Photo credit: Christian Nakarado
In 2012, a strong wind toppled an ancient tree in New Haven, revealing the remains of two people, a mother and child, who had died 300 years ago. That same year, I buried the umbilical cord of a stranger in the courtyard across the street. The cord belonged to a five-year-old boy whose name I cannot remember now, the son of a distant family friend from Adana, Turkey, the city where I was born. His mother had come to the United States to visit the university she dreamed her son would one day attend. My boyfriend and I had tea with her at my house when she arrived because my parents had insisted on it. I had just drained my cup and was checking my watch pointedly, bored by the polite and obligatory chatter, when she asked if I would do her a favor.
“What is it?” I asked, standing up.
She pulled a small plastic bag from her purse and slid it across the table to me. The bag’s contents were clouded by tufts of cotton, but when I picked it up, something hard greeted my fingers. “I need you to bury it,” she said.
“What is it?” I repeated, sitting down.
“It’s my son’s umbilical cord,” she said and smiled triumphantly, as if she had just presented me with her child’s outstanding report card or a very precocious piece of art. I recalled then that among the people of Turkey, there was a widespread belief that where the umbilical cord was buried would powerfully influence who a child would grow up to be. Instead of transmitting nutrients, now the cord transmitted character: piety if it were buried in a mosque; erudition if it were buried in a schoolyard; compassion if it were buried in a stable; and wanderlust if it were thrown into the sea, borne by the currents to an unknown resting place.
We worked quickly...the only grave diggers to bury the future instead of the past.
“Please,” she said. “I want so badly for him to come here. Burying it on campus will help his chances. He will accomplish much — like you.”
It was impossible to explain to her that my accomplishments had nothing to do with my umbilical cord. My parents had perfected a highly effective, if unsubtle, narrative of immigrant sacrifice that never failed to induce an acute sense of both gratitude and guilt. “We came to this country for you,” they told me throughout my childhood. “When we arrived, we had nothing, no money. We could only afford to buy a mattress for you, so we slept with our heads at your feet. You kicked us.” Upon our arrival in the U.S., the first family trip we took was to Cambridge, where I saw a man with a gorgeous spiked mohawk, each spike dyed a different color of the rainbow, stalking around Harvard Square and screaming at the pigeons on the newsstand. “If he can go here,” my mother said, “then you can too.”
I remembered the mohawk then, how years of expectation and the fear of disappointment had gathered to it until it become completely synonymous with success, if not happiness. I was preparing to say no, when my boyfriend spoke up. “Let’s do it,” he said.
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My boyfriend at the time was an aspiring novelist with a flair for the mystical. He had once traded shirts with a man drinking next to him in a bar after the man told him that his shirt, a coarse and smelly muslin tunic, had once belonged to an exiled monk from Varanasi. He wholeheartedly believed in ghosts. He told me one had appeared to him some years ago in a cabin he had rented in the Appalachians — an incandescent young man who stood in the doorway and stared at him with sad, steady eyes. The idea of burying human remains on hallowed ground appealed to him, and besides he always kept a shovel in the back of his truck.
He put the umbilical cord in his pocket, and we drove downtown to campus. It was dark by the time we unloaded the shovel from the truck and started to search for the ideal patch of land to perform our burial rites. We had a whispered argument in the shadows. He wanted to bury the cord under the statue of a reverend, his hand pressing his Bible to his breast, his mouth set in eternal disapproval. I preferred the revolutionary war spy. We settled on the statue of the college president who sat with his legs crossed, one shoe poking amiably out of his robes. He was a bronze except for the toe of this shoe, which was burnished a lovely light gold, the result of five generations of college students rubbing it for good luck.
The ground was soft. It had rained earlier that day, and everything smelled sharply of spring. (“Spring is umbilical or else it is not spring,” wrote Wallace Stevens
, who surely did not have this in mind.) We worked quickly, our heads bent under the glow of the college president’s shoe, the only grave diggers to bury the future instead of the past. When the hole was dug, we lay the bag to rest in it, and because it felt like the right thing to do, we each sprinkled a fistful of dirt on it, improvising a blessing.
We left, wondering when it would begin to sprout.
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I have thought about that cord many times in the intervening years, more often now that I have my own children. What became of that boy whose name I cannot remember? He must be 11 or 12 now, and when I think about him, I do not wonder if he is smart or accomplished. I wonder if he is happy, if he has friends. I wonder if he loves his mother, if she is proud of him.
I have marveled, too, at his mother’s premeditation. For years, she watched her child growing into a willful, separate being, and yet she held on to this piece of him, made it into a decaying totem of her — her what? Her love? Her devotion? Her fantasy of who she wanted him to be? “The cords of all link back, strandentwining cable of all flesh,” writes James Joyce in Ulysses
of the human chain of history, all of it leading back to “our mighty mother” whose pull can be as strong as it is dangerous, and, perhaps, inevitable.
I do not know what has become of my children’s umbilical cords. When my older son was born in New York, my husband was handed a pair of scissors and instructed to cut him away from me — his inaugural act as a father. It was overshadowed by our 72-year-old obstetrician, who, singing a popular Disney song about the birth of a fated lion, hoisted our squawking and purple baby into the air. We spent our first seconds as parents wondering if he would finish the song or if he would let the nurses place the baby in the warmer that was waiting for him. The cord wasn’t even an afterthought.
I believed I had neither the capacity nor the desire to make my children vulnerable to my expectations.
Our younger son was born in Montreal, in a hospital that due to provincial budget cuts could no longer afford the instrument to remove his umbilical cord clamp. It dangled from his belly like an alien appendage, poking and scratching us when we drew him close. The night after he was born, the clamp caught on my nursing bra and pulled off. The baby was screaming, and I didn’t know why until I looked down and saw that we were both covered in his blood, that it appeared to be pouring out of him. Our screams multiplied, the nurses arrived, he was bandaged and soothed, and the cord and the clamp were lost amidst the bed sheets.
I believed then that I had spared myself from a superstitious tradition of maternal attachment. I believed I had neither the capacity nor the desire to make my children vulnerable to my expectations, and I believed that if I did one day have such a desire, I would guard myself against indulging it. “Did I escape, I wonder? / My mind winds to you / old barnacled umbilicus…Keeping itself, it seems, in a miraculous state of repair,” wrote Sylvia Plath
, who knew better than I did at the time that escape was illusory.
I read a draft of this piece to my husband, who laughed when I came to the end. “But we have the kids' cords,” he said. “They’re in the file box under our bed. I can’t believe you don’t remember.” I ran upstairs to look, and there they were, nestled in among our 2015 tax returns — two plastic bags, their contents also clouded by cotton.
“Why did we save these?” I asked when I came back downstairs, the bags pinched between my fingers.
“I don’t remember,” he said. “What do you want to do with them?”
They are in my pocket now as I finish writing this, sitting at a table that looks out over our backyard. The moon is full. There is a shovel in our shed. Our backyard opens onto the grounds of the college where I teach, and though there are no statues, there is an orchard of old and crooked apple trees. It has been raining for days, and the ground underneath them is soft.
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is an assistant professor of English at McGill. She is the author of Paraliterary: The Making of Bad Readers in Postwar America
. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The New Yorker, Harper’s Magazine, Bookforum, The New Republic, The Baffler, n+1
, and the Los Angeles Review of Books
, where she is senior humanities editor. The Personality Brokers
is her most recent book.