By Kat Kiefer-Newman
I had a brother. But I never had a brother.
He died before I was born and if he hadn’t, I might not be here. His burial was my conception; we are permanently linked, Little Eddie and me. He is frozen as a copper boot-shaped bank, a pair of white leather baby shoes, a small stack of congratulations cards, a handful of photographs. It’s a sparse collection. The photos are perhaps the saddest memorial. Two show my father holding my brother, one my mother, the rest him learning to sit up on blankets around the house and yard. Fifteen pictures. Taken on a borrowed camera.
“I always regretted not buying a camera sooner,” my mother told me once. “People I knew just didn’t own cameras back then. And getting the film developed was a chore. Later, we had Fotomats. That made things easier, but Fotomats weren’t really around until after you were born. Oh, and it cost so dear.” She shook her head and smiled in a way that suggested the cost was more than money, although I didn’t understand what she was getting at. I’m not sure I do now.
My mother bought a camera as soon as she learned she was pregnant with me. There are many, too many, leather-bound albums of my first five years. Little black and white squares of funny faces (I learned early to mug for the camera), drooling chin, food smeared on my face (and in my hair), weird hats (so many of them). Later, there’s me in a flowered Easter dress with crisp white gloves and a straw hat; in pajamas under a Christmas tree; standing next to my first bike; dressed for the Colorado Springs Centennial Celebration in a pioneer costume; playing tea party with my stuffed animals; birthday parties, Halloweens, school pictures. When parents have their first child, they over-do the picture taking. Looking through those many albums, one might mistakenly think I was a first child and not the fourth and last. On film I was always “on”; my first five years I was watched over, dressed-up and adorned. I was a doll, A picture-perfect Gerber baby girl. Every giggle, every pout, every lift of my eyebrow. My oldest sister, Eva, had the knack of leaning into photos with me; Maryellen, the middle sister, often looks resentful at having to be there. To the outside it appeared I was the most beloved, the goldenest golden child ever.
But Little Eddie, the true golden child, didn’t live long enough for more than fifteen photos. Those fifteen photos were carefully tucked away in their own child-sized album. It didn’t live in the hall linen cabinet with the other albums and scrapbooks. It stayed in my mother’s stocking drawer, under mounds of perfectly ironed, yellowing, hand-tatted handkerchiefs—all of them kept like lost dreams.
When my father got his orders to go overseas with the USO, my mother was worried. Not because he would be traveling, although that could be perilous. He might have been sent to play in Korea, or in the Philippines—places where civil unrest matched that happening in the States. But he might also have gone to Japan, or Australia—neither of which was so actively tumultuous. Regardless, after living in Hawaii for a couple of years—joyfully, contentedly—my father got his orders to go on tour.
My mother was worried because she was pregnant again.
“I never seemed to be able to birth the babies I’d planned on,” she told me when I was about eleven or so. She held my chin and squeezed a little. “It was always you surprises.” Her smile said the surprises were happy things, but her eyes carried faraway shadows.
She came from a big family and thought she’d have a big family of her own. She said she never even realized there was any other kind of family, except large, to have. Had she been able to do this, I might have been the last of six or seven; or they might have stopped with Eddie.
And here she was after five pregnancies, with only two living children, pregnant again and about to be alone. Eva was finishing first grade, Maryellen was a toddler, and the new baby would be born while my father was overseas. It wasn’t that she expected help with the children. He wasn’t the sort of father who changed diapers or made meals. In 1962, dads didn’t do that kind of thing. But servicemen’s paychecks could sometimes be delayed when they were overseas, and how would she cover the bills?
She called my Grandmother, who said, “You’ll bring those girls home and have your baby here, with your family.”
“I can’t do that. Eva has school. And it would be such bother for ya’ll.”
“Eva can go to school in Moultrie just as well as anywhere else. Besides, you’d be helping me out. Your daddy would be appalled that his house was sitting empty.”
Mother knew that this was likely true.
Moultrie is in the Southern Rivers area of Georgia. Once, this was a dense forest. But by 1900, industry had milled most of the old timber. It’s the seat of Colquitt County, Georgia, which has, since the end of the lumber industry, been one of the most prolific agricultural producers in the state. My granddaddy, Charlie Rainey Milligan, was not a farmer, but he did come from a farming family, as my grandmother did. Granddaddy was the eleventh of twelve children, and his father died when he was three. The family struggled so much that when he finished eighth grade he dropped out of school to go work for his older brother. There, he learned construction, and helped to build many of the important buildings in town, including private homes for the social elites.
