life keeps changing
In my blog post on the last Monday in January, I recounted how turning the year I turned thirteen my life turned, if not full circle, then at least by 180 degrees. My vision of what my future could hold had expanded at the very time my family had left behind Detroit, Michigan, the city of my birth, to move to a much smaller city in central Indiana.
One unexpected change, however, may have happened whether we had moved or not. In the summer of 1956 when we piled our station wagon with items too precious to entrust to the movers, we then squeezed in a family of six. Dad drove and Mom navigated. Between on a booster sat my four-year old brother Terrence. My brother John, twenty months my junior, and I commanded the window seats in the back. Despite her loud laments, we crowded the eight-year-old “princess.” Nanette, into the middle. Two girls. Two boys. A dad and a mom. A nice round number – a family of six.
an anniversary surprise
By the time the kids entered school in September, however, the numbers were not quite so even. When we had sat down for a celebratory dinner for my parents’ fifteenth wedding anniversary, Dad had announced with tears in his eyes that by spring a new sister or brother would be joining us. A new baby for the new abode. Everyone of us cheered. At least, I think Nanette did. I don’t remember checking.
The gap between the new baby and me would be almost fifteen years. Mom’s pregnancy helped to make me a celebrity at school. Few of my freshman year high school classmates were expecting a baby into their family. For many of us, our other siblings had been born before we knew “where babies came from.” So, it was exciting to skirt around the issue that someone’s parents had actually “done it at their age.” Although my mom and dad were only in their forties, many of us knew grandparents who were not much older than that.
an anxious father
The closer the time came for the birth of the new baby, the more anxious and nervous my father became. He found it hard to go off to work in the morning. He lost his temper quite easily with us for the slightest infraction and spent lots of time in his woodworking shop producing nothing. Excitement and happiness about the new baby so filled my heart that I couldn’t figure out what was causing him so much grief. Mom was healthy. She was just pregnant. Had I not been so absorbed in fitting in to my new school environment to which I’d basically taken like a duck to water, I might have been able to discern why Dad was so tense all the time.
home birth emergency
His trauma had its root cause in my sister Nanette’s birth. Because my mother’s labor with her had proceeded so quickly, there was no opportunity to head for the hospital. John and I, only three and five at the time, had not been told we’d be having a new sibling. Rather, that Sunday morning in February, 1948, we had been awakened by our mother’s screams and had run to her room. Dad turned us away, ordering us to go downstairs and keep still. We sat clinging to one another in the big gold chair by the victrola, still in our pajamas when our grandmother rushed into the front door in her housecoat shortly and ran upstairs without looking our way.
Then we heard only muffled sounds for what seemed forever until our dad’s footsteps pounded down the steps and to the door. The doctor, black bag in hand hurried across the room. Just as he passed us, a baby cried out. (For a very long time I was totally convinced that new babies were delivered by doctors in their black bags.) Then we heard sirens as an ambulance pulled up out front. Our grandmother came downstairs and hustled us into the kitchen. We heard a lot of commotion on the other side of the door and then the sirens again. Still, no one told us anything except when I asked to see my mom, grandma said she was sick and had gone to the hospital.
five people in the family
Our father didn’t come home that night, but he was in the dining room the next morning and his smile lit up the space. “You have a new little sister,” he told us. Now we’ve lived on a block in the city where new babies showed up at friends houses all the time. The big mystery, of course, was where did they come from. But come they did. So, John and I were not all that surprised. He asked when would Mom be home and I asked what the baby’s name was. “Mary Antoinette,” Dad said.
“I’ll never be able to spell that,” I told him.
Mom, despite her unexpected home birth was fine and so was the new little one. They came home the next day. I started calling the baby “Nanette” almost immediately – but never when my mom could hear me.
another birth trauma
Life returned to a normal rhythm until four years later when my brother Terrence’s birth shook the family to its core. In mid-twentieth century America only hospital deliveries were considered safe. The fact that my sister had been born at home without any problem and that both mother and child had been healthy carried no weight. When Mom became pregnant for the fourth time, the doctor was determined that the child would be delivered at the hospital. He decided, therefore, to induce the birth around the time of the baby’s due date.
Because I was only ten at the time, I never knew exactly what went wrong just that it did go bizarrely off track. For one thing, the doctor misjudged the due date. When my brother was born, it became clear that he was premature. He needed neo-natal intensive care immediately and couldn’t leave the hospital for a month. For some reason, delivery did not go well for mother either. She also was hospitalized following the birth becoming ill enough that my dad feared for her life. My grandmother led the three children at home in daily rosaries praying for our new baby brother and our Mom.
What I recall most about that time was a sense of dread. Although no adult had ever shared with me the dangers of childbirth, I had experienced death intimately twice that year. My best friend, Patti, had died four days after being diagnosed with polio. And my grandfather had died unexpectedly of a heart attack. I did my best to be a “little mother” to my brother and sister, but I knew how inadequate I was. I cried myself to sleep while keeping a brave face for my dad during the day. What a relief when Dad announced that Mom and Terrence were coming home.
at home at last
It was a lovely May day and we waited on the front steps as Dad helped Mom, holding the blanket-clad baby out of the car. John held the front door. I ran ahead to stand by the h bassinet so I could have a first peek at the baby. But when Mom laid him down, horror gripped me. He was red and wrinkled like a prune. His little arms and legs were stick-like not the chubby baby limbs I expected. Was he really okay to come home? Mom saw my look. “He’s fine. We just have to fattened him up a bit.”
just as it should be
Now with the unexpected home birth and the disastrous induced birth ever in his radar, my dad couldn’t help but be a nervous wreck the closer the fifth baby’s due date got. But when it came, it went just the way it was supposed to go. Mom awoke with mild contractions. There was plenty of time for Dad to take her to the hospital. I was old enough to care for home and hearth while he
went. A robust, healthy baby girl came into the world without any complications. Three days later, we welcomed home a chubby, big-eyed cherub with a wisp of blonde curls – a true Gerber baby. My happiness at welcoming this new family member knew no bounds. I called everyone I knew to say that “Mary Elizabeth” had joined the family and they should come and see the most beautiful baby in the world.
What, even in all my happiness at the time, I couldn’t know was this precious child would continue to be a blessing to me throughout my life. I’ll have to tell you about that in another blog post.
Siblings: children of the same parents, each of whom is perfectly normal until they get together.
I would love to hear any stories you have about welcoming new brothers or sisters into the family.