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Alice Kahn

Party Chatter Plants an Idea for a New Life

June 29, 1988|Alice Kahn

Sometimes I see him walking down the street and he doesn't even remember me. He's the man responsible for my second baby.

He's not responsible in the sense that he was my husband or my lover or even--in the Orwellian term--my sperm donor. He was a man I met at a party once who said something that changed the course of my life.

The party was unremarkable. People standing around holding wineglasses, dipping chips, spreading cheese, trying--against all odds--to have a meaningful experience under the weight of social conventions as numbing as the alcohol we drank.

But I can still remember the way the light from the overhead track glinted on the tray of crystal goblets as the man said the words. I can remember the potted plants standing still and listening at attention. It seemed as if the swirls in the golden-oak dining room table were moving. Within a year, I would be what doctors call a multipara (multip for short), one who has borne more than one child.

What he said was unremarkable, really. We were going through that mechanical conversation of strangers at a party, trying to find something in common. What do you do? . . . How do you know Antoinette or Tom? . . . Where are you from? . . . What was your major? . . .

I saw his wedding ring. He saw mine. "Kids?" I asked. "Just one," he said.

"Me too," I said. "A girl, Emma; she's 3."

"My daughter Samantha is 16," he said.

Now, normally I would have jumped in with "Does she baby-sit?" but something else was on my mind. I was starting to give away Emma's baby things. I was back working while she went to nursery school. I was jogging five miles a day. Life was just getting under control again, more than three years after her birth.

So I said to the man, "Any regrets about not having more?"

He said, "Well, one is nice; the parents are still in charge. But two is more like a family."

That's when the light started glinting and the oak started swirling.

Family. The word had been on a pedestal all my life. Family. Years of crying alone in my room: Why aren't we one of those happy families that are alike?

When I was 17 years old and left home with more terror than glee, I vowed: Come what may I will never re-create my own family. Like many people of my generation, I cultivated myself. At 17, my dream of adulthood was a perfect apartment in a big-city tower with gleaming crystal glasses stacked on a bar that overlooked the lights stretching endlessly below.

I recalled that fantasy when I read an article today--interviews with people who chose to be child-free. One man said, "We've got white walls, floor-to-ceiling mirrors, floor-to-ceiling windows, and the house is on a cliff. We couldn't have that home if we had a child."

I live in a house that is usually messy. There's a mom and dad and two girls four years apart--just like the family I grew up with, the one I vowed I'd never re-create.

Sometimes it works. Some brief times we'll be sitting around the fire or going out for pizza or swimming together and I'll think I'm the luckiest person on Earth. Other times, we'll be driving each other crazy and I'll think: Whatever made me so arrogant that I thought I could make this work?

It's all serendipity. It all worked out despite endless rationalizations, careful plans and coveted dreams.

One evening, six months after the party at which I realized that family was what I wanted, we were out driving. I was pregnant, and we were talking names. None of us can remember who said it--me, my husband, my daughter Emma--but someone said, "Hannah."

"Where did I come from?" every child asks. My mother used to tell me I was a little twinkle in my father's eye.

Sometimes I try to tell Emma how her middle name, Ruby, came from a bowling shirt I found at a garage sale, and other times I want to tell her how I decided to have her after spending one day in a hospital nursery.

I've thought of telling Hannah how she was preconceived in a random party conversation with a strange man. And sometimes I want to tell her how the whole family saw her name light up like neon in the evening sky.

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