When I was building my family tree on a genealogy website, my Aunt Theo told me, “Daddy bought and rebuilt the rental house he and Mother raised us in.” Official records hold that this happened sometime in 1935 when he and my grandmother purchased or obtained (finalized) the deed on their rental house. Over the next many years, until his death, he would redesign, expand, and alter both the footprint and the function of the formerly two-bedroom cottage, creating a patchwork four-bedroom home with a den. When he died, my grandmother, then forty-eight, a widower with a thirteen-year-old daughter still at home, had to figure out a new life for herself and it ended up away from that house and away from Moultrie.
It was September when my mother arrived with her rounded belly and two little girls. They barely had time to unpack because Edward “Eddie” George Kiefer, Jr. was born on October 25th, 1963—twenty-four days after his cousin, Theodosia Burr, named for my Aunt Theo. Both births were quickly overshadowed by the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on November 22 in Dallas, Texas. Maybe because of this, or perhaps because of Eddie’s short life, the two cousins never got to meet. Aunt Theo told me that she’d meant to come for the birth of Little Eddie, but Sarasota was almost five hours away and she was busy with her own newborn.
Years later she told me, “I never saw him until the funeral.” Her introduction to my brother was him dressed in a tiny suit and laid out in one of the smallest coffins anyone had ever seen.
But that was later. In that October, Eddie was still a much-anticipated handful. His face rosy, his eyes clear blue. He wasn’t fussy, even when they first brought him home. Mother said he was a dreamy baby, quietly watching the shadows play along the ceiling near his crib. He lay for hours listening to the birds call from outside the bay window at the front of the house. Life was settling in for my mother and her three children in her old childhood home.
Eva said she came home one day while Mother and Grandmother were changing Eddie. At eight years old, Eva had never seen a naked boy. That’s not so unusual for the time or the lives my family lived; my mother was circumspect about personal privacy and matters of the body. Eva saw Eddie and squealed, pointing at the baby’s tiny penis. She danced around sing-songing, “I see Eddie’s pee-pee.”
Little Eddie, the center of attention, promptly peed on his big sister. Eva laughed hilariously and Mother joined in. Grandmother, in the meantime, folded her arms in a decided absence of amusement. She may have even clucked her tongue before leaving the room to get towels and PineSol to clean up the mess.
Despite that joyful moment, my mother remembered feeling trapped in that house with its dark, wood-paneled walls and closed-in center kitchen. The layout was ramshackle, one room branching off another without pattern. The narrow, wood-planked stairs that led to a loft bedroom were cacophonous when Eva ran up and down them each day. Sometimes, my mother told me, after Eva was at school, Maryellen and Eddie taking naps, the quiet in the house pressed on her, pressed into her skin, and she wondered if she’d ever not feel the weight of it.
When my father’s tour ended, he gathered up my mother, sisters, and brother and moved to an apartment near the Air Force Base in Novato, California. Their home was surrounded by wobbly, gopher-pocked lawns and hilly mounds that hid skunk dens, and it backed up on woods where coastal oaks held their own against the predominant pine and redwood.
Eva was in third grade. Maryellen was a sturdy, curious three-year-old. Some days, Mother dropped Maryellen and Eddie off with the babysitter so she could run errands and have a little break. Three children were wearing her out. But she told me once that she was happy there. Father gigged many nights in nearby Sausalito and San Francisco. He was now a sergeant in the USAF. They weren’t struggling as much to make ends meet, which meant they weren’t fighting as much about money. But underneath the battle over money was a different battle, one that in 1964 was beginning in many working- and middle-class homes. My mother wanted to work again. She’d left the military when she was pregnant with Eva. She’d loved the service and had hoped to have a career, working her way up to officer. My father, though, wanted his wife at home making eggs and sausage for breakfast, keeping the house clean, caring for the children, and having a hot dinner on the table when he got home at night.
Mother detested housework and was a terrible cook. She loved her children, of course. We never had any doubt that she did. But she would rather read historical novels or romance fiction than get on the floor and play with blocks or dolls. Having a job to get dressed for, earning a paycheck—these were the things my mother wanted most for herself. Even though she wasn’t working at a paying job, she volunteered with different non-commissioned officers’ wives’ club charities and committees, and this also caused fighting between my parents.
In Northern California, though, caring for a school-aged child, a toddler, and a newborn was full-time work. Still, she secretly spent hours poring over college catalogs and looking through newspaper want ads.
Decades later, she’d put it this way: “I was just so distracted, thinking about what I wanted to do, to be, and I wasn’t paying enough attention to the details.”
It was the end of August and Eva came home with sniffles. Soon enough, Maryellen caught them. Shortly after that, Eddie came down with what seemed like a more virulent case. Eva’s runny nose eventually stopped and Maryellen’s coughing petered out.
Eddie didn’t get better.
