My great-grandmother, Bernice, was born in the Midwest just as the American frontier was disappearing. She liked to tell all kinds of stories—some of them her own, some of them passed to her by her mother. And while I have forgotten many of the details, what I do remember is the sense that it was a time where life still required a knowing how to make do—how to mend and make and nurture and kill the things that made life possible. Life there danced a precarious balance between the social interdependence that held off the fear that had lived at the edge of the frontier and the inescapable lonely truths of individual survival.
I often have wondered what my great-great-grandmother must have felt as she went into labor with her first child, knowing it was far too soon for her baby to be born. She was only 18, but she certainly understood that babies died, because they died all the time. With a baby coming this early, she must have recognized there wouldn’t be much to be done.
I imagine her laboring as a point of light in their farmhouse—because I do not know what her face looked like.
I imagine the fear threatening to take over: her trying to hold back the waves of labor. I understand that it wasn’t so much courage that lead her forward, but the fact that you cannot, no matter how hard you try, make time stand still.
I imagine how entirely alone in the world she was because, we are all alone when we face these moments where life and death threaten to converge.
When all three and a half pounds of Bernice arrived in this world—far too tiny and fragile for the rugged life she was born into—her parents put her in the oven.
Hearing the story as a child I did not understand what this meant, but I knew it was important. Even then I could sense that there was something clever and magical hiding in this detail, but I envisioned a tiny little baby, with my great grandmother’s round face, set on the grates of a modern oven, and asked, “An oven?”
“A wood burning oven,” My mother explained.
This made it worse, somehow.
I thought of uncontrolled flames, like in our wood stove that heated our entire house. Our woodstove was too hot to touch, let alone place a baby in.
“Didn’t she burn? Didn’t she burn up?” I asked.
My mother laughed, “No, Hillee, it wasn’t hot enough to burn her. They kept her warm in the oven, so she could survive.”
Incubated in a wood-burning oven on the edge of the disappearing frontier, my great-grandmother didn’t just survive. She was tiny and hardy. She thrived.
Though she would never breathe with ease, Bernice went on to become a teacher, to marry a tall, handsome widower sixteen years her senior who had homesteaded further west in a sod house. Eventually she had her own baby girl, my grandmother. Bernice lived into her late 80’s, knowing her grandchildren and, eventually, her great-granddaughter—me.
My stepfather picks up the phone when I call early in the morning.
I ask if the lamb made it through the night. And the pause before he answers tells me that it did not. My stepfather’s voice betrays break in his typically steady exterior as he tells me the lamb died in the night.
His voice tired, he tells me he tried. And at that moment I know we are not just talking about the lamb.
As he speaks I imagine him in the barn, his tall body and broad shoulders bent over the fragile lamb, tube feeding it, in hopes to bring it back from the brink. I see the pronounced hitch in his step that I’d noticed the day previous, earned by hours spent tending the flock…all of his flock, even this fragile one. Perhaps, especially this fragile little one…because it isn’t just a lamb.
He confides in me that he struggles with survival of the fittest. That he winces when people say it is best for the lamb not to make it. That it is mercy for it to die quickly, for its weakness not to enter the gene pool of his flock.
“It isn’t just a lamb,” he says, “It’s like they’re talking about my granddaughter too…”
It is an image of my great-grandmother’s petite infant body—limbs impossibly small and thin—being placed into an oven that flashes through my mind as I shuffle into the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit on January 14, 2011. I timidly pass clear plastic incubators holding tiny little babies, intubated babies, babies that remain in complete darkness, babies connected to all manner of monitor.
It is the first time I have a completely clear understanding of the magic of my great grandmother’s early hours spent warmed in the family oven.
In this series of hospital rooms I find many babies that are too tiny and fragile for the world, clustered together, being protected in hopes that they, too, will defeat whatever odds they already have stacked against them in their short little lives.
Why I am here? I wonder for a moment. I am disoriented. I am tired. Hormones are surging through my body. I am following the nurse as she moves confidently passed incubator after incubator.
Right, I think, which one is mine?
I walk slower than the nurse does, because everything hurts in a completely unfamiliar way. My body feels unrecognizable—like something essential has been torn from me. I pause at the glass door of room the nurse has entered. I see her stop next to a sleeping baby. The baby lays limply in the isolette, legs splayed at the hips, wearing only a diaper and an almost elegant web of tubes and wires. At six-pounds she seems huge compared to the babies I have just walked past.
Is it her? I wonder. That full head of dark hair…It must be her.
I step forward, hoping for some flash of recognition to pass over me. I’d seen her just two hours before, but not for long, before she was transferred here. Still, I expect that some part of me would recognize the baby that had been a part of my body until just a few hours ago.
But I don’t recognize her. Not really.
Instead I slowly acclimate to her.
My mother hands me the tender plant, she’s just excised from the ground, and then gestures toward the soil where I should place it. “Careful, Hillee, be gentle.” My small hands work hard to keep the tiny green thing safe as I water, and cover, and pat the thing into place.
“There,” I say, proudly, and turn toward the next task.
I see her out of the corner of my eye as she quietly fixes my work, firmly stabilizing the plant’s base. Creating a moat with her hands, and adding more water. She says, as she works, “You know, your great- great- great-grandmother Katherine was the seventh daughter of a seventh daughter. She could make anything grow.”
“Like you?” I ask.
