they didn’t even realize there’d been a baby on board. There are things over which I have little control, and yet they fill me with a nearly sinful degree of pride. My baby’s immense public composure is one of these.
In Logan, when she had space to move, I wanted to reward her with the freedom to move. I let her crawl on the parka’s cozy interior lining, picking her up only as long as it took to keep her off the dirty airport floor. The grandmother across from us watched. The man I later learned lived in Caribou watched. I watched. The woman sitting next to me watched. Callie crawled. I repositioned her on the parka. Callie crawled some more.
“This is my first time back to Maine in over 20 years,” the woman sitting next to me said to the air someplace in front of Callie. When I asked what had kept her away so long, she told Callie the story. “My father hadn’t wanted me to go to college, but I went anyway. That was what women were doing, and I wanted to be a woman. I was a woman,” she said.
Callie was crawling toward the edge of the parka. I moved her back toward the center and she crawled toward the edge of the parka again. I was listening to the woman mostly as a way to pass time.
“That was the start of it, anyway. After I graduated, I moved to the city.” A gate agent came over the intercom, and the woman waited to determine whether the message would be of any consequence to us. It was not. “One day my parents came for a visit. They hadn’t told me they were coming. I was living with my boyfriend to save money. And because I loved him, of course. I did love him.” I overheard the woman, but I was no more relevant than a priest in a confessional is relevant to a person unburdening herself before a silent God. “Well, anyway, my father never spoke to me again.”
The woman watched Callie rattle a tub of chocolate-covered raisins and work the plastic toward her mouth. I didn’t have a chance to say anything. I just grabbed the tub of chocolate-covered raisins out of Callie’s hands.
The raisins came from Au Bon Pain, where I’d stopped for a sandwich on my way to our gate. The woman working the counter hardly talked to me. She was focused on the baby. Her little feet. Her little hands. Her little smile. Her little feet. Her little hands. Her little smile. I stood with the baby’s back BabyBjörned to my belly, waiting until the cashier stopped playing with my daughter’s little feet long enough to take my order.
My birthday is just before New Year’s Eve, so, rather than making a New Year’s resolution, I articulate birthday intentions. I think of something I want to work on in my character and try to work on it throughout the new year. One year I worked on learning how to turn down offers from men that sound too good to be true. One year I tried to stop worrying about things over which I had no control. Sometimes I have to remediate. For years 33 through 35 I worked on patience. I had to be patient with myself as I tried to learn patience, but now that I had a baby I couldn’t help but be patient. I have earned my Ph.D. in patience. Call me Professor Patience, please. The Au Bon Pain cashier played with Callie’s little fingers, her little faux-shoes. She looked up long enough to take my order and plug it into the register, then she went right back to tickling Callie’s little calf.
I don’t mind all the time it takes to weave through other people’s responses to my daughter because it gives me space to live in my own head. I took my time putting the change from my sandwich back into my wallet, thinking about the house I wanted so badly and which seemed an impossible dream. When I looked up, I realized Callie had a tub of $6 chocolate-covered raisins in her hands. I didn’t know if she’d picked the carton up or if the woman behind the counter had given them to her, but when I tried to pay for the raisins, the cashier shook her head and waved her hand. She didn’t look at me. Instead, she poked her finger toward the baby’s belly, steadily holding my daughter’s gaze. “For you,” she said, as if, if she could, she would give my child the whole world.
In the waiting room for the flight to Maine, the woman sitting next to me watched as I took the raisins out of Callie’s hands and put them in my backpack because Callie watched me put the raisins in the backpack. When Callie crawled toward the far end of the parka, she watched me pick her up and move her back to the middle. When Callie turned her attention toward her own toes, the woman said to Callie’s toes, “Your mother loves you, and you know it.” Callie pulled her toes closer to her mouth.
“My mother used to visit me in Boston every once in a while,” the woman said, “but my father never came.” She stared at Callie the way I focus on the kitten posters in the phlebotomist’s office, so I can keep my mind on something good. “It’s been about 15 years since I talked to either of them. He has dementia real bad now,” she said. “I’m going back to help my mother. She can’t take care of him alone.” Callie crawled toward us, and I picked her up just as the gate agent called our flight. I had started the process of consolidating our carry-ons when the woman said, “Let me hold her for you,” and I placed my baby in her waiting arms.
“Oh!” said the grandmother whose children were in Florida. She sighed as if she’d just realized there was a contest she could have won if only she’d entered on time.
