CULTURAL NOTE: I am writing this from Berkeley, California, where there is no such thing as a dirty car, and where the locals complain bitterly as the temperature approaches 70 degrees. To quote from my daughter’s landlady: “We don’t move to Berkeley to be hot.”
Like most girls of my age, I longed to get my ears pierced. to complete my ideal hippie self with an array of long, dangly, shimmering, beaded, bangled, silvery earrings. Alas, my mother did not share the sentiment that this was a wildly great idea. She was from a different era, and more importantly, a different social stratum. For her, pierced ears conjured up images of…immagrants. Women straight off the boat cradling tiny infant girls whose tiny infant ears had been brutally stabbed in order to place tiny bits of stone on their lobes. Never mind that every single infant boy of the time was circumcised, a sizable portion of skin lacerated from his newborn penis. One was clearly a sign of the success of public health to ensure progressively better hygiene, the other a horrifying pagan ritual.
I begged, pleaded, cajoled, litigate, and prepared essay-structured polemics as to why it was absolutely necessary to have pierced ears, lest my truest and best self never be fully realized. By the summmer that I was 14, I had worn her down. She took me to a local physician, an Italian (cough*immigrant*cough) who was a colleague of my father. He pierced my ears the old-fashioned way, with a surgical suturing needle and surgical thread. I had heard the folklore that ear lobes have very few blood vessels in them, and therefore hardlybleed at all when pierced. Ha. Haha. One of my ears obeyed this rule, the other gushed forth in a truly impressive fashion.
In no time at all, I developed a raging infection in both of my earlobes. They bled, oozed, and pussed in an even more impressive array of textures and colors. My father prescribed one round of antibiotics, then another; one kind of antibiotic ointment, then another. The infect remained undaunted. I was forced to conclude that the only reasonable alternative was to allow my hard-one holes to close up and heal. But I am not one to give up easily. I tried again. But like the world’s worst deja-vu, the entire infection calamity repeated itself.
When I talked my mother into making a third (and, I was sure, final) attempt, she thought: “Oh, for heaven’s sake; I’m doing it myself this time.” She got her own suturing needle, her own surgical thread, and took me into the downstairs powder room of our house so I could direct her aim and watch the amazing rivulet of blood spring forth.
It was one of the rare moments that I was awake before my mother. She padded into the kitchen in her sleippers and robe to fine me wide awake, fully dressed, and crying. “Did you hear me talking on the phone?” she asked.
“No,” I said. The tears were in free fall by this time. “I’m gonna have to let it close up. Again. It’s a mess. A total mess.” I had awakened to a number of different colors and viscosities of goo and blood crusting and running from both sides of my ear lobe. “What do you mean: did I hear you on the phone?”
“I was on the phone. I thought maybe you heard. Your Uncle Steve died.” She stood there in her robe and slippers, her eyes clear and dry.
I thought of the time when I was a very little girl, 5, maybe, or 6. I was playing in my room and heard a faint sound coming from down the hall. I followed the sound down the hallway and into my parents’ bedroom, where my mother sat crying on the bed. My world was turned upside down. I had never seen my mother cry before. I believed that feelings were something that children encountered, sure. But just children. That they were something that you grew out of — like skinned knees, and teeth that fell out, and homework — things your bore in childhood, but never after.
My mother continued. “He died last night.” My Uncle Steve was her baby brother. “Now let’s take a look at that ear.”
Photo from Flickr by David Uzochukwu