[Writer’s Note: I wrote this a few years ago when taking a writers’ workshop.]
“I don’t want a little sister for Christmas! It has to be another boy, not a girl!”
I had been amusing my pregnant Mama and Daddy like that for almost nine months. And anyone else who would listen. As the ten year old baby girl in a family with three older sons, I did NOT want that to change. One more boy would be okay. But no way were we going to have another girl!
We spent the summer and fall of 1963 making quilts and crib sheets, sewing darling baby clothes. Everything was prepared and in its place, waiting for the time when Mama would deliver our little brother at St. Joseph’s, the biggest hospital in Lexington, Kentucky.
Just after Thanksgiving, the ladies at our church gave Mama a surprise baby shower and she got SO much stuff. They said the church didn’t normally do showers, but Mama did so much for the church, the only way to settle things was to make it from the entire church.
She opened presents to a waving chorus of ooh’s and ahh’s. The biggest was a white bassinette for the baby when it came home from the hospital. I got the dirty diaper. I mean, they played a game where each lady had a white napkin folded into a tiny diaper and pinned to her bosom with a miniature gold safety pin, for a nametag. Near the end of the party, they announced that one of us had gotten the dirty diaper. The only way to check was to take off your diaper and peek inside. They were right. I had yellow baby poop (mustard) in my diaper. The prize I got was a new package of diaper pins shaped like blue ducks. My Aunt Laura said I had to give them to Mama.
Mama was forty-three years old, and the doctor said she took really good care of herself. I heard him tell her that whenever we rode the bus to her doctor appointments.
“You read for awhile, or go practice your piano, okay, honey?” she would plead every afternoon as she stretched out on the couch for a nap. I was gonna be so glad when the new baby came, ‘cause Mama would quit eating liver and onions, broccoli, and prunes and all that stuff once it was here. She said she was trying to stay healthy.
The Girl Scouts had a unit on babysitting last May, so I knew how to care for a baby. And I had practiced on my big brother’s newest baby, little Mary Jo, so I was ready to help out. I could change a diaper, feed the baby, and even give it a bath. I only stuck Wayne’s baby once. Well, twice, but the second time it didn’t make her cry. I was ready to be a big sister for the first time in my life.
It was cold and raining on the fifth of December when Mama starting having headaches. Really bad headaches. Daddy was working out of town, so I knew they weren’t mad-at-you headaches. The baby wasn’t supposed to come before Christmas, so it couldn’t be the baby. Mama went to bed and stayed there, all afternoon and all night. Then about five o’clock the next afternoon she told my big brother Mike, “Call Ruby Bishop to take me to the hospital, Mike. I’ve got to go to the emergency room.”
Mike ran across the street to get our closest neighbor, a quiet, older lady with a convertible, two grown sons and a poodle. Mama didn’t drive so whenever we had to go somewhere and Daddy was working out of town, Ruby gave us a ride. (When Mama failed her driving test the third time, Daddy said she should just learn to depend on Ruby). Ruby was always so calm and composed. Last time she gave us a ride it was when Mama’s finger flew behind the stove. She was making a sponge cake, and tried to wipe her fingers on the beaters while her Hamilton Beach mixer was running on high speed. Mama gave a little “Oh, my,” just grabbed the red rooster tea towel and wrapped up her middle finger—what was left of it—and yelled at Mike to go after Ruby.
“Go, Mary Evelyn, and fetch my pocket book. It’s in the bedroom by the desk. Then untie my apron strings and help me out of this thing.”
She dropped to the couch as she told my older brother Ken to pull out the stove and find her finger. Ruby came in the front door crying, “Mary, my heavens, what have you done?” (Mama’s name is Mary, just like mine).
Her face paled as Mama showed her finger stump to Ruby. I hooked the strap of Mama’s tapestry purse over her left arm as she went out the front door with Ruby clucking her sympathy. Ken came running, leaning out the screen door as he held out a teacup in his hand.
“I found your finger Mom, here it is,” Ken said. And off they went. Mama showed me her bandage when they got back home. She said they tried to sew it back on but it was too late. Ruby brought us dinner that night, fried chicken and mashed potatoes. Ken said it should have been finger food…
Now we were in labor. Daddy was still out of town, so Ruby popped in the front door once again. Mama picked up her little overnight bag, handing me a paper with the hospital’s phone number on it. “I left a message for your Daddy to come to the hospital. You have your instructions for supper. Go to bed after Bonanza is over.” Her head was still hurting.
For once we didn’t fight over the TV. We went to bed at 9:00 without fighting. I was surprised. I didn’t remember ever going to bed without my mother here to tuck me in. It was a little while later, sometime after 10:30 when Daddy came in the front door and woke both of us up.