This was the longest trip Callie and I had taken together, the first time since she was born that I had traveled to a speaking engagement hosted by a stranger. The invitation to visit the University of Maine, Fort Kent, where we were headed the next day, came only a week after I spoke on air with Renee Montagne about the anthology of African American nature poetry I’d edited, the first collection of its kind. The campus and surrounding community would host classes, round-table discussions, and a writing contest related to my book. The work I’d done in private was being spoken about in cars and kitchens and planning rooms that I’d never known to imagine before.
Though I consider poetry a mode of communication, it has always felt intimate to me. “I write as if I am whispering in the ear of the one I love,” says Terry Tempest Williams in her essay “Why I Write.” I use poetry to understand myself, to understand the people who are near to me. I live a writer’s life and hope to change the world one person at a time. I write in the dark, groping and unsure, but heeding instincts I’ve been learning to guide. Something in me needs to believe no one is looking, so I can take the risks I need to take to make the writing come out right. I assumed the way I’d conducted my writing life was how it would always be. But after that interview on NPR, I was born into another life. My private artistic life became public at the same time my domestic life began to reveal itself to the world. My belly had just started to swell when I received the invitation from UMFK. I was growing and changing before the public eye.
“Our first baby is due this June, and I’d not planned on doing any events next spring,” I wrote Professor Jenny Radsma, “but I have to admit that your invitation is too tempting to turn down. The caveat for me is that, as I will still be nursing, I will likely bring my baby along.” This was one of the strangest business emails I had ever written. When I hit send, I felt as if I’d put my belly and breasts on display when no one had asked to see either. “What an exciting time for you, to welcome your firstborn!” Dr. Radsma responded, unfazed. She told me the best way to travel to Fort Kent: The baby and I would take a day-long flight from San Francisco to Boston, then a small plane to Presque Isle, and the next day, when the sun was up and we were rested, someone would drive us the remaining ninety minutes to Fort Kent. Everything was possible. Babies happen to people every day, Dr. Radsma’s email suggested. Folks would accommodate mine.
And so I prepared for a winter trip to Maine.
The suitcase I packed was filled with tiny snowsuits, sweaters, and cozy sweatpants mailed to us by friends and family from Iowa, Michigan, and Vermont. The baby clothes were accompanied by advice on how to keep a hat on a reluctant baby’s head, how to keep mittens on a reluctant baby’s hands, and how to keep a baby warm in a car seat. (Put bulky insulation over the straps or risk interfering with the protective powers of the five-point harness should you hit a moose.) I brought along the notes. I packed three outfits Callie could wear on each of our four days away, sixteen total if you counted alternate pairings, because I wanted to layer, and because I didn’t know how casual or dressy northern Maine would be, because there could be spit-up or blow-outs, but mostly because I didn’t want to leave cute cold-weather clothes in a drawer in California when they could serve a genuine purpose in northern Maine.
In case her feet got into something wet or dirty, I brought all three pairs of Callie’s shoes, which were really just socks that snapped around her ankles. I also packed a pair of baby Uggs my mother had not been able to resist buying for her only grandchild. I packed tights whose feet looked like Mary Janes and tights whose legs were covered in flowers. I packed baby leg warmers, and when I realized I didn’t have a suitable scarf for a nine-month-old, I wrote Jenny Radsma and asked if she could scare one up. I packed three pairs of her pajamas because I didn’t know where we would find a washing machine. I packed two blankets, a sleep sack, burp clothes, a bath towel, and two washcloths. Hotel towels are so harsh I worried they’d rub Callie’s new skin raw. On later trips, I’d pack a rubber duck or a bath toy to make an unfamiliar bath seem more familiar, but I had not yet thought of that.
In a Ziploc bag, I packed extra bottles, a bowl, and a couple of little spoons. I packed several jars of baby food. Certainly they must have grocery stores in northern Maine, but I didn’t know if I’d have time to shop. I brought two packages each of the compostable wipes and diapers that made me feel slightly less horrible about all the waste we discarded. I packed three large compostable bags to hold this waste. I brought $5 bills to leave for the hotel cleaning crew.
I packed a black baby doll named Naima because when I left Callie with sitters during my presentations, I wanted her to have a familiar face nearby. I packed an Angel Dear mini-blanket given to me by the poet Rigoberto González at a board meeting we’d both attended in Portland, Maine, while I was 19 weeks pregnant and recovering from a broken leg. I had been worried about that trip, too, but it had turned out well. The Angel Dear mini-blanket was supposed to be for Callie, but I probably packed it for me.
