Janet Sheridan: A birthday memory

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Monday was my mother’s birthday. I woke up remembering the first time I was aware of missing her.

In 1946, Dad leaned over the wheel of an aging Chevy sedan, rocking to and fro in the seat as though the momentum of his body could force more speed from the car. Fence posts draped with tumbleweeds appeared and vanished; the hospital with his unconscious wife receded; his destination neared — but not fast enough.

The doctor had said two hours.

An erratic spring wind pushed against the car while Dad’s thoughts raged against the slowness of Mountain Bell to reach rural areas and the quickness with which blood flowed from his wife’s hemorrhaging body.

At the same time Carolyn, Bob and I huddled in our living room, dreading dinner. Mrs. Brown, baby-sitting while Mom went to get a new baby, believed in canned milk. We drank it with every meal she prepared. Used to obeying adults and cowed by the threatening glances of 13-year-old Lawrence, we forced it down. But our stomachs and our hearts were unsettled.

We missed Mom.

The first lap of Dad’s race finished in front of the small grocery owned by Wendell Francis, Lake Shore’s unofficial mayor. Wendell maintained the document, compiled during World War II, which listed all adults in the community and their blood type.

Dad needed the list: needed five donors willing to rush back to the hospital with him. Mom had received all her type of blood the hospital had. She could die without more.

At home, Lawrence paced the room and tried to mask his worry. The canned-milk queen sang tunelessly in the kitchen. Our games faltered; even fighting held no appeal. Why did Mom and Dad think we needed a new baby? And where was Dad?

With a scribbled list of potential donors, Dad plotted his route along ditch-lined roads to find those at home. Chick Huff clambered down an electric pole and into the car with climbing spikes attached. Old Hebe Peterson turned off his tractor and left it in the field.

Three others soon joined them.

The next morning, Lawrence assembled us, sleepy-eyed and non-responsive, in the warm kitchen and told us that Dad had come home in the night long enough to tell him that Mom was real sick and would be in the hospital for a while. Our baby sister died while being born.

We weren’t sure what that meant to us, or how to feel about it. We feared it meant more canned milk.

As an adult, Lawrence revealed a detail he kept secret that morning: listening to Dad, trying to be brave, he asked if Mom would live.

Dad responded, “I don’t know.”

That night, for the first time, my brother prayed — not because it was expected of him in church, before meals, at bedtime — but because he needed help.

Prayers and the goodness of neighbors worked.

Two nights later, we stood in the dark on the lawn of the hospital and stared up at the lit window where we had been told we could see Mom.

When she appeared and waved, we returned her wave, then, self-conscious, ducked our heads. We didn’t know how to respond to an image we couldn’t talk with or touch.

For years, whenever we passed Hebe Peterson’s farm, Dad related how Hebe shrugged off any thanks, with a warning: “Now, Vern, if she gets to telling bad stories and talking rough, don’t you worry. It’s just my blood.”

We laughed, then grew quiet, thinking about the baby sister Mom planned to name Susan.

Such memories flood my mind on Mom’s birthday and make me happy I had her.

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