by Jan Priddy
Parents in some traditional cultures use temporary baby names until an infant has survived long enough to earn a real one. Life can be precarious, but once the child seems here to stay, families have a formal celebration with loud music and speeches. Such ceremonies are often neglected in modern societies.
During the year I was trying to become pregnant, I read statistics about infertility and miscarriage. I tried not to worry, but as the months passed, I considered how my life would turn in the event that my husband and I were unable to have children. I thought we would be fine. Our marriage had been strong without children up to that time and we would continue that life.
We were fortunate and eventually brought our boys Alan and Ian into the world. Everyone tells you that having children changes your life. They are right. Children change everything.
One of my brothers-in-law has decided he’s Jewish and most of the rest of the family attend various Protestant or Eastern Orthodox churches or consider themselves lapsed or agnostic or atheist or faithful but not churched. My husband was raised Baptist, while I was raised Unitarian. I was never baptized, a fact shocking to one of my oldest girlfriends and perhaps others. My mother never had any use for ceremony.
Somehow I did. I wanted an event to mark the birth. I wanted something memorable and true and real – a way to say thank you to the universe for our joy. So after we had Alan, our first child, I thought for a long time about what was necessary to celebrate his existence in the world. We didn’t want a church, and we didn’t want anyone performing a ceremony unless they knew us and our baby and our hopes and our dreams.
What we chose was a private baptism of sorts in the Pacific Ocean. The beach is our front yard, the water is always moving, our son would grow up on the shore, and I believed it was important that this massive weight of water and our tiny boy become acquainted.
I made a little jacket, patched and quilted from cotton in rainbow stripes, red and white checks, white stars on a blue ground, and adorned with four little bells. One morning my husband and I dressed our baby boy in the little jacket with its jangling bells. The ocean water is very cold even in summer so total immersion wasn’t our choice. We took him out on the beach, waded into the surf, and dribbled the salty stream of the world on his sweet face. He didn’t cry. We had felt joyful on our way out the door, but also feared what we meant to do might seem trivial or silly. It was neither. It was a small thing, a gesture of faith and grace, and we were moved by our own intentions.
After Ian, our second son, was born, I brought out the little jacket and we repeated the ceremony. And then for decades, the garment was folded into a box and stashed in the bottom of my desk, not quite forgotten but set aside.
We tease our sons for insisting they have no memory of their baptisms. But the events are still vivid in our minds. Time passes and I often reflect back on that salty water, holding the image of its movement as one great body of water roiling across the earth.
This summer Ian and his wife Kerris brought their little daughter out from Portland and baptized another generation in the ocean. Our granddaughter Ruby stepped into the water wearing the same little quilted jacket. She wriggled and laughed.
I am grateful every day of my life for the birth of our sons. They bring their own virtue of existence to the world. I am a happy grandmother. Here is our jewel, our Ruby granddaughter.
Many traditional cultures regard the survival of a baby as one of choice – the child’s spirit decides to stay or leave to return another time. That belief is not part of my cosmology. But I feel the need to acknowledge our beginning. What matters is not how we accomplish our lives or what manner we use to celebrate, but the fact of appreciating our time here – our small weight in the universe holding everything else in its place. In whatever ceremony that is meaningful, we honor the promise and possibility of new life.
Jan Priddy’s work has earned an Oregon Literary Arts Fellowship, Arts & Letters fellowship, Soapstone residency, Pushcart nomination, and recent and forthcoming publication in The MacGuffin, CALYX, Work Magazine, Raven Chronicles, Ink Filled Page and North American Review. An MFA graduate from Pacific University, she lives and teaches in the NW corner of her home state of Oregon. Jan blogs at Quiet Minds.
Photograph used with permission.