Mother called the base hospital and got an afternoon appointment with the elderly pediatrician who’d seen Eva, Maryellen, and Eddie for all their shots, their cuts and scrapes, since they’d been in Northern California.
He listened to Eddie’s lungs, pinched Eddies chubby knees and cheeks, tested the baby’s reflexes. He looked into Eddie’s snot-crusted nostrils and then down his red-raw throat. The doctor said, “He’ll be fine, Mrs. Kiefer. You just keep taking great care of him, as I know you are, and he’ll be right as rain soon enough.”
She asked if they should have some tests done.
“No, no. None of that is necessary,” he assured her. “He’s just got a nasty bug. No need to get worked up. You make sure he has enough to drink, cool baths when he starts to complain. It’ll break soon enough. Fevers always do.”
She worried, but trusted the doctor. That nasty bug didn’t go away, though. Eddie developed bloody stool and diarrhea, cramping and abdominal pain, then vomiting. She called the base hospital in a panic and got him in with a rotating civilian doctor. That man, fresh out of medical school, immediately called for lab work.
My mother was always reluctant to discuss what happened next. I can imagine it, though. Years later I had a scare with my older daughter, which cast my mother’s experience with my brother into stark relief. The details are also in question, as my sisters and aunt have different variations of the story. This is my version, pieced together from things my mother had said over the years.
I believe that my mother brought Eddie back to the doctor when those test results came in. She held him in the center of the silver examination table. One pale hand patted listlessly against the metal, making it ring.
“It looks like Eddie has pediatric small-bowel volvulus,” the doctor said. He explained that this is when the intestine loops around on itself and knots up, resulting in acute obstruction of the bowels. His face grave, he said, “It’s treatable when caught early enough.”
In my brother’s case it was too late. He now had gangrene in the intestines. My mother told me once that the doctor’s voice had been kind but he was also very blunt, which she appreciated. He said, “Now, we need to make Eddie comfortable.”
What did that young doctor with the kind voice do next? Maybe his face bent into a sympathetic mask, his hands, useless, pushed deep into the pockets of his lab coat. It could be that the light glanced off his stethoscope as it swung a little back and forth, like a metronome, or perhaps a pulse. Back and forth, in time with the military clock on the drab grey walls. The air in the room would have stopped moving. As for my mother—always so collected, so calm— did she feel her breath stop? Did she wonder if she would ever breathe again?
I’ve only seen my mother cry once. It was during a trip back to Georgia, when I was twenty-two. This was 1987 and we’d just gotten off the plane in Atlanta. It was the middle of July, the air heavy with the summer rain. A man from Ronald McDonald House had a sign: Ruth Ann Kiefer. My mother didn’t rush, she hung back, almost afraid to approach him. But I rushed to him. “How’s Beth?” I said. And my mother asked, “How’s Eva?”
Mother knew. Of course she knew that we needed to be there, to care for my sister, now.
Beth was my niece, my sister’s daughter. She had terminal leukemia. She was only two and a half at the time.
The man took my mother’s hand and she flinched a little but wouldn’t look away. He said, “I’m afraid Beth passed away while ya’ll were in the air. Miss Eva is waiting at the hospital for you and Miss Katherine.” He drove us there so we could be with my sister and say our goodbyes to my niece.
But it wasn’t there that Mother cried. It was later that night. I woke up in a strange bed at Ronald McDonald House. I was screaming from a nightmare that faded almost immediately. My mother came to me and held me and we cried together.
Maybe she cried there in the doctor’s office with her baby boy. Maybe she pulled Eddie’s fingers loose from the edge of the shiny table. No one spoke. Mother would have become embarrassed by the awkward pause. She’d count the dots on the doctor’s tie, how many times he blinked. She’d count the ticks the wall clock made. The flash of light that reflected off his stethoscope might have mesmerized or hypnotized her. Whose turn was it to speak? All those years of etiquette training and comportment classes, useless now.
No. She wouldn’t have cried.
Little Eddie likely whimpered. That broke the spell. My mother straightened her cuffs, hitched Eddie up onto her hip and asked, “May I take my son home now, please?”
She wouldn’t wait for the doctor to answer. She would gather up the blanket and the diaper bag, and walk away from the doctor, the hospital, the horrific news. I’m sure she kissed her baby’s sweaty hair and wiped his forehead. She laid him down on the passenger seat and tucked blankets around him to keep him from rolling about. Then she drove home, wondering what she would say to my father and sisters.
At the house, she sat in the car, Eddie dozing beside her on the bench seat. “Dear Lord,” she began. She couldn’t finish. “That was the last time I ever prayed,” she told me.
“Not ever again? Not once?” I asked.
