Ancient History

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The tender hours

I wrote the following essay in April of 1999. Several months later I submitted it to a contest sponsored by MOPS, but it wasn’t chosen. This essay has always been one of my favorites.

The tender hours of the morning, young as my new son nursing, are not lonely hours. My home is quiet. The two of us are propped by pillows on the couch. One light is on. He is warm and his body is a little crescent curving around me as he intently nurses. We feel safe, and not at all alone.

My imagination, still a little dewy from an interrupted dream, rises through the ceiling, out the roof, and aloft over the stillness of our town. I look at the lights that are scattered below me. To the eastern mesa, to the plateau that banks the north, around in a circle my eyes sweep the ground. The lights are tiny, mirroring the stars above, yet they are few on this windy night.

If I were an angel, I could drift down and quietly observe this community of the tender hours.

My son and I, cradled together in our home, feel safe and not at all alone. Up in the night air an imagination can see all of the tiny lights and all of the mothers and babies who curl together in a hushed glow. Some mothers sing old songs into the curve of nibbled new ear. Others sway and dance, mother’s feet light under baby’s weight in her arms. Many babies hold a finger or a lock of hair as they swallow, serious and sleepy they pull closer to the breast.

Through the night we rise and settle, up into the chill of a dark room, down into soft sheets and blankets until the dawn. The sun seems almost rude as it intrudes upon the hush of an early day.
hush little baby
My son stretches himself awake. His milky little mouth yawns and forms into a pout. His eyes squeeze shut as he begins to wail. The bright yellow clarity of the day brings noise and movement, voices and the rush-around. It is rare when my imagination can soar above the restless humming of our valley and look down during the daylight. If I could, I would not be able to see the little lights that bathe the other mothers and babies as they spend their hours together. At night we are few, we with our one light and our child. My sky-high vantage tells me of my connection with all those below who rock and kiss and smile at our little ones as everyone else slumbers.

As our babies grow, so does our connection of the tender hours. Nursing gives way to warmed bottles. Soon we celebrate the milestone of sleeping through the night. Once again, the night glides over us barely noticed until the aching ear, the fever, or the nightmare rouses us from bed. A child’s voice penetrates the thickest of sleep. It lilts and weaves and finds ours ears. A child’s voice is heat-seeking, never missing its target.

My feet trip down the stairs to my daughter’s room. She has called me and she is sitting up, facing the doorway. She knows I will come. I feel her forehead and her cheek. They are impossibly warm. The flush of her pink skin is visible in her dark room. When I turn on her lamp to read the numbers on the thermometer, I send out my own signal, radiant…Here I am, in the night with my child…I rocked this child through her newborn worries…I nursed her and smiled at her dainty seriousness… I fetched a cool drink of water for a thirst no bigger than a tea-party sip… Her illness is mild. A cuddle and reassurance are enough to settle her back to sleep. I snap off the lamp-light and return to my bed.

But sleep does not come easily. I think of my daughter and pray for her health. Quietly God reassures me that I am not alone. I am not the first mother. My mother would turn on the hall light when I called for her at night. Her silhouette in the doorway, lit from behind, made her somewhat otherworldly. My rescuer. Sometimes I wanted something unimportant—a drink of water. Sometimes it was a terrible dream or a scary shadow. Most of the time it was illness. Her whisper, her flowered nightgown, her touch on my forehead—these things I remember as I lay in the dark.

My imagination rises to the crest of the sky. I can see the lights of the earth. I do not know the year or the cities I see. There are lanterns, campfires, candles, and neon signs. There is my mother’s light, and my great-great grandmother’s. Is that soft pink light my daughter’s? My valley, in my time, is small when I can see so enormous a blazing scene. The earth appears to be on fire. It is the love, the light of all the mothers and all the little ones, ever.

Such love comes only from God. Imagine His greatness, if you can, multiplied by infinity. This is what He has taught me as I care for my little ones. No, I am not the first mother.

But He is the first Daddy.

11 comments to The tender hours

  • Beautiful, Gretchen. How could they not have chosen that one?

  • Gem

    How beautiful! I have tried to enjoy more of these kind of nights, especially with my third (probably last) baby. I must say, though, that essays like this make me feel a little guilty for those sobbing, praying, falling back in bed thinking “PLEASE don’t wake up again!” kind of nights!

  • Gem

    Oh, forgot to mention, I came via Randi’s blog.

  • Once again, thank you for the perspective Gretchen. I’m with Gem, trying to do a better job of viewing those awake hours as a gift, not just interrupted sleep. What a great reminder to treasure those precious moments. And what were they thinking not choosing that essay??!!

  • Wonderful. It should have won!

  • Mopsy, I have chills! Your words bring out the beauty of motherhood. I am going to link this tomorrow!

  • That’s just beautiful…makes me think of the times I will spend with my new little one, as soon as he is born

  • Pam

    This is lovely. My youngest will be 5 this month. My memories of the sleepless nights far out weigh these precious memories. Thank you for reminding me that there were times when I truly enjoyed being awakened from sleep. Perhaps one day these will be the thoughts that haunt me, not the seemingly endless nights of tearful prayers for “just one uninterrupted night of sleep.” I loved the quiet times with my babes.

  • Absolutely beautiful, Gretchen. I love the peaceful wee hours of the morning when it’s just me and Bella. She usually wakes up around 4:00, just before it’s time to start the day. I’m sure at this point she would drift back to sleep without nursing, but I know that soon enough those moments will be gone. I treasure the little bit of time we share before the rest of the world comes to life.

  • I love this. I couldn’t nurse Ethan and I often longed for those hushed moments when it would be just him and me in the twirling universe, a small spot of light. It’s not the same with a bottle, I don’t care what anyone says. Of course, that’s not the real gist here–I still often want my mother or my grandmother to come stand in my doorway and check on me.

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