Black Jack Jean Turns One

By  |  June 22, 2017
Photos courtesy of Tift Merritt Photos courtesy of Tift Merritt

Amps & Raisins


  

I’ve been thinking about everything I needed to tell you since we last spoke. Last time, I told you about the black and blue days on the road. I need to tell you about the good days, the highs of making music. Or the night panics I had when I was pregnant, my fear that I would not be able to be a musician anymore. I could tell you about leaving NYC, moving back to my hometown at forty-one to have a baby. Or about the crazy sense of victory I felt the first time I went to the grocery store with my new baby and got all the groceries home and put away on my own. Or the sleepy, worn out morning when I accidentally deleted all my writing about the first three months of my daughter Jean’s life—thinking about it can still make me cry. I should tell you about any number of firsts we have shared: first seeing the sunshine, first gig, first smiles, first overseas flight. I should tell you all the ways she surprises me; how she loves soundcheck, claps when a song ends, and dances more than anyone I know. I should tell you about the number of times I have put my clothes on inside-out since Jean’s birth. Or how deeply thrilled I am that we have survived and even thrived this past year, 365 days of stories that astonish me. I hope I’ll have time to tell you all these stories, but today, I’m going to tell you about Jean’s first birthday.

I’ve always joked that I would be a bad mom and have a gig on my kid’s birthday. Sure enough, for Jean’s first birthday: a gig in Las Vegas. I started calling her Black Jack Jean en route. It was hot as hell on the pavement upon arrival, but anywhere there was air conditioning, there were slot machines. And indoor smoking. We took refuge in our hotel room to find someone had been sick in the sink. Right when I felt like crying, Jean unspun several rolls of toilet paper and thought it was the best thing she’d ever seen. Then, across a carpet that had hosted unspeakable benders, Jean took four innocent, wholesome, wobbly steps. I heard myself singing, “you did it,” over and over.

I was in Las Vegas for Black Mountain Institute’s American Dreams festival, something I felt very lucky to be a part of; Jean ate Chinese food with Carrie Brownstein for her first birthday dinner, heard poetry read aloud in the desert, and attended talks on literature, fantasy, and the state of the American dream. The backstage for our show was an airstream trailer settlement with two free-range llamas and a giant saucer-shaped swing large enough for ten kids; Jean was riveted. She fell asleep in my arms under an awning filled with colored lights as Jim James played and I made new friends with what felt like kindred spirits. I ended up out for a nightcap—a first since Jean—slugging too much white wine at a dance party of lovely literati in a hotel room famous for once  having belonged to a mob boss. Marking the first year of a baby’s life is a tremendous victory for a mother. That night as I danced with abandon, I felt really good about giving my daughter a different kind of life. I had that rare feeling that I belonged somewhere. Jean and I both belonged somewhere, to each other. We were both where we belonged, Vegas or not.

I was, however, feeling considerably rougher the next morning at gate B24. Sleepless, wiry, dehydrated. I would have never tried to fly hungover with Jean early on, but we’d flown one-thousand times now. The airport is a free-moving circus for Jean—escalators, trams, people on the go, baggage carts. We play hide-and-seek in the seats, crawl around the gates, and ride the moving walkway over and over, pointing at children. If we are on our own, strangers are quick to pick up thrown toys, hold doors, wave. We always make friends.

What is tough about airports, however, is the nonstop barrage of screens. My hangover turned the volume up high on the divorces screaming from tabloid covers, the piped-in music, and the high-definition broadcast of our current sci-fi headlines. A small child in a stroller passed by, staring into a tablet. Everyone, it seemed, was on a phone. It is hard to look away from moving lights, and Jean is no exception. Chewing on a piece of celery with one hand stuck in a glass of cold water (her favorite things), Jean was hypnotized, lost completely in a Viagra ad. She could not read the scroll of scary side effects but was entranced by a parade of happy-looking, ageless women in work-to-evening wear tossing their self-sufficient, never bitchy, no obligation hair. To her, these were not women whose gaze said, “Big Pharma turns me on.” These were grown-ups who amazed her.

In my hangover haze, I pictured the small counsel of men who obviously need this drug, who make sure Viagra is covered by health insurance while working to make coverage of pregnancy and sexual assault “pre-existing conditions.” How will I explain to Jean, one day, the many layers of this commercial? How will I teach her to have more good faith than seems wise and yet, simultaneously, that the world is full of veiled motives and blatant, accepted wrongs. That a million shiny sequins are at the front of the line holding sparklers to win her time and attention, and that she will have to look past them. How will I teach her to trust herself and be true, amidst so much noise? I will probably say vapid, motherly things: Jean, turn off the TV. Jean, put down the phone. Jean, do you think we should use technology to speak to each other with cartoon emoticons or should we ask for something more from ourselves? 