“Why? I realized looking over at that sweaty little boy, my little boy, who was dying and had been dying and no one even tried to save him. I looked at him and realized there just couldn’t be a God. No god would do such a horrible thing.”
Eddie died on September 17th, 1964. My mother had his casket flown back to Georgia. The Milligan family had cemetery plots and Mother insisted that Eddie be buried in hers. When I asked why, because it meant she couldn’t ever visit him, she said, “It’s more important that he be home. I needed to take Baby Brother home.”
The service was in the same church where Mother and Father had been married. My Granddaddy had done construction on the altar and the pulpit sometime in the ‘40s. His hands had touched so much of the chapel, making it truly a family homecoming for the little boy.
“And there were Easter lilies everywhere. Wreaths, tall vases, bowls full,” my mother recalled. “Easter lilies are so beautiful, so lush. But I can’t stand the sight or smell of them now. To me, they’re death flowers.”
My Aunt told me that after the funeral my family took the bus down to Sarasota to visit briefly. The weather was warm, but everyone came down with another flu. Then they all climbed onto a return Greyhound and made the trip back to Northern California. Mother said it was the longest bus ride of her life, trying to take care of my father and my two sisters, all while worrying about yet another flu and what might happen next. She was almost too busy caring for her little family to feel the sadness, the loneliness—almost. She was also queasy, unable to keep any food down, but she kept that to herself. She always took care of herself, rarely asking for help.
Back at Hamilton Air Force Base, Mother told me she had everyone checked out by the doctors, just in case. As expected, with lots of rest and water, Father, Eva, and Maryellen were soon better. But Mother wasn’t. She decided she needed some tests done and went in to see her own doctor. She probably didn’t even tell my father. Not yet. Not until she knew what was wrong.
Tests always take forever. Waiting for results is a kind of special hell. Instead of getting her results over the phone, the doctor insisted she come back into the office.
Father drove the car to work, as usual, so she took a bus. Her heart seemed to lock somewhere up in her chest as she rode along, the town passing outside the window. Underneath her calf leather gloves with the tiny pearl buttons carefully closed, her palms slicked with sweat. She was escorted into the office and sat, feet forward, knees tightly aligned over them, skirt smoothed, handbag on her lap, hands folded on top of that. She was a straight line, waiting for what would come next.
He cleared his throat. Then said, “Mrs. Kiefer, congratulations are in order. You’re going to have a baby.”
Once again the air stopped moving. My mother wondered if it was the giant clock on the wall or her pulse thrump-thrumping in the back of her skull. “I can’t possibly be expecting. I just buried my baby boy.”
The doctor put on his stern face and said, “Not only is it possible, but it’s happening. And you’re going to start eating again and stop trying to climb into that coffin after your son. You have two little girls at home who need you and another baby on the way.”
She blinked at his forwardness. She told me she didn’t much care for his tone. Just like that she said it: “I didn’t much care for his tone.”
“He’d just said you were pregnant and you didn’t much care for his tone?”
She laughed. “Well, I suppose that does sound ridiculous. But he was scolding me so. ‘You will go home and take care of yourself, young lady.’ He said that.” She smiled at the memory. “And I was so mad that I got up and did just that. In fact, I did better than that. I quit smoking, drinking. I took calcium and other vitamins. And I ate everything in sight. Oooh, but I got fat. And you were a fat little baby when you were born.”
But my Aunt Theo tells it a little differently. She says my mother knew she was pregnant when they buried Eddie. She clearly had morning sickness during that visit to Sarasota. Eva confirms that everyone was throwing up on the long bus ride back to Northern California.
My daughter, Geneveive, once said that she thinks both of these stories could be true. “Grandma was so good at compartmentalizing. She wasn’t ready to be pregnant, most likely, and so waited to be pregnant.”
Gen asked me what I thought. “Which version do you believe?”
I shook my head and said, “I believe it doesn’t matter which way it happened.” She hugged me and left the room. My mother buried her son. What else can you say about that? That’s the end of a story, not the beginning of one.
One of the last times Mother and I talked about Eddie’s death, she admitted that all she really wanted to do was stay there in Georgia with him. Maybe it hadn’t been the stern, fatherly doctor who told her she couldn’t climb into the coffin with Eddie. Maybe it was something she thought all on her own.
I said, “So I saved your life?”
And she said, “You made it so I had to keep living.” Then she changed the subject.
They aren’t the same.
About the Author:
Kat Kiefer-Newman is a writer in the dusty dairy valley of San Jacinto, California. When she’s not writing, she teaches myth and mythic themes at California State University, San Bernardino. She is a graduate of the University of California, Riverside, Low Residency Palm Desert and holds an MFA from this program; she is also a graduate of the Pacifica Graduate Institute, and holds an MA and a PhD from this institution.