Disjointed Thoughts on Motherhood at 3 a.m. (+ a Persimmon Cake)

[Persimmons on Bloomfield, November 2013.]

At 3 a.m. the world is quiet and still. Now that I am not living in the city the night settles deep and dark. There are no streetlights. No loud trucks whooshing past my living room windows as I prop my eyelids open trying to stay awake to feed the bebe yet another time (who will live in that apartment next, I wonder?). In Sonoma County life is a bit slower; the days run together in sun and sporadic rain and there is little else to do but simply be and watch for her fleeting smiles. She looks at me and I look at her in the dim glow of the nightlight and I realize it’s true that love can make you forget that you haven’t had a decent night’s sleep in over two months. I smooth her hair and know that I don’t much care. I thank goodness again for coffee.

[Sierra at almost two months, November 2013.]

The other day while logging my occasional 6 miles along the back roads of Sebastopol (thanks, Nana and Grandpa!) my rather sleep-deprived state had me dreamily looking round at the remaining apple orchards along Pleasant Hill, Mt. St. Helena sharply outlined in the blue distance, the sun falling heavy and warm across my bare arms. I feel like myself, I thought. My old self. The self before the advent of Sierra. The self I have always been and still am and will be going forward. Not that this was necessarily a surprise, but it was a comfort to acknowledge it. Myself, still, despite life’s recent changes. And I thought about Sierra too, of course, even though I had a few stolen minutes away from her, because that is how it is now. What it feels like to be a ‘mother’. Who she is. Who the three of us are now, with this great shift. (Also about how my penchant for sweets continues unabated, a holdover perhaps from the recent growing season.)

And let me tell you: the changes are permanent and ongoing. One example is evident simply in the writing of this post, which has been done in snatches here and there whenever the wee one has graced me with a nap longer than 20 minutes in her own little bed. It has taken days to cobble this together, and I won’t bother to examine how slow my brain seems to work lately. But I don’t mind. How could I? Look at that face. Sometimes I stare at it, especially when she is eating (and she is truly an eating champion), the same as every new parent everywhere, in wonder that just two short months ago she was still a part of me. That nine weeks ago right now she wasn’t even on the outside yet. There is nothing like having a baby to slam home the reality that life can whisk by in the blink of an eye no matter how we wish it would slow down.

[Persimmon, cake, November 2013.]

The state of pregnancy itself is a strange one, never mind what comes after. Before experiencing it I thought I might be a little freaked out by what actually occurs. Growing another human being inside my own body — what? When you intellectualize it it seems bizarre and unfathomable. And yet it is also one of the most natural things in the world. When I felt a bit out of my element I would think about litters of puppies — for I have been and continue to be enamored with most pups I meet — and how mother dogs grow not one baby but many and often more than once during their lives. This grounded me. Frankly I never had much of a timeline about having a child; some day would be soon enough. Then when some day arrived back in late January and I realized I was in fact setting off down this path my initial reaction was, predictably, a thrill of excitement quickly followed by oh sh*t we’re moving to Morocco in June. I’m moving to Morocco in June and also having a baby. Uh … But you keep on no matter what and so we did. I plowed through the nauseous early days, embraced the energy that came later and which allowed me to keep running up until about three weeks before she arrived, and tried to be in the moment as much as possible.

While I was pregnant I had trouble picturing the little creature growing inside me and what she (!) might look like. In truth it was hard to imagine her at all. For most of those 38 weeks she was simply an extension of my own body in a way, though rationally I knew she was not me, not really. The vegetables I ate helped to expand my abdomen, the sweets I craved surely were just because I was working on my cookbook, the turns and kicks were the baby, I guess, but also … myself? It’s not that I was in denial about having a baby it’s just that it didn’t feel really real until she took her first breath. (The lack of sleep makes it difficult to articulate exactly what I mean.)

But then she did and I will never forget hearing her cry as I lay on the operating table: ‘polite’ is really the only way to describe it. It wasn’t frantic — in fact it sounded pretty unconcerned. A kind of ‘oh hello, who are you?’ sort of a sound. And she was OK: all throughout that long day when I felt so terribly sick she was fine, her heartbeat steady and true. When I saw her I knew immediately, despite all those months of feeling as though she and I were the same utterly connected person in a sense, that she was herself. Her own person. The break was absolute and beautiful and I took my first full deep inhale almost since the new year. She was OK. Sierra is now the closest person to me by default (after all, we spend roughly 22 hours together out of 24, sometimes more) and my new friend and I can say I know her better than I know myself but really I don’t know her at all. I expect to spend the rest of my life discovering who she is. I hope she doesn’t mind.

When I came home during college for the summer some nights I couldn’t sleep (I’m sure you know those 18-19-20-year old mental states that cause one to stay up late thinking or even – gasp – writing poetry) and would go in the short hours before midnight to sit in the field next to the house and look up at the sky. The month to do this particularly was in August, because the meteor showers were at their peak and the stars seemed close enough to touch. I would watch and wait for falling stars; with patience it was almost inevitable I’d see at least one. The night would be dark and quiet around me and the stars shone fiercely against all that blackness. The universe felt vast and unknown and there was a comfort in that: the stars have existed for millions of years and – I hope – will continue to exist for millions of years still to come regardless of the activities of my own small life.