The “yippees” died in my throat when I saw his face, streaked with tears, his clothes all wet from the rain and wrinkled.
“Your mother had the baby. It was a black-haired little girl. And it was born dead, Honey.”
“Is Mama okay?” Mike asked.
“Yes, she can’t come home for a few days. But she’s okay.”
“Are we having a funeral?” I stammered.
“Yes, there will be a graveside service, tomorrow. Cotton will preside for us. Do you want someone to be there for you, Honey?”
I’d never seen a dead baby. I didn’t know that could happen. I couldn’t think for a minute what he meant. Then I realized that Mama wouldn’t be there. Who would I want to be there with me?
“Aunt Laura. Can we ask her?” Laura was Daddy’s baby sister. And she was just like me.
“Yes, sweetheart, we’ll ask Laura. Now you two go to bed. You won’t need to get up for school tomorrow.” And he turned away, his voice breaking. I pretended not to notice. He was moving so slow I could see his pain from his shoulders to his feet. I never saw my father cry that hard before or since that day.
December 7th dawned gray and cloudy, as it should have. I had trouble getting .my lanky brown hair into its Beatle cut. The bangs wouldn’t cooperate. I put on a plaid kilt and sweater. Mama made the kilt, I remembered, with the huge brass pin to hold the side down. Mike wouldn’t quit teasing me, calling it a giant diaper pin. I wished she could have made one for little Terry to wear. That was the baby’s name, Terry Lynn. I pulled on my camel hair coat as I went out the door, tucking an embroidered handkerchief in the pocket. No lady ever left home without her lace hankie. That was the rule–Mama said so.
Daddy and Mike were waiting for me in our ’63 Buick Le Sabre. We drove the short trip to Hillcrest Cemetery, hardly a mile from our house. It was a beautiful place. We went there often to tend my grandfather’s grave. And now my baby sister would be there. And it was all my fault.
As we got out of the car in the Little Angels section, Aunt Laura was already there. I felt like I had come home when she held out her arms to me. I drank in the heady White Shoulders perfume, burying my face in her fur collar. The tears finally came and wouldn’t stop.
“It’s my fault, it’s all my fault she’s dead!”
“Mary Evelyn,” she began, “of course it’s not your fault! What made you say that?”
“It’s true.” I sobbed into her coat. “I told everyone I wanted a boy. I didn’t want a girl. I even prayed that it would be a boy.”
“Aw, baby, you didn’t mean it.”
“Yes I did. And now God punished me, He’s punishing the whole family. He killed the baby ‘cause I wanted a b-b-boy,” my words drowning in the slur of tears and hiccups. She took my chin in her hand, forcing me eye to eye with her. I could see the red veins in her eyeballs.
“Now you listen to me. And you hear me good. You didn’t do anything to hurt that baby. Why, you helped your mother get ready for it, didn’t you? You did everything you were supposed to do. Your Mama was mostly too old to have a baby. Didn’t you know that? No one knows why, but it’s possible that’s why the baby died. If it had lived, it probably wouldn’t have been right in the head. Now you blow your nose, and let’s go do this.”
She sheltered me, leading me past little flat stones with the names of dead babies on them. We crossed through the wet grass, the dew watering my socks and black patent shoes. Then we stepped onto the plastic rug under the dark green tent. A bouquet of pink sweetheart roses hovered, protecting the tiny quilted white casket. The little satin box was floating on a bed of baby’s breath and lily of the valley. We stood beside Daddy, Mike, Uncle Ralph, and my Granny. I guess other people were there, but that’s all I remember. The service was short–a Scripture and a few words, with a prayer. Our preacher, Cotton Jones, smelled like Old Spice as he shook Daddy’s hand and then hugged me hard. It was so weird, not having Mama there.
We went to see her afterward in her hospital room, took her flowers and the newspaper. She didn’t talk much, just hugged Mike and me. She squeezed me so hard and for so long that I thought I was probably turning blue, but then Mike crossed his eyes at me, I laughed and she let me go. I didn’t know how to tell her that I killed Terry Lynn. So I was glad when we left the hospital for home a few minutes later. I ended up with a red stain on my white sweater from the jello Mama gave me off her tray.
My old upright piano beckoned to me when we got home a short while later. Daddy sat down to read the newspaper and Mike left to go to Jim Varney’s house. I turned to my usual comfort and began playing old hymns and show tunes, ending up with “Exodus” my all time favorite song. And it was there among the ivories, stirring notes lingering in the air, that I discovered the answer to my problem.
I would be perfect the rest of my life to make up for killing Terry Lynn. If I did all that, went to Bible College, married a preacher, and worked on the mission fields, maybe God would make it up to Mama and Daddy. With that decided, I finished up on “Exodus” and went to do the laundry. Time to get started.