With Child
Marni Asplund-Campbell, editor

[p.1]I.

 Conception

__________

Alchemy
Joanna Brooks

[p.3]This story begins, rightly, in my mother’s house. Married at nineteen, she was in her third year at Brigham Young University, auburn hair and ivory skin, and weighing 106 pounds on her wedding day. 106 pounds, she tells me.

My father crossed the river bed to join her. Doing so, he moved precious miles outward from Los Angeles’s urban center, leaving his less noble Okie neighborhood, the meat-packing places and factories, the house where his mother, alone, raised her four sons (and prized roses) on double-shift salaries and biscuits, the recipe for which was so automatic that she never thought to write it down. It’s lost to us now.

Together, as handsome couples did in those days, my father and mother made steady, blessed progress, getting ever more suburban. They bought a first house on two salaries. Too soon it seemed too small for their boundless enterprise, and their move to the second house, I figure, was precipitated by me—or by the hope of me.

Which hope I held off for some time, testing their faith in the promises and portents. It took doctors, lawyers, and bishops—prescription bottles, preliminary adoption counseling, and priesthood blessings—to coax the elements into place and the natural into action.

I was their first, as my mother was her mother’s first, and only. My grandmother, in fact, gave her mother the Dorton family’s only granddaughter. The four Dorton girls produced only two children. This is rare in a Utah family. There are reasons for this—some cruel apocrypha I have heard, and much more I haven’t. Most of my Dorton great aunts are dead now, the causes only whispered. Their photos curl, perpetually drying, from the black-paper family albums into which they are pasted.

[p.4]I was fourteen when I got my patriarchal blessing. I was a miraculous fourteen, with a huge mind and extensive sensitivity, of which my generously sized A-cup took no notice. Back then, I may have matched my mother’s legendary 106 pounds.

I fasted before my blessing, and it was lovely, and of all that was said one bit stuck out. In the most reliable part of the blessing, the part about marriage and family, the patriarch said something about me being a “Mother in Israel” and teaching the children that would be “placed” in my “home.”

“Mother in Israel,” of course, being the conciliatory phrase they use to comfort the childless women in the church. And the ambiguity of “placed”—sounding too close to “Indian Placement Program,” sounding distinctly like adoption. Why not “You will bear”? Or even “You will have”?

I don’t know if the patriarch realized what kind of fear he seeded in me, how these small phrases took root in my head. Already I was a smart girl. Already my sister MIA Maids Juli and Shayne seemed much more lush and swollen. Already I was fourteen and tapping the calendar, waiting, nothing moving yet. I imagined my ovaries—almond-sized, they say?—dry-roasted inside of me. Husks, just husks.

When I left for BYU, everyone teased me about going just for my “MRS” degree. Me, of all people, with a scholarship and all. No joke: I spent freshman orientation in horror, utterly panicked by the huge hordes of bright boys with wheat-colored hair and lip-glossed girls, and wondering how was I ever going to find a husband?

When I was twenty, the doctor diagnosed me with polycystic ovaries. “Which means?” I asked. “You don’t ovulate,” she said.

Seminary taught me how to read the signs, how to see the secret meanings. I have pondered all these things in my heart.
Writing this, I am just turned twenty-four, still single, and six years out of the house. I have a small, bright apartment in Los Angeles—lots of books, big windows, white walls, bright colors, wood floors. I clean the house carefully and often. I am grateful for this place; I have worked hard to establish it.

Sometimes my parents wonder why I stay shut up in it with so many books. They love me. “Don’t miss out on Prince Charming,” they say. [p.5]“If he’s Prince Charming, he’ll wait around until I’ve passed my doctoral exams,” I say, and I mostly believe it. My exams are seven weeks away.

When my mother presses me on the subject, I remind her that I have enlisted four sperm donors, just in case. One is my boxing coach, one is a hiking guide in southern Utah, one is a wanderlust poet-type and soon to be doctor, and one is a fellow graduate student in literature, a brilliant, handsome man. The plan goes like this: they donate, they get lost, I raise the kid with my best friend Karen and assorted other women friends of all ages on a refuge ranch we call “The Tofu Farm.” The men show up on special days and weekends, bearing gifts, taking the kids out on high-adventure sports outings, with the provision that if it’s rock climbing or gun shooting, I get to come along for fun. Then the men impart terse but tender bits of wisdom, and get lost again. They’ve all endorsed the plan. These four, they’re good stock, I reassure her. She is not reassured.

Sometimes, yes, I resent the way she recommends “the bigger picture” to me—how the words “husband” and “babies” operate for her, and thus for me, as keys to a “wider world.” I resist the way her life wraps around mine, contextualizes mine. To her I have not yet “arrived,”and will not until I am carried over that threshold Or become someone else’s doorway.

I am, however, arriving at this conclusion: whatever thresholds I cross or doorways I erect will stand within her world, not take me out of it. I am woman and adult enough to know that I am and always will be of my mother’s house, whoever comes along. I honor the stories alreadywritten for me; I occupy them proudly and in their shelter write new ones.

In this version, however, nothing’s hung up over help-on-the-way, be it keys or alchemy. I say—moving into bigger rooms, now; widening hard won spaces; calling stars into place, countless ones, perhaps.