SOME OTHER SIDE
By Leslie Johnson
Yesterday I attended my grandson’s “Baby Is Brewing” party at a new beer garden in St. Paul, where male and female guests of all ages were invited to drop a pack of diapers by the bar before sampling IPAs and oatmeal stouts. My grandson’s fiancé – yes, they’re having the baby before the wedding – wrapped her skinny arms around me and kissed me on the cheek, bending down to reach me where I’d sunken into the cushion of a low canvas sofa, one of several placed around the outdoor patio.
“Gammie-Gam!” That’s what she calls me, for some reason. But she’s a sweet girl – smooth brown hair swept back over her shoulders, a quick smile, leanly muscled arms and legs. She’s a marketing director and marathon runner, and for the party she wore black leggings, sneakers, and a stretchy white top that clung to the hard ball of her pregnant stomach. How very comfortable she looked. Why couldn’t it have been like that in my day?
“In my day,” I told her, “only ladies could attend a baby shower. This is much better.”
She sat down beside me and took my hand. “Did you have one, Gammie? Before Josh’s dad was born?”
I nodded. In my day, you usually had a shower only for your firstborn, so I had one, but not when I was pregnant with David, my grandson’s father. It was for my first baby, the one I lost, and I was going to tell her about it, my future granddaughter-in-law, but her friends were calling her from the lawn of the brewery to join them in their game of corn hole. I gave her shoulder blade a little shove. “Go! Have fun!” And she kissed me again and skipped away, so light on her feet for a pregnant girl that it made my heart pang.
It was late autumn, 1958 it must have been, when my best friend Eileen gave me my baby shower. Well, it was Eileen’s mother, Mrs. Larson, who said it wouldn’t be Christian to let such a young mother-to-be bring her firstborn into the world without one. I was a teenage pregnant newlywed, and according to my mother, I should have thanked God daily that the boy’s parents made him marry me. According to my mother-in-law, Marietta Swenson, I’d ruined her son’s life. That was Norman, my first husband, and I moved into his room where they set up a foldout bed for me underneath a shelf of his high school baseball trophies. My mother, a widow, moved to Iowa to live with her second cousin Fern, once I was “squared away,” as she put it, in my new home.
Anyway, Mrs. Larson hosted the shower in her living room on a Wednesday afternoon, immediately after Eileen got home from high school, which was soon enough for the ladies to have adequate time to return home and cook dinner for their menfolk.
In those days, even for an afternoon tea in a working class home, it went without saying that ladies would wear dresses and heels, hats and gloves, pearls or perhaps a decorative broach. To my surprise, Marietta sewed a dress for me to wear from a quite decent fabric of mustard-gold and kelly green checks, with a Peter Pan collar, empire waistline, ample room for my round stomach, and green rickrack circling the hemline.
Old Mrs. Swanson picked us up in her station wagon, and after fitting myself into the backseat, I felt quite thrilled to be dressed up in a new garment on my way to a shower in my honor. For months now all I’d been wearing were Norman’s old T-shirts over unzipped dungarees cinched with yarn or a couple of horrid muumuus from the Sears bargain bin. Maybe Marietta had sewn the dress so she wouldn’t be embarrassed of me at the shower in front of the ladies from Abiding Savior Lutheran Church, but I didn’t care. Marietta herself looked unusually buoyant in her powder blue skirt-suit with her best silver solje pinned on the collar. I held the Jell-O mold she’d made on my lap, the pimento olives and celery slices suspended in the wiggling yellow gelatin, as she and Mrs. Swanson gossiped lightly in the front seat. I’d never been to a baby shower before. I was the first of any of my friends at school to get married and have a baby, and I felt a sudden swell of pride to be the center of attention in such womanly endeavors.
My enthusiasm dampened a bit when we stepped inside the Larson house and I saw a much smaller gathering than I’d imagined – just the three of us coming in the door and Mrs. Larson along with two other Abiding Savior ladies, Mrs. Holm and Mrs. Iversen, who had once been my Sunday school teacher. They were waiting for us, seated on folding chairs facing the sofa.