In the NICU the doctors explain to us that our daughter, Esmé, is different from other babies. They list all the things that are different about her: her kidneys, her heart, her facial features, her floppiness, her difficulty breathing. They tell us that she likely has some kind of genetic disorder, but they do not know what it is.
I am certain I see fear flashing behind their eyes—and I understand that it is there because they do not know what to expect.
I think of my great-grandmother surviving against all odds so long ago. I think of her mother. And I wonder how it is possible that after a century of medical evolution I find myself in much the same position she was in.
Already the labor and delivery of my first child is a distant memory, quickly overtaken by this new labor of trying to care for and love a newborn who may not be meant for the world she was born into.
I imagine myself powerfully holding off the waves of fear that keep rolling over me. Still, I move forward into them not so much out of courage, but because I cannot seem to grasp time hard enough to make it stop…and so I have no choice.
I imagine myself as a point of light—because I no longer recognize myself. I become a point of light in the hospital, surrounded by people who may not be able to help my child.
I see the glass figurines nestled under the same cut crystal glass dome, in the same room as they have always been in the home that was my grandparents and now belongs to my mother and stepfather.
As I peer in at the figures I notice that a few have fallen over at some point—perhaps knocked by some unaware visitor in the room. I reach to lift the dome carefully and right them, but I pause, hands hovering just over the glass, feeling as if I am trespassing.
I close my eyes and remember how, as a girl, I would hold my breath as my grandmother lifted the glass dome elegantly, her gold wedding ring quietly clinking against it. How she would tell me that when she was a little girl in Iowa the first sign of the rheumatic fever that damaged her heart was that she could not sit through dinner without spilling her milk. She would say that as a child, too frail to run around outside, she played quietly in bed with small blown glass figurines that her father gifted her. Then she would remind me to be gentle, as she sat patiently next to me, the sound of her mechanical heart valve ticking away, while I carefully arranged the figures into scenes.
When I open my eyes again I can still see honest glint of her smile, the feeling of her hand on mine…and the sound of her heart ticking next to me, attuning me to every beat of her determined, besieged, fragile heart.
The day my daughter was born I began life at the edge of a frontier. It is the frontier between medicine being able to help and not—between science being able to understand or not—between decisions keeping my child alive or not. And, like my ancestors before me, I have staked my claim. I have learned to mend and make and nurture and kill the things that make life possible on such a frontier.
On the frontier the labor of creating life, of sustaining life, never seems to end. It is a place where you must make do with the imperfect tools you have…even as they break in your hands. It is a place where life and death threaten to converge—threaten to carry my child off with them.
It is only in living here that I understand what the frontier is about—what my ancestors call to me about. Yes, on the frontier a person must sling her shotgun over her shoulder and gather up her skirts covered in dirt and shit and blood in order to get down to the work of life. But also? Also the frontier is a place of gentleness, of tending, of hope. It is a place of holding small fragile things in the palms of our hands and putting hopeful life gently into them, not knowing what will grow.
This week theFinish the Sentence Friday (FTSF) prompt was: They Call Me…. When I read it, I didn’t think about names, but rather about the echoes of the things may family has taught me, that my ancestors have taught me. Things about survival, and love, and fragility, and strength. Things I have drawn on to orient myself these last difficult years. Things I think our world might need to heed now more than ever.
This has been a Finish the Sentence Friday (FTSF) with Finding Ninee. Each week on FTSF we receive a sentence to finish. The prompts have really helped me broaden the topics I address and let me feel free to explore new ways to tell some of the stories that are important to me. Join the Facebook Group to start linking up with all of us! The first week I linked up I wrote something that I didn’t even know I needed to write. It felt so raw and close to the bone that I wasn’t certain I wanted to share it. But I did it anyway…and I am so happy I did.
I hope that you’ll save this for a memoir because the back and forth is so full of feeling and life and hope and also fear and all of the darkness that comes with life. The image of the mothers who came before you in your family and in time… being placed in the oven. At first, I was convinced it was going to be a sad ending but was so happy that she thrived and went on to you and to Esme and to all of this.
Thank you Kristi. She was a powerhouse, my great grandmother. A five foot tall powerhouse. I have worn her 40th anniversary diamond on my right hand since Esmé’s cardiac arrest… in honor of my daughter, the rightful tiny heir of that power.
This is so beautifully written. I was also convinced it would end badly, but I kept reading because I had to see it through! I must read more of your work! I wish I had half of your talent! Wow!!!
Oh you are too kind. Thank you. It means so much to know when my writing has touched someone…it is such a solitary pursuit. And one that is filled with so many publishing ‘no’s along the way.
Oh my gosh, Hillary, this is so beautiful – gorgeous stories of the intricate connections between all of us.
The baby in the oven – crazy! But it makes sense…
Right?!! I think they must have done the same with lambs on their farm. And figured it would work…she was quite the miracle. As was her daughter and her great- great-granddaughter 🙂
Wow. The frontier metaphor is.. perfectly perfect. And that story of warming in the oven!! I can’t believe it.
My son was an eight-pounder in the NICU and he looked huge. I’ll never forget the sights of all of it.
Thanks Tamara! Ez was six pounds…I though she was such a big girl. The nurses put all their biggest baby clothes on her so they’d finally get some use…they were like three month sizes and she swam in them! I think the NICU is just so very difficult. I have had an easier time during her other ICU stays (pediatric and surgical ICUs) because I felt like her mom. I didn’t quite in the NICU.
Hi Hillary! I am going to come back again and again to re-read this story .
Thanks Moon! I’m glad you will come back to see it!
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