Noe Valley Voice October 1998

4087 25th Street

By Jane Underwood

It's windy today, and shadows of leaves are moving outside my bedroom window. Fall has just arrived, but the air feels more like winter -- distinctly colder around the edges. Its sharp-toothed bite makes me want to stay cocooned in the house, where it's easier to monitor the shifting emotions that come over me whenever the weather suggests a time for hibernation. Everything seems poignant.

I'm remembering the period of my life when I decided to have a baby. Most of my friends advised me against this decision, since it meant single motherhood. The books I consulted, written by experts, echoed this advice and then some: If I was choosing to have a baby just because I wanted or needed somebody to love -- somebody who would love me back -- then I was doing it for the wrong reasons. I was being selfish and irresponsible. The fact that I hadn't yet found, at the age of 30, anyone with whom to share my life or love was sad, but that didn't give me the right to opt for motherhood. Why not run a personals ad instead?

I listened to all the advice, I honestly did. But then I talked things over with my heart instead of my head. This led me straight to the edge of a cliff -- me, the woman who had always been deathly afraid of heights -- and I lifted my foot and took one step forward into unfathomable, pregnant sky.

You were born the next October -- I still call you "Pumpkin" sometimes. But if you'd been born in winter, I would have likened your arrival to that moment when the first twig bursts into flame in the hearth and the air begins to flicker and crackle with the mesmerizing language of fire.

We live in bernal heights now. But sometimes when I'm driving through Noe Valley, I pass by our old house at 4087 25th Street. It still gives me a shiver. Well, there it is, I say to myself, the place where -- in just one day -- my life changed forever. Then I picture the "back porch" -- that small utility room just off the kitchen, typical of many Victorian flats, through which one goes to reach the back yard.

My roommate and I squeezed an old mustard-colored couch into that room, along with a clunky Zenith TV that sat in front of the water heater in the corner. The porch, with its big south-facing window, was the sunniest room in the house. It was also the quietest. We could open the back door and hear birds. The sounds of the city would disappear. And because it was off the kitchen, the room often filled with the aromas of food cooking and coffee percolating, as well as the heat from the stove.

It was fitting that I gave birth to you in that room -- where sun streamed in through sheer lacy curtains bought at my favorite department store -- the Salvation Army on Valencia Street -- and where I was able to hunker down on that old but comfortable couch, early on the morning of October 25, 1983.

During labor, I occasionally hoisted myself up, made my way through the kitchen, and lumbered down the hallway to the bathroom. After a few minutes of heaving, I would wend my way back to the couch, lie down, and try to savor the tart apple crispness of autumn in the air.

My abdominal muscles were turning me inside out. With each contraction, I sank down into the mystery of myself as a human animal, aswirl in the panting, sweating, bloody abyss of my bodily self. But between the pains, oh how the leaves fluttered in the light that came streaming through the lace.

When I arrived at the stage of labor known as "transition," my midwife suggested I stand up and stroll around, in order to speed things along.

"Surely, you jest," I said.

Then she told me about the Amazon Women of Noe Valley -- those stalwart souls who had taken vigorous walks up and down 24th Street during their labors, happy and proud to share their writhing, rolling bellies with friends, neighbors, and merchants. Some, she noted, even sauntered out to the beach, or put on music and jitterbugged with their husbands, right up until the baby popped out and joined in the fun.

"How special," I said, not budging.

More time passed, during which my fear of movement prevented further dilation. Finally she declared, "You have to move, Jane. You must change your position. Now do it."

She meant business, so I obeyed.

An hour later I said, "I think something's happening" (the biggest understatement of my life).

She checked me and her eyebrows shot up. Grabbing her medical bag, she called out for clean towels, and your father (who, as you know, eventually and fortuitously chose to share in your raising) brought them in. Meanwhile, my roommate, who had been invited to stay for the occasion, rushed in with a full-length mirror and placed it at the end of the couch.

I gave another push. (You've seen the snapshot of that moment, remember? I'm lying on the couch -- face red and bulging -- beneath the Modigliani portrait of a woman whose eyes are closed, her face serene and relaxed... a woman far removed from the numinous mess of birth or death.) Then the top of your head appeared in the mirror, and at 11:19 p.m., life as I had known it ended.

We lived in noe valley until you were three. But during the real estate boom of the '80s, our landlord sold the house to a speculator, who quickly slapped down new linoleum, replaced the kitchen cupboards and bathroom sink, and then just as quickly resold the place to buyers who wanted to move in. We ended up migrating to a house in Glen Park, where we lived until it too was sold. Then we found our cottage in Bernal, which we have gladly called home since you were nine.

However, I still have to run errands in Noe Valley, and sometimes I turn left onto 25th Street without even thinking. When that happens, I slow down to 1 or 2 miles an hour as I pass by 4087. Even that seems too fast for passing by all the memories rooted right there, inside that house, on a funky back porch, on a mustard-colored couch.

I've heard women declare that the pain of childbirth split their world wide open. For me it wasn't the pain, but the moment I saw your face -- a face I could never have imagined in a million years. I stared into it for hours on end, mesmerized.

Fifteen years have passed since then. And life has brought many changes. But one thing remains the same. Whenever a winter chill turns my mood to melancholy, all I have to do is look at your face, and what is cold becomes warm, bursts into joyous flame. I've never regretted my decision to have you, not for a second. Your face still tells me everything I've ever wanted or needed to know about love.