How will I teach my daughter to ask for something more, but more importantly to find something more? Within herself, within the people around her, in every day. I want her to know that the deep spiritual nutrition of living is in nature, in quiet, in joy, in substance, in one-hundred thousand places every day that are not screaming out for our applause. Found not in things that court our lowest common denominators but rather where we discover what good we are capable of. That we are more than consumers, that our experiences require a language more unique than references to popular movies. That pop songs and “likes” are not what we strive to make of our lives. I know, from my own life, that what I want to show her is The Hard Way. A lonely way, sometimes. An often confusing way. Something I still struggle with myself.

On that morning at gate B24 with a hangover in the company of the Viagra ad, the only answer I could come up with is that I will have to teach her by example. Oh perfect. I thought. Hungover mom’s example. But it is the only answer I can ever come up with. I will have to double down on my own courage, I promised silently. But I don’t always know how to do these things myself: when to compromise, when to hold out, how to not take more than you need but how to find enough. I was thinking about all these things with Jean, still holding the celery, tied to me as we filed into 12B, the bulkhead. Jean immediately set to work figuring out which window to look through, the one just ahead of us or just behind. Through one, she could see a giant metal wing, through the other, blue luggage trucks, the men and women in motion in bright yellow safety vests. We turned the light above us ON, OFF, ON, OFF, ON, OFF. Usually, Jean likes to fold down the tray table and climb onto it to see everyone coming onto the plane, but because we had no tray table, she just pulled herself up the seat to look behind us. With her bright mouth wide open, she pointed at a man in plaid in row 13 and shouted “oooh.” She let her face relax in the cold stream from the air vent. She waved at each person who said hello to her. (Her only word, still woof). Settling in, we looked out the window cheek-to-cheek, held each other, cooed. Jean is at the age where she really doesn’t want to be with anyone but me, and I’m the same way about her. Even on a plane, I feel lucky to spend time with her. Over the next four hours, we might experiment with pretzels, read books, take naps together. Or we might throw things on the floor and think it hysterical.

The engine started; Jean began to nurse. I am a portable, on-demand personal dairy farm of soothing ingredients. Transportation equals nursing. Jean fell asleep across my lap on cue with her meaty, little, sea anemone hand in mine. Out the window, the desert subdivisions ordered beneath us; a swimming pool for every house, green-apple-colored golf courses, and everything else past the edge of town an outlying cinnamon dust. From above the desert, the low mountains rose like ocean swells frozen in mid-break. I was so struck by the likeness that I took a picture to mark the silence, the stillness of that rock moving in tides.

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 And then the captain’s voice broke the quiet. “Ladies and gentlemen, we have an irregularity in our systems. We are turning back for an emergency landing in Las Vegas. Please follow the directions of the flight crew who will be coming through the cabin to prepare you. Thank you.”

Immediately, the flight attendant: “Please remove anything metal and anything sharp from your person. Please read your safely card for how to brace for impact. If you hear the captain say ‘brace for impact,’ please follow the directions in the safety card.”

The flight attendant stopped and pointed to the safety card’s picture of a woman cradling a child in her arms. “Do you understand? You will hold her like that, alright?” It seemed utterly useless, the fragile creature in my arms against the speed and heft of this giant metal bird throwing itself with such velocity back at earth. The metal all around us. I checked my pockets for anything sharp with shaking hands.

“Please remove any high heels.”

The woman behind us began to weep. “I’ll never take a plane again,” she said. “I will never take a plane again. Why did I wear these shoes? Why did I wear these shoes?” Her breath was labored and the man in plaid spoke in calm, low tones. A few rows behind us, a baby began to call out and shriek. I had seen this mother board alone with her infant and knew, on the inside, she was praying to the baby to be quiet and calm. But her baby felt the upset in her bones and cried out with the tremor her mother could not.

“Is this normal, just precaution?” I asked the flight attendant. “Do you know anything?”

“This is procedure,” she answered. But her voice cracked. A tear fell silently down my face. I gripped Jean’s arm, engulfing all of it.

“I can’t believe I wore these shoes,” moaned the woman behind us.

The following moments—I can’t tell you how long it was—were one long, heavy breath made of stone. A quiet came over me. We were flying through clouds, looking like ocean spray, like the white water of changing tides. Below us, more fields of clouds, their meadows, valleys, hillsides. And that stone ocean beneath us. All so tangible, so clear, as if we might step down and bathe in the rivers and hide in the cloud pasture. Look, Jean, I said to her silently, isn’t it beautiful?

Jean lay across my lap, in my arms, wholly asleep.

