Content warning: trauma and a baby’s death
Kathryn Gahl’s “The Yellow Toothbrush” is subtitled “A Memoir of Trauma and Mercy”, a mother’s exploration of why her adult daughter behaved the way she did. Most of the poems are written in the aftermath of a visit to her daughter, one, “Sunrise” recalls where it all began,
that May sunrise
hues of pink and purple
on Lake Michigan
outside the window
of the room
a baby girl
whooshed from me
………a hush before the rush
………blood, sweat, and best-kept love
on a sun-blind morning
when the horizon line
An anticipated and wanted baby girl arrives and becomes an individual separate from her mother but dependent. Independence is gained by growing up and the daughter becomes a registered nurse, caring for newborn babies, in “Cloudy”,
“…………She worked night shift for seven years, a tall and bright RN,
the one in the nursery who greeted every newborn with Happy Birthday!
…………..She may not see the landscaped moon for twenty-four years.
…………..By then, her night vision will cloud over with age.
Mine will have joined the clouds.”
The daughter who chose to work the night shift, away from the sun, in a world of newness and possibility now finds herself incarcerated in a place where she will see very little sunlight and will no longer have the freedom to move outside at night. By the time she leaves, she’ll be at an age where vision starts to diminish. Her mother will at best be elderly. So far there are hints as to why the adult daughter is in jail, but the reasons become clearer. In the poem that gives the collection its title, in “List” of “All Things Lost”,
“Perhaps she would add
a lucent yellow toothbrush
she bought for her son, anticipating
how in a few months she would teach him
………to brush his own teeth
…………………On the handle it has soccer balls”
There was a baby son, the speaker’s grandson, who never got to use the toothbrush bought for him. This is the point where readers get some background. The speaker’s husband left when the daughter was 12. At first he disappeared and couldn’t be reached until he moved to the Netherlands and eventually passed away with cancer. In those empty years, the speaker had two children to bring up and had to work. The father never contributed.
In “Bearing Witness”, the speaker writes of how her daughter felt her father’s absence. A lone mother cannot be both parents, however much she tries. The father ghosting his daughter was a significant rejection when she transistioned from a girl to a woman, a time of many changes and a time when, instead of stability and reassurance, her father left without a word and without keeping in touch.
The mother tries to comfort herself that her daughter could not have been fully present or aware of her actions on the night her grandson died. But then, after getting her daughter’s email password, the mother finds an email her daughter sent to herself, in “Entered”
“………………oh my god, on the night of homicide.
………………………He died at 0340.
………………It is short.
….…………………….He died at 0340.
……………….This is jarring. It could be a nurse’s note on a chart. Later—
remember how everything becomes later—I will ask how could you write that and
together we will unpack insanity, the slippage, the brief grab
back at sanity as she did what she has always done. An obsession for neatness, a
compulsion to record events in her journal, document every detail. The carryover
to a profession demanding an exact entry for everything whether it be a
feeding or a hepatitis shot. Besides, Mom, crime shows always try to figure
out the time of death; all this crashing against the walls of her cortex as she labors
to enter into the record with accuracy. And so on and so forth,
…………………she entered her son’s real name
…………………(not He which I use to protect the innocent).”
The reference to a “nurse’s note on a chart” is a reminder of the job her daughter did. This daughter who tended newborns and wished them happy birthday, noted the time of her son’s death. That even in a terrible moment, the daughter still had enough nursing instinct to make notes, not just of the time of death but also to use his name. The poem quotes Joan Didion’s “I’ve always found if I examine something, it’s less scary”. The poem’s speaker notes, “I disagree”. The small comfort that her daughter did not know what she’d done is gone.
Examination, however, does continue. In “Mash-up”,
“………..On her home front with her son, different battles, paradoxes—how can I
be so happy when I am so sad—when her little boy crawls in her lap to read
books, the new neighborhood bereft of neighborliness, how he shows her each
foot in the bathtub, a storm growing with hormonal shifts and lists, breast is best,
she cooks his organic green beans with compulsion, reads Facebook fictions of
motherly perfections, there’s no time to swim with the Wisconsin Athletic Club
membership she bought him, she does not want to be gone from him fifty hours a
week—she wants to be a stay-at-home Mom—how cute he is in the lion costume
she chose for Halloween, she drives into traffic the wrong way and tells no one,
the paranoia of imperfection, at midnight she irons his shirt, did she get it just
right for his holiday photo . . .”
The newborn son has a mother who doesn’t want to be parted from him. The mother who wants to devote her time to her baby, becomes
“……………He’s my baby, he’d say . . .
……………..He’s my baby, she’d say . . .
a refrain I heard fluctuate from cute and playful, to bold and serious.
…………I thought it odd, curious—never imagined it was the prologue
for a custody clash, both eager for a child to fulfil them.”
Babies aren’t possessions and no motives are attached to the desire of both parents to claim ownership of the child. The child’s father, the daughter’s fiance leaves them, an echo of her father leaving. Becoming a stay at home mother is impossible if she is also to bring home an income to pay the bills and put food on the table. Her manager becomes difficult – demanding she stay late after daycare is closed because he insists on manually logging data rather than doing it electronically, adding to the stress and sense of overwhelm the daughter starts to feel. With hindsight, the mother sees parallels, in “Epigenetics”, “People who live through trauma are changed/ in a cellular way. The expression of their DNA, modified,/ shows up in subsequent generations, something called/ transgenerational trauma, I learn and I observe, dismayed.”
“Mathematical Fact” (complete poem) is blunt and offers a reason,
(Mia Farrow’s father)
was born February 10, 1904.
for what was
She died in the institution.
Do the math.
One hundred and ten years
Lactation psychosis, also postpartum (or puerperal) psychosis can appear in new mothers in the days or weeks after giving birth. Symptoms include mania, depression, confusion, hallucinations and delusions. It is not easy for new mothers to ask for help: the sense of failiure and shame plus fear of separation from their baby all deter mothers from seeking support, even with a supportive partner. For a new mother whose partner has left and who is in the middle of a custody battle, asking for help carried the risk of a more permanent separation. A judge would have to decide between giving shared custody or sole custody to one parent need only see the word “psychosis” to decide that joint custody is not an option and the father should have custody. As as nurse, she would have known what her symptoms pointed to. The mother whose own father had abandoned her, whose partner had left her in sole charge of a newborn could not take that risk.
The speaker continues to visit her daughter in prison, seeking mercy and understanding. In “Limelight” the speaker dances,
“I move in octaves and intervals
possibilities for small
but intense points of
until the music stops
The poem continues with the music returning,
“calling me to be
more than hostage
to the madness
and so I dance
and need to dance
rapturous and ready
to see her face
It’s a long journey that’s not yet complete. “The Yellow Toothbrush” is a searingly honest, literary exploration of trauma and the burdens that fall to mothers. The speaker does not condemn her daughter, seeing her as a victim of circumstance, unable to seek help for lactation psychosis due to the fear of losing custody of her baby son who was loved and wanted, after a series of abandonments. Her daughter’s imprisonment seems to be punishment enough. However, the speaker does not abandon her daughter. She still visits. Though the question remains: how much was responsibility for that fatal night was her daughters or is blame to be laid at the feet of a society that works against mothers, and what about the baby’s father, the daughter’s father? It’s a tough, non-judgemental read.
Emma Lee’s The Significance of a Dress is available from Arachne Press. The link also has a trailer featuring the title poems and samples of some of the poems from the collection. It is also available as an eBook.
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