Bedside Reading: Roots, Bechdel’s Graphic Memoirs, and Shoulder Dystocia

Lately I’ve been crazy busy helping the most industrious of my entrepreneurial friends run his business. So I’ve been tapping on the now month-old iPhone day and night, scheduling and estimating and quoting and choreographing and soothing clientele from Humboldt to Hemet, Cupertino to Santee. I’ve been yenta-ing it up, though not on the blog.

On my downtime I find myself doing some things. Everything fortifies the writing on some level, and I view it all as a nutritious slurry. And unlike liquified kale, none of it leaves behind a green film. So:

I read the new Alison Bechdel memoir. I’m a fan of Bechdel, I interviewed her at Comic-Con after Fun Home came out, I followed her strip for years. I was gleeful at the prospect of her latest, a seeming bookend to her witty, twisted brilliant elegy to her father. Fun Home deserved every speck of hype it received. I feel for Alison, because the new book — Are You My Mother? — is, well, how to say what the New York Times labored, hesitatingly, to utter in its red-faced and squeamish review? It doesn’t work. Is it solipsistic and pedantic and narcissistic and self indulgent and navel gazing? It verges, sometimes more than a little. I reread it promptly not for the joy and delectation, but to confirm my hunch.

What Bechdel’s newest does best is muse on the birth, the homely ontology, of writing a book. Not just the mother memoir but Fun Home too. For a work focused on Bechdel’s mother, it skitters constantly off the mother track. Frequent passages from Donald Winnicott and Virginia Woolf feel tacked on, like Post-its stuck to the outline of a story which just ain’t working. A narrative which, to employ some obstetric lingo, is failing to progress.

If much of Are You My Mother? alludes to the process of creating narrative, the chief maternal attribute I sense is anxiety at a birth going badly. I think of that dreaded obstetrical complication, shoulder dystocia. Here, the baby’s shoulder lodges during birth and requires exceedingly difficult manual extrication. The head is out but the rest is trapped. Over the ages shoulder dystocia led to dismemberment of the baby in dire attempts to save the mother, severing of pelvic structures to free the infant, and, in more recent generations, to broken collarbones, emergency C-sections, birth injury induced by hypoxia and trauma, maternal and fetal death. In shoulder dystocia there is panic and struggle and often a bad outcome.

For all my reservations and dismay, please don’t think I’m consigning Are You My Mother? to a neonatal intensive care unit and pulling the plug. I love how Bechdel works with her family history. Generations of Bechdels lived in the same Pennsylvania town and there are wonderful and beautifully researched details of relatives and places in both books. In Fun Home the Bechdel family funeral home looms large (and fascinating). In the second book she tells her mother that a key reason to share her father’s story (and shame the family in the process) is to give him a “proper funeral” by stating the truth about his closeted and often enraged life. Death and mortuary science are lead characters here. Genealogy too. (Interestingly Bechdel’s sister-in-law, who seems none too pleased about such public, published family revelations, is an avid geneaologist.)

Alongside the Bechdel, my bedside reading includes a sheath of genealogical materials from a distant cousin. I picked it up in Great Neck last month and it has taught me some things. My great-grandma Mary’s great-grandfather was named Moses, and he was born not in Tokaj but Tallye. Mary’s father Morris, who built the house at 304 Berriman in East New York in 1901, had twin aunts, Annie and Ida, who lived near Stuyvesant Town and were roseate and “uncouth” in their al fresco bridge chairs as per their in-law, my Aunt Selma, who liked to call herself an “outlaw.” Born in Tokaj on September 11,1876, the twins appear in a carefully calligraphed birth registry stamped “Dawid Schuck Rabbiner.” Theirs was the second Jewish birth in Tokaj that month, flanked by Deborah Trapper on September 7 and Hani Klein on September 12.

