When I was a week old my mother and I were released from the hospital and right from there, I was dropped off by my mother and father to her cousin’s home. I wouldn’t meet my sisters or brother for another six weeks.
My mother’s cousin was named Betty, maybe short for Elizabeth, but I would have to track down my third cousins to find out. Betty was the daughter of Hildegard, my maternal grandmother, Ruby’s, sister. Betty, and her husband Fran, lived twenty minutes west from where my real family lived. Betty had two sons, Douglas and Bobbie. Douglas and Bobbie were about 10 and seven years old at the time I appeared in their house from what I know. I wonder if Aunt Betty told them they were getting a temporary baby sister or if I was a surprise. I don’t know.
It was 1955, and most women didn’t work including my mother or Betty. Betty was six years older than my mother who was 26 years old when I was born. My mother would bring a supply of homemade formula in sterilized bottles with rubber nipples to Betty for me every few days or so. I can’t imagine how she left me over and over again but she did.
I was number four in the birth order, and we were spaced between 18 months and two years apart from each other. The oldest was my sister, Susan. She turned five years old the month after I was born. It turned out she was missing something.
Donna and Eric followed, the “Irish twins” my mother liked to say, but that was not accurate. Eric was a big relief to my mother because she was desperate for a boy after two girls. Not because it mattered to my father--he never paid any more attention to Eric than the rest of us--but she preferred boys to girls. That was no secret – it was something my mother liked to tell people. She couldn’t say why though, leaving it up to conjecture.
My mother and father had no biological sisters or brothers of their own. My father’s brother was run over when my father was nine months old fetching bread for his mother. My mother had a stepsister and brother who never lived with her. She detested her stepfather but was adored by her grandfather who spoiled her. Betty told my mother that she resented their grandfather’s favoritism towards her when they were children. That pleased my mother.
My father was born in the Irish ghetto of Kearny, NJ, and it was as tragic and lonely a childhood as any one can imagine. His mother ran a lodging house and his father, a raging, violent alcoholic, was a barber and sheet metal worker when he was able to hold down a job. Most of his paychecks were squandered in bars and gambling.
Aunt Betty and Uncle Fran would visit us occasionally on Sundays, and less often stayed through the big Sunday dinner. Aunt Betty would squeeze and kiss me, and tell me what a sweet baby I had been.
“Oh, you were such a darling baby, Carol Ann. Just like a little doll.”
By this time, she had a daughter of her own who she named after me. Carol and me, just a year apart, would play dolls together while the grown-ups talked in the living room.
I didn’t feel the same way about Aunt Betty as she did about me. She was plump and short with a pudgy, squishy face and talked like a baby. She reminded me of her mother, Aunt Hildegard, who wore a stern face and smelled like my grandmother’s cedar closet decked with mothballs.
Uncle Fran didn’t pay any attention to me at all. He was tall and gangly and drank scotch and sodas with my father. It wasn’t unusual for my mother and Aunt Betty to not speak to each other for spells over ‘this and that’. There was some bad blood but I didn’t care anything about it.
When it came time to say good-bye, Aunt Betty would hug me tight and tease my mother that she wanted me back. I would wriggle free from her grip and dash behind my mother terrified that she might let me go. Latched on to her leg, my face buried in her bum, my mother wiped the back of her hands on her apron laughing uncomfortably along with the teasing banter.
Talked out, the air dense with the grease drippings of the pot roast pan soaking in the sink, lingering whiffs of Evening in Paris and liquor on the men’s breath, the company filed out. My mother, her damp armpits staining her starched white blouse, would disengage me, and go back into the kitchen. Kneeling on the sofa looking out the window through the sheer drapes no grimy palm of a child dared ever touch; I watched the rear lights of their car disappear in the soupy twilight of the winter evening. A year or two could go by before we might see Betty, Fran and Carol, again, which would be too soon for me. Their boys, much older now, rarely came.
In the kitchen, my mother bent over the sink scrubbing the soaking pots and pans in her bright yellow rubber Playtex gloves.
