Broke, abandoned, single mother cradles baby with love and humor

June 27, 1993|By Ann Egerton

OPERATING INSTRUCTIONS:

A JOURNAL OF MY SON'S

FIRST YEAR.

Anne Lamott.

Pantheon.

251 pages. $21.

One might not expect that a chronicle of the first year of a single, 35-year-old mother's baby would be full of laughs or inspiration, especially since the mother is both a recovering alcoholic and recovering drug addict, and broke "like the Joads." But it is; "Operating Instructions" is funny and sad and wise and brave and more.

The skeleton of the plot is discouraging. Prospective father bolts at the news; mother's track record of substance abuse until recently is grim; her career as a novelist and magazine article writer has brought a Guggenheim Fellowship but no regular income.

But attitude, as they say, is all, and she assembles (or attracts, really) a support group of surrogate fathers and grandmothers and aunts and godparents and general aids to see her and baby boy Sam through.

This eclectic group includes a mostly black church congregation, a brother, an assortment of writing colleagues and her best childhood friend, Pammy. When Sam is just a few months old, Pammy discovers that she has metastatic breast cancer. (We are told at book's end that she died last fall).

The story sounds both sordid and mawkish, but Ms. Lamott -- who went to Goucher College -- makes it sing, even when Sam is in his third straight hour of crying with colic, which about sums up his activity during his first three months on earth. She describes her condition during this time:

"I feel like thin glass, I might crack. . . . The exhaustion, the sleep deprivation, make me feel like I'm in the bamboo cage under water in 'The Deer Hunter.' "

And she says: "I just can't get over how much babies cry. I really had no idea what I was getting into. To tell you the truth, I thought it would be more like getting a cat."

And about Sam, she observes, on the day he was born, "He was the most beautiful thing I'd ever seen. He was like moonlight." She calls nursing her son "the easiest, purest communication I've ever known."

Anne Lamott has a talent for both original humor (some of it

unrepeatable here; she's a frank and earthy lady) and lyrical description, and she mixes the two with taste and character. Just when it looks as if she's going to slide into an ooze of new-mother treacle, she pulls up and says something hysterically irreverent or echoes every honest mother's thoughts:

"I wonder if it is normal for a mother to adore her baby so desperately and at the same time to think about choking him or throwing him down the stairs." When she's a little hard edged, she then writes something heartbreakingly beautiful or sad: "If I could have one wish, just one crummy little wish, it would be that Sam outlive me."

Or she performs the neatest trick of all and blends the two: "I

wish Sam didn't have to grow up in such a violent scary world. There's so much cancer, so much plague; . . . so many child-snatchers, psychopaths, Republicans."

Her sense of balance is remarkable. So is her religious faith:

"How did some fabulously cerebral and black-humored cynic like myself come to fall for all that Christian lunacy, to see the cross not as an end but a beginning, to believe . . . that Jesus paid a debt he didn't owe because we had a debt we couldn't pay?"

"Operating Instructions" is not a primer on baby's first year. It is a very individual record of a most common experience, and her opinions and observations bring tears as well as belly laughs. It sounds as if Sam Lamott, now 3, will have an interesting childhood. He is much loved.

Ms. Egerton is a writer who lives in Baltimore.

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