The last time I saw a falling star was two years ago last August in Yosemite the night before we all went up to Half Dome — there in the warm dark with three of my most favorite people in the world, the mountains looming large and silent around us, we glanced up to catch a glimpse of a fiery trail somewhere overhead the vicinity of Yosemite Falls. It felt, in the inimitable words of my beloved Dylan Thomas, like the truest kind of close and holy darkness (and we did sleep well that night).

Yosemite (and backpacking), as I’ve written about before and surely will again, is my steady anchor in the often busy sea of daily existence even if I only get there once a year. Going to the mountains is going home — at least for me — and there is a peace there rarely found anywhere else. The wind sighs through the trees in the back country in a way it never does here in ‘civilization’; the birds sing louder; the stars burn brighter against a blacker sky. You are alone yet not, kept company by often unseen other hikers, bears, the earth itself. There is a comfort in that – alone but never lonely. You need only to look up to know it.

During this newest season of my life I find that the closest analogy I can make thus far to motherhood is that it’s like that waiting in the dark for the stars to fall. There is that same breath-held anticipation; there is that same sense of wonder; there is a feeling of inexplicable comfort, even as some late nights I feel like we are the only two people awake in the world. But to always know: the stars burn on, the moon rises, the sun waits only to spread its fingers across the spine of the world. Night after night it is the same and so we go on across the ocean of possibility taking each minute as it comes, hoping for brilliance, appreciating the stillness. And understanding that really there is nothing more important than this moment, mysterious and familiar at the same time.

But enough of all that for now. It is Thanksgiving week and there is a recipe for persimmon cake to share, squeezing it in just under the wire in hopes it may grace if not your holiday table than surely one over the long weekend. I’ll be making my traditional vegan apple pie and vegetarian gravy, though 2013 will be more on the mellow side compared with years past. Next year I may be trying to find sweet potatoes in Casablanca and opening a can of cranberry sauce obtained from the commissary so this year will be somewhat special just for it being the last one I’ll experience in the States for awhile.

So about this cake: it is homey and a bit rustic and just about the most perfect November cake you could imagine. I like it mostly as an accompaniment for a (typically late) second cup of coffee or afternoon tea, though I think if you dusted the top with a bit of powdered sugar and whipped up some heavy cream it would make a satisfyingly fall-like dessert to round out your Thanksgiving meal. The spice mix – cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, etc. – is the same as the ubiquitous pumpkin pie flavor, but persimmons are certainly not at all pumpkin-y save for their color and so I don’t think the similarity is boring. Rather, a slice of this cake would nestle quite cozily against a slice of pie on your dessert plate causing you to give thanks yet again for four day weekends, a good meal, the promise of the new year lurking just around the bend.

For some vegetarian Thanksgiving options see:

My vegetarian Thanksgiving story published on NPR a few years ago
… and Thanksgiving on the lighter side, also via NPR
Some vegetarian appetizers
Some more vegetarian main dishes
And a collection of vegetarian Thanksgiving links

We leave for Morocoo a week from today – please think a good thought for me and the girl next Monday afternoon – and I imagine posting will be a bit light until we get acclimated again and get over jetlag. More, hopefully very soon.

‘Til then, wishing you a wonderful day of feasting and fires in the fireplace and good food and wrapping warm things round. And cake. Always, always cake.

Join the Conversation

  1. Such different lives we’ve led although those 3 a.m. ruminations while rocking the babe are similar. I used to sit, enfolding the new boy, and watch the lights of Manhattan. Still, it was a secretive business–fussing quietly and uttering those grateful prayers in the wee hours. Shooting stars? I’d never seen one till middle age. And last week I had my first persimmon. I confess to ignorance. The color is beautiful. What am I looking for? Firm? Mushy? Do I peel? I’m in New Jersey, in some ways as alien as Morocco. Saw a mound of persimmons but was daunted. And I remembered you were making persimmon cakes. How do I know when they’re ready?
    But never mind all that.
    Sierra is a dreamy baby, so beautiful. I love that stage where you have to hoist the cheeks to see the baby neck. Sweetness.
    Isn’t it amazing how the heart expands?

    Happy trails, Nicolina. There will be stars in Morocco, I know, but none will ever shine as brightly as your babygirl’s intense eyes. Blessings.

  2. Carol Davis Pessin says:

    Nicole, we wish you all a Happy Peaceful Thanksgiving. Have an easy trip over seas, and come back to all of us soon.

    May God watch over all of you.

    Best of all good wishes

  3. Tin’s 4th homecoming anniversary is rapidly approaching and I have been marveling about the effect of motherhood on me as well. It is truly the most incredible thing that could happen to a person in their lifetime to parent a child. I am rewarded every day. And as “they” will tell you it is also the most challenging role you will play on this stage, but rise we shall to the challenge – eh? Somedays I do have my doubts, but the sum in this case is always greater than the parts.

    I wish I had an abundance of persimmons to make this yummy cake – alas they are scarce here in the Gulf South and I’ve gone gluten free because of my Hashimoto’s. There are some who believe this GF is a trend and not grounded in science, but that is only because they can design a pill for it. GF has changed my way of eating and been an enormous help as I reckon with my autoimmune disorder – so please, for GF desserts when you can Ms. N.

    Your Sierra is beautiful – I could look in her eyes for hours myself – and there is nothing that can pierce through the veil as a baby staring at you.

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