I wish this photo were more clear. It’s my grandmother (holding a baby cousin), my mom, my sister and I, sitting outside my grandmother’s house in 1979. I didn’t live in Thailand until I was in college, and that was Bangkok — a cosmopolitan time where I clerked at the Embassy and partied at nightclubs and laughed at the expat men who complimented me on how well I spoke English. But the small village outside Nakorn Ratchasima we visited every year or two since I was a toddler is the Thailand I always think of — where we stayed at my grandmother’s ornate wood house with the electrical wiring on the outside of the walls, bathed with water pumped from the well and heated over a giant kettle, and sat with cousins on a dilapidated porch swing spitting pomegranate seeds from the fruit of the tree in the front yard. There was a small refrigerator in the kitchen, but I don’t ever remember food being in there — only water for my sister and me (being the spoiled American children who would only drink cold water), and tea for my dad. We went to the open market every morning for meat, vegetables, and fruit, and we left it out all day so we could graze on it. Someone would eat it and by nighttime it was always gone.
This is the place my mother and her eight siblings were born. My grandmother gave birth to them by herself at the house, quietly — without waking her other children, in the middle of the night. One sister died the day after she was born, but the rest grew up strong and healthy, in spite of the lack of medical care or steady supply of food. They had no vaccinations, no municipal sanitation, no running water. But they were far from living in squalor and filth and ignorance. The spare house was always swept clean inside and out. There was hardly any trash because there was hardly any packaging, and almost every bit of meat and vegetables we had were consumed in some way. Animal leftovers were burned in a fire, then added to vegetable waste to be composted in the back.
We spent our days there sitting outside visiting with whoever stopped by. We peeled fruit and cooked food and talked and talked and talked. It was a big deal when we were in town. My mother was the first woman in her village to marry someone not from Thailand, and my dad was the first white person many of my cousins had ever seen. People were always curious about what my sister and I looked like, and wondered why we didn’t speak Thai (I think at the time it was because we were shy. I’ve always understood Thai, and when I lived there as a teenager was comfortable conversing in it). Bare-chested women, breastfeeding their babies, were regulars, as were bare-bottomed babies and toddlers. Sibling slept together in the same room, and babies with their parents. I never saw a crib, an exersaucer, or a bottle. I never remember any of it seeming strange.
As I got older, I became further removed from this place, and it changed. By the time I was in college and we lived in Bangkok, my grandmother’s house had running water and a regular toilet. My cousins moved away to cities for school and get jobs, and my grandmother passed away. I haven’t been back since my father retired and returned to the States almost fifteen years ago. I finished college in California, got commissioned as an officer in the Army, and moved to Germany. I travelled, went to war, returned home, and started a new career. I can’t remember the last time I said a word in Thai. Sometimes, though, I’ll wake up from a dream and realize that was the language it was in — the language that when I’m awake I can hardly remember ten words in.
I think this is why I became the type of mother I am. Even though I live in a modern world immersed in technology and hospitals and medicine and Lysol, I went back to the habits that were ingrained in my mind as a child — natural birth, breastfeeding, eliminiation communication, caring for our bodies by eating whole food and spending time outside, and producing little waste. This is the mothering of my instincts and my memories, and what feels the most natural to me. As an advocate for these practices, I know that most women don’t have this experience from their mothers, or even their grandmothers. But I wonder if we aren’t all somehow connected to this type of mothering from generations back — because we really don’t have to go that far, not more than three or four, even in the most cosmopolitan place. I feel like this has to be why women still want natural birth, still want to breastfeed, and still feel the pull to be close to their children all the time. To live in a way that honors the earth and each other isn’t to live in squalor and filth; it’s a myth that the people who lived before our modern conveniences were dirty and ignorant and foul. Modern medicine saved us from the worst diseases, but over-reliance on it and other technologies has introduced more. Not everyone will want to give up all their conveniences, and no one necessarily should. But we shouldn’t be afraid of the world without technology. It’s not a scary place. It’s beautiful and clean and bright and warm and nurturing. For me, it’s the Thailand of my dreams.