Portraits of children and grandchildren covered an entire wall in the Grandma’s dining room. Hairstyles and photographic nuances served as in indicator of each child’s actual age, ranging from formal black and white, to red-tinted discount store photos, to fake snowy windows and trees in the backgrounds. I gazed at each baby, studying their expressions. Most appeared scared and uncomfortable in the formal clothing they weren’t accustomed to wearing. Mom said I was sick the day my two-year-old photo was taken, but Grandma had insisted on capturing my milestone. My eyes showed signs of congestion, clear snot reflected the light on my upper lip, and my curly hair seemed a little woollier than usual.
“Let’s see if I can name them all,” I said to Grandma. “That’s Cheri, that’s Vicki, that’s Jacki, that’s Corey, that’s me, that’s Jason, that’s Holli and that’s Ladell.”
“You are right,” said Grandma. “But what about these over here?”
‘These are going to be tougher,’ I thought. ‘They’re all black and white.’
“Well, that one looks like Darline,” I said as I pointed to a small girl wearing a spring dress, grinning genuinely. Next to it was a photo of pure innocence. It showed a young girl looking solemnly away from the camera. “Is this one Wanda?” I asked.
“It sure is,” Grandma said.
“Who is this baby?” I asked as I pointed to a smaller black and white photo of a tiny baby.
“Oh,” Grandma said in a distant, reflective voice. She paused for a moment, took a deep breath and said, “That’s Bonnie. She was my first baby. She died when she was just a few months old. And this over here is your Uncle Bobbie. He was your Daddy’s younger brother. He died too.”
Grandma studied the pencil she carried in her hands, rolling it between her thumbs and forefingers as she spoke of her babies. The tip of the pencil had been sharpened with one of her carving knives, leaving an uneven grain above the lead.
“What happened?” I asked innocently.
“Well…” she paused again, then said “I suppose the good Lord just wanted them with Him. I think they might have had cerebral palsy too, like your Aunt Wanda.”
I didn’t know what to say to my Grandma that day and wished I could have come up with something to make her sadness go away. She was only 16 years old when my dad was born, which would have made her no older than 15 years old when Bonnie came into and left her life. I could see the emptiness that still lived inside my grandma as she told me about her deceased babies.
“They were awfully pretty little ones,” Grandma said. “But they’re waiting for me in Heaven.”
Grandma sensed that I couldn’t possibly understand what she went through as a teenager and quickly changed the subject.
“Looky who we have over here,” she said as she turned my attention to Dad’s picture. “Oh, he sure was a handsome fella.”
“I can’t believe he was ever a baby,” I said as I giggled. I studied his picture and wondered if somewhere inside that little boy he had any indication of the man he would grow to be.
Dad was almost forty years old when I was born and to hear my sisters tell it, he had relaxed considerably with his two youngest kids. He loved telling embellished stories of his childhood and was proud of the top-notch education he received in his small school, where not only was he the class prankster, but he also scored the winning points in numerous basketball games – usually with no more than three seconds left on the clock. He was one of fifteen graduates in Auxvasse High School’s class of 1950.
He and Mom met after he returned from serving in the U.S. Navy for a few years. Mom was just 17 years old. Dad and his friend, Bill Bell, had driven to Fulton, Missouri that night to stir up some trouble. Bill recognized my mom and waved her and her friends over to the car to take a spin in Dad’s brand new, red and black, 1954 Rambler. Dad says Mom smoked a cigar with him that evening. Mom says Dad looked like the boy she was already engaged to. Mom and Dad got married seven weeks later.
“How old was Wanda in this picture, Grandma?” I was struck by how normal Wanda appeared in her toddler photo. She wore a pretty dress and her hair was blonde and curly, very similar to my own hair.
“She’s two-years old there,” said Grandma. “She sure looks pretty, doesn’t she? We’re awful lucky to have her.”
‘Lucky?’ I thought. I had never thought of them as lucky for having Wanda.
“Yes. I like her dress,” I said.
When Wanda was born, Grandma and Grandpa were told she would likely suffer the same fate as her older brother and sister with CP. She beat the odds, living beyond her five-year prognosis, but achieved very few developmental milestones. Several people encouraged Grandma and Grandpa to find special living arrangements for “the feeble-minded” like Wanda to take the burden off of their hands. It was a different time in the 1940’s. Mental retardation was often hidden – institutionalized, left for state workers to serve as surrogate mothers to these imperfect beings. Grandma and Grandpa embraced the challenge they were given, never ashamed to take Wanda on public outings. Grandma insisted that nobody could care for her baby the way she could.
I wonder what it must have been like for Dad and his other siblings to grow up in the shadow of a sister, misunderstood by society. Their lives perhaps revolved around Wanda’s special needs and they were likely tormented by their peers for unaccepted biological circumstances beyond their control. The family moved to Colorado for a year, hoping the altitude would help Wanda’s respiratory difficulties. I’ve never heard Dad, Darline or Don speak of any animosity toward the sacrifices they were forced to make as children.
Grandma had a special way with all babies. She was much like a big kid herself and played peek-a-boo or see-saw until the youngster was worn out from laughter.
“I’m gonna get you…,” she’d say as she crept closer. The toddler would shriek with laughter and run to the other room, Grandma prancing after him, but never close enough to make the capture. “You’re too fast for me!” she’d proclaim.
Grandma would attempt her childish antics on the older kids as well, but it usually resulted in preteens rolling their eyes and walking away.
“Well, phooey on you, then!” she would say as she redirected her attention to a more willing participant.