Chapter 3. Mem Buys a Baby and a House
[O]ne is born from the mother…so that the image of the woman is the image of the world. —Joseph Campbell
One night, just weeks after I turned five, Mem sat in the living room, sewing a bonnet as the sun was setting. She stopped every few minutes and closed her eyes and groaned. I knew something was wrong. She wanted to finish sewing the bonnet, so she moved over to the window for more light. She said, “If I faint tonight, someone bring me a glass of water.” I looked at the pail on the water stand, and then back at Mem and thought, “Shouldn’t someone bring Mem water right now, so she doesn’t faint?” I knew what fainting was, because Joey had cut his finger when he was cutting carrots once, and he had fallen backwards onto the floor. I didn’t want that to happen to Mem.
Mem held her middle and said to Datt, as if in secret code, “I think it’s time.”
Datt immediately jumped to his feet and went quickly next door to the Sakuras. Mr. Sakura drove their red car in our lane, even though they lived right across their lane from our house. Mem leaned on Datt’s arm to walk to the car. She stopped every once in a while and bent over. When she finally got in the car, Mr. Sakura drove Mem and Datt up Hale Road. Mrs. Sakura came to stay with us children. I wiped the dishes as Joey washed them, and he told me that he thought Mem was going to the hospital to buy a baby.
The next morning when I woke up, Aunt Katie was there. I sat at the corner of the couch and sucked my thumb on my left hand and fingered my navel with my right, which is what I did whenever I was afraid. Aunt Katie demanded in her bossy voice that I should take my thumb out of my mouth, “Nem dei damma aus dei Maal.” I did. She ordered Lizzie to set the table. Lizzie did.
For the next several days, everyone in the household did what Aunt Katie told them to do — even Datt obeyed the orders of his youngest sister.
I missed Mem so much. I wanted her to come home and have everything be the way it used to be. When she finally came home three days later, she brought home a baby, all wrapped in a blanket. Joey was right — that she had gone to the hospital to buy a baby. I wondered why — she already had five children without this baby.
Mem sat down on the rocking chair and held the baby. Joey, Lizzie, and Sylvia crowded around to see him. I saw a hand waving out of the blanket, and I wondered if Mem could still take him back to the hospital. Mem looked up and said, “Lomie, do you want to see the new baby? His name is Simon.”
I couldn’t tell anyone what I was feeling. I stepped up to the rocking chair and cautiously peeked into the blanket. I noticed that the baby had what looked like two earlobes. I pointed and said, “What’s that?”
Mem explained that the baby had extra skin on his ear. The doctor had tied a string around it. In a few days, it would fall off, Mem said. I looked in her face and wondered why she wasn’t concerned. That’s when I noticed how very tired Mem looked.
I said to Mem, “But we already have a baby.”
“We’ll need to start calling her Sadie,” Mem explained. That is when I first realized that she and Datt called each of us “Baby” until the next one came along.
Pretty soon Mem went to bed and took the baby with her. I couldn’t understand why she was home and yet Aunt Katie was still in charge.
Mem and Baby Simon were only at home for a few days when Simon had to go back into the hospital to have blood transfusions. I know now that it was because of complications with the RH factor. There was discussion about taking Simon back to the hospital, and Mem didn’t want to let him go with Datt — she wanted to be there, too. In the end, Mem stayed home. She went back to bed, and I remember hearing her cry. As usual the sound of her crying gave me that sinking feeling in my belly.
I said to Lizzie, “I think it’s because of the thing on Baby’s ear.”
“No, that already fell off yesterday.”
“You mean his ear fell off?”
“No, the little thing on his ear! You know the part that had the little black thread around it?”
“Then why does he have to go back to the hospital?” I asked.
“He has the wrong kind of blood or something.”
“The wrong kind of blood? What can they do about that?”
“They are going to take it out and put new blood in.”
“They are going to take his blood out? That’s worse than his ear falling off! How can they do that?”
“I don’t know, Lomie. That’s just what I heard.”
I had one of the worst nightmares of my life that night. I dreamed that both of Baby Simon’s ears had fallen off, and we were looking all over for them. We finally found them up on the hill under a peach tree in the Sakuras’ orchard. And then I awoke.
Datt was still at the hospital with the baby. I needed comfort, but I was afraid that if I cried, Aunt Katie would hear me. I got out of bed and tiptoed to Mem’s bed. I told her I had a bad dream, and she said in a soft whisper that I could lie down with her, letting me know that I still mattered, even though her little baby was in the hospital. I felt safe there, in the warm bed with Mem. In this little cocoon, I felt like I had before Simon was born and everything went topsy-turvy.
When Datt came home the next morning, he placed Baby Simon in Mem’s arms, and then he went to bed and slept for most of the day.
* * *
When bath night came, Mem sat up on the rocking chair, nursing Baby. Aunt Katie was getting ready to give us baths, banging around in her schusslich manner. She slammed the tub on the floor and the handles banged against the tub. I wished Mem would put Baby down and give us baths like usual on Saturday nights. Aunt Katie walked back and forth from the boiler to the tub, with her hard, fast footsteps, pouring hot water into the tub. She wasn’t anything like Mem. She wasn’t as big and soft; she moved faster; and she talked in a voice that sounded angry all the time. She snapped, “Joey, you will need to go do the chores, so the girls can take a bath.” Even though Joey was only eight years old, he was expected to take on responsibilities. Aunt Katie was strict about making children work hard.
Then I had to take my clothes off and let Aunt Katie give me a bath. When she took me out of the water, she stood me on a crocheted rug to dry me off. Her movements were rough, as though she was scrubbing a cupboard. I had no choice but to let her finish. I so much wanted Mem to put Baby down and hold me in her soft lap, enveloped in a warm towel and her love.
When Aunt Katie started to undo my braids and comb out my hair, I tried not to cry out. When she began braiding it, she pulled my hair away from my eyebrows so tightly that it felt as though she was trying to raise them. When I finally stepped down from the high stool, I hoped Aunt Katie would never braid my hair again.
And when Aunt Katie finally went home, I wished she would not come to our house for a very long time — maybe never.
[Chapter 3 to be continued]