I packed a stuffed blue dinosaur that played “You Are My Sunshine” when Callie squeezed it. I packed Olivia and Hug. I packed The Snowy Day and the non-materialistic version of Hush, Little Baby, because they talked about mother love and snow day fun. I packed baby shampoo, hair detangler, barrettes, her comb, her brush, rubber bands. I packed baby lotion, diaper cream. I packed nasal saline spray and a nasal aspirator in case she got congested from the flight.
I put my things in one corner of the suitcase: one pair of black pants, three tops, two dresses, tights, socks, underwear, nursing pads, and an extra set of glasses because I did not want to be 3,300 miles from home when Callie broke my only pair.
In the Northern Maine Regional Airport at Presque Isle, I slung the Pack ’n Play over my shoulder while I balanced the diaper bag and backpack in the car seat that was locked into the stroller, then I pushed the stroller/luggage cart with one hand and pulled our steamer-trunk-sized suitcase with the other. With everything thus precariously balanced, I left Callie in the arms of the black man from Caribou, and I headed toward the cabstand with our things.
The cabdriver had just finished loading another fare when I arrived. “You have everything but the kitchen sink,” he said.
A wintry wind whipped around us. I tried to make sure my face was positioned in a manner that would discourage further small talk.
“I’m running the pilot and the flight attendant to their hotel. Mind if I come back for you?” What choice did I have? How many cabs could be running this late in Presque Isle? My particular response was no more important to him than it had been to anyone I’d talked to that day. “Just leave your things there,” the driver said. “I’ll load you up when I get back.”
With the backpack and the diaper bag, I hurried out of the cold to reclaim my daughter, who was grinning to a song being sung by the wife of the man from Caribou.
“Folks must really trust each other here,” I said, indicating the pile I’d left unattended in front of the airport terminal. No armed guards patrolled the building watching for potential security risks.
“Who would want to steal your things?” the woman asked, handing Callie back to me.
I sat in the waiting area, chatting with the solitary ticket agent while I nursed Callie. Then we watched Callie pull herself into a standing position with the aid of one of the airport’s ten chairs. The baby sat down. I stood up and paced. By now it was nearly 10 p.m. We were the only travelers remaining. The baby pulled herself up. I sat down and talked to the ticket agent again. She had been marshaler, ramp agent, and baggage thrower, too. She could do a final security check and go home once we left. “It shouldn’t be much longer,” she said. “Twenty minutes or so.” With Callie in the BabyBjörn, I headed toward the bathroom. “I’d be happy to hold her while you’re in there,” the ticket agent said. She would be a Callie minder, too.
It was possible I stayed in the bathroom longer than was necessary so I could enjoy the quiet feeling of being behind a locked door attending to only myself for the first time since 5:30 a.m.
Before the worry kicked in and I raced to wash up, only to find Callie flexing her leg muscles on the ticket counter, the sole remaining airport employee’s hands steady on her waist; before the only cab in Presque Isle returned to collect us; before I secured the car seat in the back of the cab while the driver loaded the suitcase and the stroller and the Pack ’n Play and the backpack and the diaper bag in the trunk, saying, “You brought everything but the kitchen sink”; before the driver started driving us through dark streets, toward some snowy town; before he told me how he used to drive trucks and his wife would pack “for four days if I was gone four weeks, for four weeks if I was gone four days—‘Woman, what is wrong with you?’ I’d say, ‘I’m gone for four days and you pack for a month. I’m gone for a month and you pack for four days’”; before I realized he was so accustomed to running over the same road again and again and again that his speech patterns had to circle back, too; before, without my giving him an address or the proper hotel name, we pulled up to the Presque Isle Inn & Convention Center, which looked a lot like a two-story motel; before he helped me haul the luggage into the lobby, shaking his head and saying, “You packed everything but the kitchen sink”; before I checked in and made two trips from the lobby to our room with the luggage and one trip to the vending machine; before I set up the Pack ’n Play; before I took a chip bag out of Callie’s hands and prompted the day’s first steady stream of tears; before I quelled her tears with the stuffed blue dinosaur; before I set her in the Pack ’n Play; before she had her first poop of the day and cried and cried and cried and cried and cried until I changed her diaper and took her, clean, into my arms, reciting Blake’s “Jerusalem” and “The Idea of Order at Key West” by Wallace Stevens; before she let her limbs relax and fell asleep; I stood, several moments longer than necessary, in the accessible stall of the Northern Maine Regional Airport’s two-stall bathroom, alone.
When I pray for traveling mercies, I am praying for moments like these.
Excerpted from Guidebook to Relative Strangers: Journeys Into Race, Motherhood, and History. Copyright © 2017 Camille Dungy. With permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.