Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Baby Papoose [An excerpt from an unfinished memoir]...

When I was five-years-old, my father took me to the Natural History Museum in Manhattan.
The darkly lit dioramas, depicting human existence from evolution on, held me captive.
Sun-bronzed women gathered plants while men speared helpless animals and started fires. In one scene, a mother breastfed while her mate suckled on a piece of raw meat. When children played, with reeds and nets, they smiled like they were debuting on television.
My favorite display was of the Native American woman carrying her baby on her back. Swaddled in burlap cloth, it was slapped like an amoeba to her strong shoulders. Her stringy hair draped around her like a mantle, her brown eyes touching through the glass into my child’s heart, her sleeping baby and his whole life ahead on the open frontier.
Al took my hand and we stood in front of the glass staring for what felt like eternity.
He smiled down at me and it felt like the clouds had parted for a moment. “You know, when you were born, your mother and I called you our papoose.” 
I asked what a papoose was.
“You had this full head of dark hair and your eyes hadn’t yet changed to green,” he knelt down to see me at my level, “We swaddled you in blankets. We couldn’t believe how much you looked like a little Native American baby.”
            I didn’t understand what ‘swaddled’ meant.
            “It’s what you do to make a baby feel safe.”
            “Did you do that to me Daddy?” I looked up at him, his large hands, that commanding voice above me like a god. He didn't answer, but ushered me gently to the front of the museum.
In the imposing lobby, a dinosaur towered above our heads.  He had short, stubby arms and I remarked that he must have a hard time tying his shoes. This made my father guffaw. I loved seeing him this happy. Me, making him this happy.
Later, he bought me a toy plane in the gift shop and we went across the street to Central Park to test it out.  While he sat on a bench smoking a cigarette, I ripped open the package holding the plane and pulled out the tiny paper wings. He helped me set it up. But after only a few flights, it sputtered to the ground, broken and torn.
I began to cry.
“Hey kid,” he said as he picked up the pieces, “That’s life. It’s just what happens.”
He crumpled the remnants of the broken plane and threw them away in a nearby trash can.
He offered to buy me ice cream, but I shook my head. So, we headed home, just a man and his papoose.