Part three in a series of essays by Guest Gero-Punk
The Baby Brother
I don’t remember seeing many babies close up as I was the youngest of the trio of first cousins on Mama’s side and had been the youngest on Daddy’s side until Donna came along and was the baby for a long time – to my mind, sickeningly babyish. Then my little brother was born. That day Daddy took me to Grandma’s – I didn’t want to go – to wait until the baby came and I could go home. We waited and waited. We went to sleep and woke up. We waited some more. I said, “I wish the baby would come.” Grandma sounded as if she were about to cry, “I wish so, too,” she said.
When the telephone finally rang I felt such relief to be going home. Everybody was excited and happy. “It’s a boy! It’s a boy!” The baby’s name was the same as Daddy’s – Harold – except for the middle – Saunders – where Mama’s maiden name made him not a junior. Daddy’s middle name was Murchison, the same as his maternal grandfather who’d been named after a wealthy relative on his mother’s side but that had made no difference when the will was read. Mama kept saying, “I HAD a boy! I HAD a boy! So “Hads” became what we called the baby. Mama was tired and had to go to sleep; the nurse brought a pan of bad-smelling stuff out of the bedroom. Grandma Saunders was there. Grandpa and Grandma Gray were laughing and talking with Daddy.
Nobody noticed me at all. Nobody showed me the baby. At last I pushed a chair over to the bassinette and climbed up on its seat to see my brother for myself. I remember clearly the thoughts that rushed through me, “So this is what all the fuss is about. He simply isn’t worth it.” That little bundle was not worth it in any way – no visible arms and legs – he just lay there, red in the face and certainly nobody to play with. Later when I saw his tiny waving hands and useless, bent, feeble little legs and the soft spot in his skull that pulsed blue I knew my first judgment had been correct. It took years for me to change my mind. Mama was still in bed when the doctor came to circumcise the baby. He cried and screamed. I climbed up on Mama’s bed and put my head on her arm – Mama’s arm was the softest place in the world – she cuddled me close. The baby’s crying made me feel desolate and I told her I didn’t like to hear him cry. Mama said, “I don’t like it either.” That is probably why I wouldn’t allow circumcision for my sons.
Babies Are Different
I don’t remember when Jo Anne wasn’t there – she was in my life from the beginning of my memories. The next baby in the family was born to Aunt Mabel, Mama’s oldest sister. The baby’s name was Janette, and she was about two years younger than Jo Anne, Aunt Mabel and Uncle Chester Frazier’s elder daughter. Mama took me with her to visit Aunt Mabel and the baby in the Adventist hospital in College Place. The baby had black hair and was wrapped up so we couldn’t see anything but her face and some fingers under her chin; the nurse brought her in and took her back out and Aunt Mabel sat up in bed and laughed. Another nurse came to take Aunt Mabel’s temperature and went away so she didn’t see Aunt Mabel talking with the thermometer in her mouth, something I had never been allowed to do. When I pointed out Aunt Mabel’s conduct to Mama in the car going home, Mama said it didn’t matter with grown-ups – they could open their mouths even when the pointy thermometer was under their tongues. Aunt Mabel and Uncle Chester came for dinner one Sunday and when Aunt Mabel changed the baby’s diaper I was shocked to the core – Janette wasn’t built like my little brother. I thought she must be grossly deformed – her crack went all the way through. I went away feeling sick and didn’t mention it until after they left, and then Mama said my body was made the same way as that little girl baby. I did know that boys had penises and girls didn’t need them to pee but that secret slit was a surprise!
Aunt Goldie Gets Excited
Aunt Goldie, Daddy said, was a pesky older sister when they were kids, pinching and teasing him to the limit but he never let her win. She didn’t pester him anymore but she was easily excitable. Of course, all of us were excited when Squeaky, their little white and black spotted terrier got in a fight with a big dog and his eye popped out and dangled. Aunt Goldie covered her eyes with her hands, “Oh, don’t let me see! Don’t let me see!” she said but she peeked through her fingers. Uncle Elmer and Lauriel somehow slipped that eye back in – we didn’t see how – we were watching Aunt Goldie and then magically the dog seemed perfectly normal and peppy as ever.
The First Wedding
Daddy’s younger brother, Lionel, was called Uncle Bunt and he carried me on his shoulders, tossed me in the air, and teased me sometimes. I remember him before his marriage; his wedding to Eva Derrick was the first I ever attended and was most memorable. I was three and wore my silver satin dress with fur around the neck and sleeves that cousin Betty had outgrown. When Arden, a second cousin, stood with me under the wedding bower erected in the Derrick’s living room, the minister came over and said some of the wedding ceremony over our heads. He ended with a pronouncement that we were man and wife. I rushed to Mama to ask in a whisper if I had been married but she said it was only make-believe. I watched Arden carefully for several years to see whether any mystic change had taken place but that time, too, Mama was right – I wasn’t married.
Bonnie Saves My Life
Grandpa had horses that Daddy borrowed when he had to plow or harrow the fields. One, named Bonnie, was a big brownish-black work horse with a white stripe on her face. She had a disposition that made it possible for her to make a team go straight and steady even if the other horses were stubborn. Sometimes, for heavy jobs, four horses were needed. Bonnie was so gentle that Daddy let me ride on her back when he was harrowing the back field, next to the apple orchard bordering the Walla Walla River which ran through our sixteen acre farm. Her back was so broad that my legs had to stick almost straight out on both sides. I was wearing a beige dress that day – girls didn’t ever wear pants – when I tumbled off Bonnie’s wide back right in front of the teeth of the harrow. I thought I was dead for sure but Bonnie stopped the team at once and held up her left back foot until Daddy rescued me. I thought it was a miracle but Daddy said I’d never been in danger. He trusted Bonnie completely.
Grandma and Grandpa Gray Leave
After Grandma was well, they planned a trip on the train to go back to Grandma’s girlhood home in North Carolina. She had many relatives there whom she hadn’t seen since her family had moved west when Grandma was a young girl. The whole family gathered to say goodbye at the train station in Milton. All of us were there except Uncle Bunt and Aunt Eva. My heart ached because they were going and I had to stay home without them. I cried and cried. A thought trickled through my brain that maybe if I cried hard enough, the grown-ups would relent and I could go, too, so I cried harder. Mama pointed out that Marjy wasn’t crying but I answered, “She doesn’t love them as much as I do.” I remember their departure but not their return.
Velda Metelmann is a student in the Master of Arts in Interdisciplinary Studies program at Marylhurst University. She’ll be commencing her thesis work on “a good old age” this fall.
Lovely afternoon reading, thank you!