By Thelma Zirkelbach
I was a replacement child. My parents’ first baby died at birth. I know the story.
In her seventh month of pregnancy my mother began experiencing labor pains and was rushed to the hospital. There, in the frigid emergency room, she lay on a hard table with a cloth draped over her, awaiting the doctor. A young nurse stood by the table, patting Mother’s hand, checking over her shoulder for the doctor to appear. The pains came harder, faster. The infant’s head crowned. Panicked by the imminent birth she’d have to manage alone, the nurse pushed the baby back. Again the head appeared, again she shoved it back. By the time the doctor rushed in, it was too late. The baby was dead.
She never had a name. She is buried in the family plot beneath a headstone that says Infant Dochen.
I imagine the intense grief my parents felt. My father could distract himself during his long days at work, but Mother grieved at home alone. I wonder if, in her loneliness and loss, she imagined the baby who-might-have-been, a perfect child, adorable and sweet.
Within a year Mother was pregnant with me. During the pregnancy her father died of a heart attack. Afraid to add to her grief and fearing a miscarriage, her family, miles away in Nebraska, didn’t tell her until after I was born. I imagine her reeling from the shock. There she was, grieving the death of her beloved father, still mourning the loss of her first baby, with a new child in her arms.
Despite her emotional turmoil, Mother was a devoted parent. Pictures in old scrapbooks show her sitting on the edge of my sandbox while I dug tunnels in the sand or the two of us sitting side by side on our porch steps.
I especially enjoyed the walks we took together. I remember her lacing up my white high top shoes and then off we’d go, strolling around the neighborhood. My favorite outing was a walk up Woodlawn Boulevard with its grassy medians, a right turn on Niles Road past the old pink mansion that once belonged to Governor Elisha Marshall Pease, then left on Pease Road, finally, right, down the steep hill of Rainbow Bend with a large brick house at the bottom of the street. Behind a low brick wall was a garden with a goldfish pond. I was endlessly fascinated by the large fish swimming lazily in the sky blue water.
Another much-loved activity was listening to Mother read to me: Alice in Wonderland, Heidi, fairy tales that did not feature wolves (I was terrified of wolves) and a book I adored called Polly What’s Her Name, the story of a girl in an orphanage who was eventually adopted by a kindly woman called Jane. This book inspired many adventures of my paper dolls, all girls, who lived in an orphanage just like Polly’s. I don’t remember any of them being adopted; but they were all quite happy in their surroundings. I still have my tattered red copy of the Polly book I asked Mother to read again and again.
Notwithstanding the love she lavished on me, there was no way I could measure up to the child of Mother’s imagination, the baby who was born too soon. How could I possibly be as perfect as this lost daughter? Unless I was flawless in every way, I was disappointing. In Mother’s view, there were no shades of gray, only black and white.
Appearances were important to her. Unfortunately, when I was four, I developed strabismus, or, in lay terms, my left eye was crossed. When eye exercises with a stereopticon did not lead to improvement, the doctor prescribed glasses. I still have my first pair, tiny round gold-rimmed lenses.
Now Mother had to deal with a flawed child. She never used the term “cross-eyed” but insisted my eyes were only “turned.” One unwavering rule as soon as I began wearing glasses was never to take them off, except at bedtime. One day at school I pulled off my glasses. I was immediately overcome with guilt. I wouldn’t have been surprised if God sent a bolt of lightning to strike me down. I pondered whether I should confess to Mother, but decided not to.
I wonder what she would have said in the face of this transgression. Luckily, this was one of the few—maybe the only—instance I recall that I broke a rule. I was an extremely obedient child, but I had a quick temper and would sometimes explode—another mark against me.
Mother was a complicated woman who was patient and loving most of the time but could be coldly disapproving when crossed or argued with or embarrassed.
When I was four, she began seeing a doctor for some sort of “female problem.” One day she took me with her. Viewing him with suspicion, I repeated a remark I’d overheard her make to my father. “My mommy says you’re not helping her.” Silence. I’m sure Mother wanted to disappear and to take me with her. On the way home, she said not a word but simply glared at me. I don’t know if she ever went back to that doctor for another visit.
Mother was shy. I believe she suffered from social anxiety. She rarely attended social events, referring to herself as “a stick-in-the-mud.” One day, after mentioning that she planned to attend an event at our synagogue, she changed her mind. “I’m staying home,” she told me.
“Oh, you’re a stick-in-the-mud,” I squealed.
She was furious. “You shouldn’t say that,” she snapped and stalked out of the room.
“But you say it all the time,” I protested to her disappearing back. For the rest of the day I got her typical punishment: she refused to speak to me.
On the other hand, Mother always enjoyed having me join her in the kitchen when she baked. She was a marvelous baker who made delicious pies. Cherry was my favorite, especially when topped with chocolate ice cream. I stood on a chair beside her while she rolled out the pie dough and then gave me a fistful so I could flatten it and make a miniature pie for my father in my tiny baking pan. If she made a cake, I was invited to lick the bowl after she poured the batter into a pan. Her specialty was egg white cookies, known in our family as “the little white cookies.”
Mother always welcomed my friends. Many years later after a high school reunion a classmate wrote me a letter recounting coming to my birthday party when we were in fifth grade. “I came from a poor family,” she wrote, “and I had never seen an electric refrigerator like the one in your kitchen. I stood in the kitchen doorway gaping at it, and your mother noticed and offered me a glass of orange juice. I’ve never forgotten her kindness.”
When I was fifteen, I had an operation to straighten my eyes. I’d undergone one at age eight but it didn’t last. This time it was successful, and I was no longer a damaged daughter…until I was nineteen and a junior in college. That year my dress caught fire from a gas heater and I was seriously burned. Mother devoted months to me, sitting beside my bed all day in the hospital in Galveston, walking alone at night back to the motel she and Daddy stayed at so he could take her place. She said afterward that, although the motel was in a seedy area of Galveston, she was never afraid. Her thoughts focused on me. When I came home, she took over fastidious as Mother, but she never uttered a word of complaint.
I often wondered what inner conflicts caused her sudden switches from loving mom to angry mom who would punish my misdeeds with a spurt of anger and then silent treatment for the rest of the day. I believe she was a natural caregiver who craved being in control and when she wasn’t and someone else initiated an incident, she could not bear it. That has given me some comfort in realizing she reacted this way, not just to me, but to anyone who crossed her.
Mother never forgot a slight and frequently called attention to misdeeds that happened years ago. As she aged though, and dementia clouded her mind, those reminders disappeared. I felt both relief and sorrow. She was no longer the mother I knew but a person who woke every day to an unfamiliar world, who could not recall what happened decades ago or even days or hours ago. If I could have given her anything, it would have been her memories of herself as a little girl in Omaha jumping rope with her best friend Lena, as a young woman taking the streetcar to work at Woodmen of the World, as a wife treating my father to newly baked cookies and as a mother walking hand in hand with her child down a steep hill.
Thelma Zirkelbach, a native Texan, lives in Houston. She began her writing career in 1991, publishing her first of a number of romance novels with Harlequin. Since then she has written a memoir, Stumbling Through the Dark, about her husband’s courageous but losing battle with leukemia, personal essays published in anthologies and journals and poetry. She also co-edited the anthology On Our Own: Widowhood for Smarties published by Silver Boomers. She teaches a writing class at her senior retirement apartment and also at a halfway home for women transitioning from prison. She blogs weekly at www.widowsphere.blogspot.com