“Ma, I’m still hungry. Can I have some more ice cream?” Ice cream was rarely denied unless you committed a grievous act of disobedience.
I leaned into her, my nose just above the counter watching her work the suds expecting to be turned down.
She turned off the water and snapped off her gloves like a maestro turning them inside out, grasping each corner of the opening between thumb and pointer stretching it tight and twirled the glove furiously it until inflated like a tickled blowfish and the fingers emerged bloated. Then she hung the gloves over the curtain rod above the sink to dry from the perspiration of hands immersed in scalding water and her effort.
She took two bowls from the cabinet and dished the ice cream into them.
My brother and sisters laughed in the den with my father watching television.
“Shush. I don’t want to be getting everybody another dish. Here sit on my lap and we’ll eat it together.”
I climbed up and settled in. Clutching my spoon and digging in, I mixed the gooey fudge into the melting vanilla cream watching how she handled her own.
“Carol Ann? You know I love you.” She squeezed me around my waist and buried her nose into my hair.
“Um-hmm,” I mumbled. Just the two of us, in the diluted light of the closed off kitchen, in the warmth of her lap and arms, secretly overindulging, I had no doubt in the world.
To me, the stories were stories grown-ups told. Most everything that came out of a grownup’s mouth was a mystery to me at five and six years old. I didn’t ask about fostering me out and my mother didn’t tell. Children live in the present and my mother was all I knew.
My father was 28 years old when I was born and earned $53 a week as a mechanical draftsman. At night, he was working towards an engineering degree on the GI Bill. He didn’t want to go to college but my mother insisted because ‘how are we going to feed and dress them’, and my mother wanted more babies. They had borrowed money to buy their first house, had a bank mortgage and a note with my grandparents who charged them interest. They owned a car, and a washing machine.
My mother hung laundry out every day except in the rain. We ran through the damp sheets, getting caught up in them, screeching and hollering like ghosts with outstretched arms accidently tearing them off the line. Angered, my mother would chase and scold us. She looked tired picking up the pins and inspecting the sheets for grass stains.
My father was a three pack a day smoker but quit before I was born when his habit interfered with his evening college classes. He missed lectures from coughing fits, and was in jeopardy of failing out. And my father drank more than my mother, who never drank alcohol, was comfortable with. It was around this time my father began to suffer from severe gastronomical issues and was convinced he had stomach cancer and was dying. He told me this recently after my mother died. He went to doctor after doctor who prescribed antacids and anti-diarrhea medicine. It was around this time my father had a nervous breakdown, and didn’t leave his bedroom for several weeks. He recovered simply because my mother told him to get over it. He never sought professional help for his crippling depression and gripping fear of death because my mother said they couldn’t afford it. He snapped of it lucky for us.
My mother told us the same story about our father when we were adults but in hushed tones and never in front of him. She left out some of the details that my father volunteered. My father’s sad episode happened in 1955, the year I was born.
My mother spread around a story about my sister Susan’s missing part that became another piece of family folklore. It went like this: Looking at photographs one day, Grandma Ruby noticed that Susan always cocked her head to one side. Susan was about four and half years old when my grandmother spoke up. At first my mother refused to face it, but at my grandmother’s insistence, she took Susan to the doctor who referred her to a specialist. The doctor told her Susan was missing a cord on one side of her neck my mother claimed. A sensational claim no doubt, and medical mystery, since Susan’s bobbing head didn’t hold her back any. Anyway, Susan’s crooked neck required an operation to correct it. She’d be casted for at least six weeks from her head to her waist. The surgery was scheduled around the time she started Kindergarten-the same time I was due to be born.
There are photos of Susan in her cast at five years old dressed for school and having fun. Rough housing one day, Susan cracked the cast and my mother had to take her back to the doctor’s for a new one. My mother told this story with a tone of annoyance. The first photograph of me is when I am two months old in my mother’s lap. Susan is draped over us in her cast - my mother looks blank.