Mrs. Larson must have noticed the flicker of disappointment on my face. “Eileen and the girls will be here any minute now!” she reassured me, beckoning me to the seat of honor on in the middle of the floral sofa. “Any minute.”
As if on cue Eileen clamored in the door, the thud of her book bag hitting the floor in the foyer. “Willa!” she squealed, bursting into the room in her big plaid dress and matching headband. She’d made me promise when we younger never to tell a soul, not a single soul, that her mother ordered her wardrobe from Chubettes – “Your chubby lass can be the belle of her class!” – and I never did. I clutched her shoulders a bit too tightly when she rushed to the sofa to give me a hug. I’d missed her.
But there was only one girl following behind her, prim Becky Sundlist in her everyday sweater set, simpering as usual with her pursed-lip smile that she thought covered her overbite. She wiggled her fingers at me in greeting.
“Joyce and Nancy were going to come,” Eileen said. “They wanted to, but there was an emergency meeting after school today for the Harvest Hoedown committee.”
“Which is important,” Becky interjected, which made me hate her a little bit. Still to this day.
“The fire chief,” Eileen said, widening her eyes, “all of a sudden says we can’t use hay bales in the gymnasium this year even though that’s the foundation of practically all the decorations. So now what?”
I lifted an eyebrow, nodding in mock concern, as if humoring children. “Look!” I framed the mound of my belly sheathed in my beautiful new maternity dress with my open hands, smiling, my fingers stretched wide. “Can you believe it? Look how big I’ve gotten!”
Mrs. Larson hadn’t made much of an effort to decorate – just a vase of yellow carnations on the coffee table – but at least she served iced lemonade and finger sandwiches, egg salad and deviled ham on Wonder bread with the crusts cut off. They tasted heavenly to me. “Eating for two!” I said as I pinched second helpings from the platter, along with a small slice of Marietta’s Jell-O mold to be polite. There were games, starting with Scrambled Words which Eileen had copied herself on pieces of school paper. I gripped my pencil in utter confusion as the others quickly translated the nonsense – eantlbk, ifearpc, eiradp, and teisbans – into blanket, pacifier, diaper, and bassinet. The prize was a wax paper pouch of pastel mints.
Next, as I recall, was some kind of memory game with objects on a tray, and then Mrs. Larson placed on the coffee table a naked plastic baby doll, a box of Kleenex, and a few silver safety pins. As the mother-to-be, I was the first one blindfolded with a big cloth dinner napkin that Mrs. Iverson tied so tightly onto my head that I could feel my temples throb. “No peeking!” she screeched with sudden hilarity, but the cloth was so dense I couldn’t if I’d tried. The ladies laughed as I fumbled, trying to diaper the slippery doll with the flimsy tissue, and downright howled with merriment each time I pricked my fingers with the pin and bleated in pain, stabbing hopelessly at the doll’s torso.
Next Mrs. Larson clapped her hands, telling Eileen to clear away the games. Time for gifts! The church ladies helped carry the presents to the coffee table, and trusty Eileen sat beside me with her steno pad and pencil, ready to transcribe each gift and its giver for the record.
Baby gifts back then were rarely extravagant; nothing like the all-terrain jogging strollers and pop-up infant gyms you see nowadays. I received a hand-embroidered bib from Mrs. Swanson and a small variety of useful items, as I recall, from Darvell’s Pharmacy. A few onesies in white and yellow (no one knew the gender of the baby beforehand, of course, in those days), some baby bottles, and a small stuffed teddy bear from Eileen, which Becky informed me was from the both of them.
“My turn,” said Marietta. She clasped her hands in front of her flat chest, which was her habit before making an announcement or declaration of any kind. Then she held up one finger. “I’ll be right back.”
She disappeared down the hallway.
“She brought her gift over on Sunday, Willa,” Mrs. Larson said with conspiratorial glee, “so you’d be surprised!”