I knew very clearly that there were no words big enough to hold that moment. I just tried to memorize Jean’s face. The painfully long eyelashes that could turn my stomach, her fat little lower lip, her white eyebrows, her cherub skin that seemed to breathe life itself through its pores. Her perfect, tiny bones. The impossibility of her, her infinite possibility. This creature, so docile, so fierce, so improbable, with so much in front of her on the day after her first birthday. She’d only just taken her very first steps. If my life were to end, it wouldn’t matter so much. I had done what I set out to do—I had loved, I had thrown myself into music. So what that I stumbled sometimes? The only thing to do differently was more of what I had done, more love, more opening. I had given birth to Jean and nothing much else mattered. I tried to see everything in the world that was around Jean, for her. I tried to witness her and there was no way. The amazing power of her tiny innocence, which I couldn’t protect in that moment other than by memorizing her and keeping calm for her. I held her, and I tried to love her with everything I had inside me. I did not care about any loss but that of the world losing her and the days in front of her. The possibility of her. I steeled myself with hope and made sure all she felt was my love holding all around her. Her mouth parted with sleep, revealing her crooked little teeth.

 

The tarmac was lined with emergency vehicles, but I did not see them because I had kept my eyes on my sleeping child—my everything. As passengers cried and clapped at our safe return, Jean placidly rubbed her eyes and sat up. My neighbor, whose shoes I could now see were three-inch platform espadrilles, laughed at herself with eyeliner running down her face. We exited in silent procession, an exhausted joy in every eye. The plane was a sacred space where we had traveled through something together. As we crowded around the gate waiting to see what would happen next—rebooked flights, alternate destinations—people touched each other over and over again, stranger to stranger, partner to partner, parent to child. I held the mother traveling alone and asked her if she was alright. Her husband told her to get the nicest hotel room she could find. A South American family kept coming over to laugh at Jean wobble and fall, to touch that joy, meet it, affirm it. When the crew exited, there was a standing ovation, cheers, whoops, tears. I hoisted Jean up high so she could see, and so they could see the tiny girl they had returned to earth.

“I don’t care what we do, Jean. I want to go swimming.”

I found a lakeside resort on the outskirts of Vegas away from the casinos, called our family and told them what had happened in understated tones because there was no simple way to explain what we had held in our hands. En route we stopped at Walmart, where I outfitted us in hats, suits, and sunscreen and bought a pink plastic ball, all for about forty dollars. The resort was surrounded by the green-apple golf courses and overgrown subdivisions, but it didn’t matter. We went up and down the halls in our new suits, kicking the pink ball and chasing it down. I don’t think we had ever laughed that hard. We swam in the pool surrounded by alien palm trees, ordered fruity drinks in unnatural colors, combed the fake beach where one strange, lost desert duck played in the reeds. Jean loved the tiny tide nipping her ankles, pointed to a kayak passing. “Boat,” I said. “Boat. Ball. Bird.”

That night, we ordered dinner at a fire pit with fake gas logs. We ate fake Las Vegas Asian food while watching a couple exchange wedding vows to a Taylor Swift song. But it didn't matter. Our breath wasn’t fake. Our love wasn’t fake. Our laughter wasn’t fake. Our lives weren’t fake. No scene, no trappings, no nothing that anyone said could take that away from us on that day. No screen imposter, no feeling of wasteland could sully it. We pushed every button in the elevator, and I drank wine in the terry cloth hotel room robe. Jean wrapped herself in my new neon pink bikini as if to say this day was of goodness, one of her favorites. She wanted to keep it on.

Within the week, now back at home, Black Jack Jean is walking—not with her feet but with her entire body. She has added ball to her four-word vocabulary. I think it is her memory of the pink ball in Vegas. She remains in the pure state of becoming. I wonder if she has begun dreaming and what she dreams. Some parts of herself, already known to her, she cannot show me because she cannot talk. She makes herself clear, but not with words. She shakes her head, No, I don’t want that banana. Yes, she points, I want to only wear shoes. Or a cry, Help me, hold me, love me. But mostly, Jean’s world is a place beyond words. Look, Mama, she motions, isn’t it beautiful?


 “Amps & Raisins” is a part of our weekly story series, The By and By

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Tift Merritt is a singer-songwriter whose six albums of original material include Bramble Rose and, most recently, Stitch of the World. The New Yorker has called her “the bearer of a proud tradition of distaff country soul that reaches back to artists like Dusty Springfield and Bobbie Gentry.” She has earned a Grammy nomination, and Don Henley recorded her song “Bramble Rose” (featuring Mick Jagger and Miranda Lambert) for his solo album Cass County. When not on tour, Merritt lives and writes in North Carolina with her young daughter, Jean.

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