Rocking and nursing my own first born just a few days home from the hospital many years later, I remembered the Aunt Betty stories. An emotional new mother, it stunned me and I wondered about the circumstances behind my mother dumping me in the arms of a cousin she wasn’t very fond of. I decided to find out from my mother what was going through her mind the next chance we spoke. By now, my parents lived in Hong Kong, a 13-hour time difference so we didn’t speak that often.
Getting around to it was awkward so I just put the question out there. “Ma, did you really leave me with Aunt Betty right from the hospital?”
“Well, I had no choice, Carol Ann. I didn’t have anyone helping me. Susan was in a body cast, and I couldn’t take care of her and everyone else. I didn’t have eyes in the back of my head, you know.”
“Um-hum. But wasn’t it hard? I mean…I was brand new.”
She didn’t miss a beat. “Well, that’s the way it was, Carol Ann. I brought your bottles every other day and held you for a few minutes. I was too busy to think about it.”
My mother and Betty are dead. My father is still alive and recently I asked him about that time. He didn’t remember it at all. He told me that my mother would never have done such a thing. I think he was in his dark room at the time, checked out, hanging on a lifeline.
One day not very long ago, Bobbie stopped by where I used to work. A corrugated paper salesman, he was in the area, and heard through a distant relative somewhere down the genealogy pipeline that I worked in his general sales territory.
Standing at the counter, he asked for me by name and my assistant turned and pointed to me.
“Hi. Carol? I’m Bobbie Hodges. You know, Betty’s son.” I looked up from behind my desk, and blinked. I hadn’t seen him since a Sunday afternoon some fifty years before piling peas on top of my mother’s luscious mashed potatoes.
“Bobbie? Oh my God! How are you?”
In an apologetic tone, he turned to my assistant and said: “You know, her mother left her with us for a while when she was born, and I just wanted to say hello after all this time.” I stood up and walked towards the counter past my assistant who sat wide-eyed staring at him.
“See, Jane? You didn’t believe me.” I winked in her direction. I had told a few close friends about my peculiar homecoming and how I was left like an orphan on the doorstep of distant relatives. Jane, a reluctant believer, was one of them.
What would I say next? I finally had the opportunity to speak to someone who knew me well before my own mother did. Someone who might have soothed me and remembered the odor of me-that delicious scent of a newborn, ethereal with a clinging trace of life fluid cut with sour, curdled milk and sweet, clean hung out sheets. Unique as a fingerprint, a primordial trigger that sets in motion the ancestral bonding of mother to child. Here before me, finally, a person who might remember my tiny finger gripped around theirs, and whose mother showed him how to handle me, and not let my head flop.
I asked him if he would have lunch with me.
“No, I’m sorry I can’t. I’m meeting someone in a half hour. I was just passing through and just thought: My goodness, what does little Carol Ann look like now? My mother, you know, she just loved you. We all did.” He said it with awe and wonder, looking again at Jane, as if he couldn’t believe I was real.
“That’s what she always said. Well, it must have been weird for you, to have me there for awhile, and then have to give me back.”
“You know, I don’t remember.” Then he asked: “Did your mother ever tell you why? Boy, she was a piece of work, your mother.”
I smiled thinking about my mother with babies always climbing in her lap, clinging on her, whining and crying. Two more came after me.
I shrugged my shoulders and protected my mother. “My sister, Susan, had to be operated on, and she didn’t have enough hands or eyes in back of her head to get herself through that busy time is what she told me.”
Bobbie left a few minutes later and we promised to stay in touch.
It was as close to the truth as I could get. Drowning in a poor state of mind, my young mother was floundering, in over her head, with too many needy children and an unsteady husband. I was the one who tipped the scales. She took drastic action. And then she got her marbles back.
“You know, Carol Ann. Everyday I tried to hold each one of you on my lap for a few minutes.” This she told me proudly as she lay dying.
It took me a long time but I finally got it. Minutes count.