Also in the packet: The circumcision record of Samuel Straussler, son of Moses. July 7, 1847 was the day of Samuel’s bris, and he went on to father the twins, Morris-who-built-Berriman, and two other girls, Lea and Rosy. Lea married Gus, Rosy married Sollie. I don’t know if Lea and Rosy emigrated like their siblings. I do know that Morris’ wife, my great-grandma Mary’s mother Fannie, died at 304 Berriman of “acute dilatation of heart due to prolonged infection, sepsis started from grippe infection, hemorrhagic [unintelligible] with pyremia due to grippe infection.” This, from her death certificate signed Jacob Ruchman, MD, on March 4, 1921.

Google and my insomnia being what they are, a search of “Jacob Ruchman” yields several papers published by Dr. Ruchman in the Thirties, in what appears to be prominent ENT journals. He discovered a spore which led to nasal problems. I imagine his office at 430 Hopkinson Avenue in Brooklyn to be gaslit, loud with rustling papers and pungent with camphor and Benzoin.

So Fannie died on March 4, the day I was born 45 years later. I have yet to light Yahrzeit candles, thank goodness, so I don’t know how my great-grandmother felt that day, if she mentioned it to relatives in the waiting room or simply lighted it upon returning home that night.

Fannie got to miss the death of Harry, her fifth child, who died at fifteen in an undertow, August 15, 1925. I have a photo of Harry strumming a tennis racquet like a guitar, canvas sneakers on his big feet, punch-flattened nose and shrewd-looking eyes. He stands beside the friend, now nameless, who drowned with him. I know from Aunt Selma that her husband, Bernie, the youngest and seventh child, accompanied Morris to the morgue to identify the body. I don’t recall any relatives directly discussing Harry, save for general discouragement from beachgoing.

Harry’s stands as the only premature death listed in the family papers. I take that back. Moses had a wife, Leni, who died at 36, followed six days later by their son Nissan, aged one month and 15 days. This was April, 1884, Tokaj. Of 22 deaths listed from January to September, 11 were under age ten, and of those, most were babies under two weeks old.

When you spend time with decades-old cemetery records, you see baby deaths. Old Montefiore, the Jewish cemetery where Harry and Morris and Fannie and my great-grandmother and others rest, boasts an online grave locator database. No matter how you’ve studied flu, consumption, unpasteurized milk, and the crap shoot of midwifery, the density of babies and children at Montefiore shocks the iPhone-wielding insomnia-fueled Googler.

Of the hundreds of baby interments at Old Montefiore, who knows how many shoulder dystocia caused. I think of sadness and resignation and terror and panic. To compare this often-tragic condition to two examples of present-day graphic memoir seems, on one level, foolhardy and wrong. In another light, we see the hardship and the danger of birth — of different beings, yes, human and art. Both are animated nonetheless.

2 responses to “Bedside Reading: Roots, Bechdel’s Graphic Memoirs, and Shoulder Dystocia”

  1. You DO know that my first job in New York, was at Mount Carmel Cemetery(on the border of Queens and Brooklyn)…Your Great Uncle Joe was buried there. At his funeral, there were all my old coworkers happy to see me, and I them…yet, I was SAD beyond belief…it was an odd day for sure…
    What always impressed me when I worked at Mt. Carmel, were the AMOUNTS of death records from the 20’s! INFLUENZA! I would flip through those i.d. cards (last name, first name, family connections after)….THOUSANDS and THOUSANDS of people… Not sure WHY I am writing this, but thought it should be on record somewhere! XO

    1. I have always wanted to discuss your time working there! I would have done exactly the same thing (gone through the cards). Burial records are online for Montefiore and Mount Carmel. They’re not exact, and certainly don’t have cause of death. When I was in GN in April I meant to bring back with me that copy of Yevtushenko’s collected poems you gave me on the day of Grandma Mary’s funeral. That was one of the sweetest things anyone ever did for me. That was a very snowy day. I remember Uncle Joe asking my dad (I think), Is Annie here today. I sat next to you at the service and was hysterical. Twenty-eight years ago, if my math is right. And here we are.

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“Grace to be born / And live as variously as possible.” Frank O’Hara


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