My grandmother, Lydia–my mother’s mother–had two babies out of wedlock before my mother and her three siblings were born. I didn’t find this out until they were all long gone. I’ll never know if my own mother knew this and kept it secret, or if she was as clueless about it as I was. Or as my cousins/sisters were. (There are three of us, born of Lydia’s three daughters, and we’re more like sisters than cousins.)
I was up in Michigan’s Copper Country researching a book I was working on (but never completed, in case you’re wondering), when my great-aunt, one of only two living relatives left up there, dropped the bomb about the babies my grandmother had lost. It was out before she could stop it and she thought she had said enough, but I reminded her that anything she told me then was beyond hurting anyone.
Women in those days had miscarriages all the time, but these babies lived beyond infancy. They had names. They had the same father, a man who was not my grandfather.
My grandmother was young and unmarried and was raising them while living with her parents. They lived in a small town with its share of small town gossips. I tried to imagine what it must have been like for her, keeping and loving not one but two illegitimate children, and then losing them both to a scourge my great-aunt only remembered as “awful diarrhea”. She didn’t remember the children but my great-uncle told her after they were married that he played with them often and was heartbroken when they died, one after the other.
I went to the county courthouse to look for their records and, in spite of the efforts of a kindly clerk, only found one. The father’s name was right there but nobody I talked to knew who he was.
The cemetery where they were buried is old and grown over and the burial records were lost in a fire a half-century before I began looking. Their markers would have been made of wood and were long gone, if they ever existed.
My grandmother was loving and funny as all get out. She sang and made jokes and told us stories–but never about herself. If we asked, her stock answer was, “Oh, nobody wants to know about that old business.” We didn’t push it, and now we wish we had.
I drove the 600 miles back home alone and along the way a poem wrote itself. Here it is:
Looking for Lydia’s Babies
There were six of them, not four, and I was told this
in the year she would have been one hundred.
The teller gave the news in muffled blasts
Wrought from years of keeping this thing quiet.
The two who came before the ones we thought were first
Were shadow babies born before their mother wore a ring.
They lived beyond the infant stage; the teller knew their names
But how they lived and when they died she could not say.
She only knew that they were mourned.
A boy and girl, but who came first? Only Hugo had a life
According to the courthouse records.
He even had a father.
But Esther, loyal Esther, kept her secrets
While her mother held us close and whispered hope
And never told us that two more had come before.
Their mother could have passed this chunk of history on.
We begged for hints of just what kind of girl she was.
And all she did was sing another song.
Maybe all we wanted was for her to laugh, to sing,
To check our fears
And rock us on her ample lap.
Maybe even, summers, when we helped her bake and scrub
She opened doors that we ignored
Or didn’t want to see beyond.
But later we were modern women, guilty of our own transgressions,
Reeling with our own confessions.
Open to the story of those babies.
And still our grandma could not speak of children left behind
In unmarked graves, asleep beneath their quilts of creeping myrtle,
Waiting for their kin to call their names.
Thank you to The Broad Side for reprinting this blog.