Marietta reentered carrying a huge rectangular box wrapped in baby blue paper that almost matched her outfit. With dramatic flair she lowered it onto the coffee table before me as everyone leaned in. Eileen snipped off the shiny white ribbon and added it to the paper plate hat she was making. I ripped off the paper and opened the lid to see a beautiful layette of blue with mint-green accents, all knitted by hand, of course, by Marietta. The Abiding Savior ladies oohed and aahed, their hands in a flurry to spread out the items on the table before me: two blankets, one large and one small, two little sweaters with hats and booties to match, one set in blue and one in green. She had her heart set, my mother-in-law, on a grandson.
“Those little teeny tiny stiches!” chirped Mrs. Larson. “Look at all those jillions of teeny tiny little stiches! How did you ever do all that?”
“Perseverance, dear,” Marietta said, with a satisfied tilt of her chin. “Just one row after another.”
Eileen and Becky started stuffing crumpled wrapping paper in a trash bag while the church ladies refolded the layette; Mrs. Larson excused herself to see to the coffee service in the kitchen.
Within minutes, it seemed, the gifts were swept away, replaced by coffee service and cake, a Duncan Hines angel food glazed with pink icing on one side and blue on the other. Eileen put the crown of bows on my head, securing it with a ribbon tied under my chin, and served me the first slice. Pink frosting only, I requested. Everybody clapped as I took the first bite, my taste buds overcome with sweetness. That was when Mrs. Iverson said, “There’s nothing in the world like having your first baby.”
With that the room suddenly stilled, a sort of a preparatory hush; side conversations ceased and the ladies shifted in their seats with a communal inhale, like the congregation in their pews at Abiding Savior Lutheran right before the recitation of Apostle’s Creed.
“It was the dark of night,” Mrs. Iverson began, and the ladies exhaled. “In the middle of a blizzard. February eighteenth, 1924. It wasn’t supposed to be my time, oh no, not till April, that’s what my doctor said, and I was supposed to go to the hospital in advance. My father’s farm was successful, and no daughter of his was going to give birth in a barn, so to speak, like the common folk. But I’ll never forget it. That pain that grabs you from the inside and just pulls like some kind of devil – no, a thousand tiny devils all with their own pitchforks, stabbing you all over your belly from the inside.”
“Stabbing and stabbing,” echoed old Mrs. Swanson.
The ladies seemed to have heard it before, all nodding and exclaiming in unsurprised voices as Mrs. Iverson continued her tale. She and her young husband had lived on the edge of her parents’ farm in a cute little bungalow her father had made for them out of a former hen house. “Run for my Mama! Run for my Mama!”
Eileen clutched her knees on the sofa beside me and gasped as Mrs. Iverson flailed her arms in the air, reenacting her drama. Her poor husband was so frantic he forgot to put shoes on as he ran in his socks across the snow-covered fields to the main farmhouse for help, and for weeks after Mrs. Iverson’s first daughter was born right there on her living room floor, both of his pinky toes stayed black from frostbite.
“Weeks and weeks,” Marietta affirmed, as if she’d witnessed the discolored pinkies with her very own eyes.
Then Mrs. Swanson lifted one of her liver-spotted hands, holding it in the air as if for benediction, and all eyes turned to her. “In my day,” she began.
Her voice started out waveringly but gained stamina and speed as she continued – in her day, nobody went to the hospital, no, if you were lucky you had your mother or grandmother or a neighbor in the bedroom with you who knew a little something about how to help you through. In her day, mothers died, babies died, it happened all the time, and the fact that she herself was sitting before us today, sixty-four years after birthing her first son, was indeed a miracle. She’d bled and bled, the blood gushing out of her body like a river, a river with no other source than her heart – her very heart and soul were flowing away, away from her with her very life. All of the ladies’ heads were nodding together now, pumping like cylinders in one machine that urged along old Mrs. Swanson’s voice to the end of her story: “And I said, just as clear as a silver bell even as I was losing consciousness, I said, Let me go, let me go if you must, but save my baby…save my baby!”
With a dramatic pause, she pointed her bony finger at me and Eileen and Becky, who had both shifted closer to me on the sofa without me noticing till now. I felt their shoulders pressing against mine on either side of me, heard their quickened breathing in the air by my face. I think we knew in that moment, the three of us, that I was really leaving them. Their world, that is. Crossing over to some other side of womanhood.
“You girls,” said old Mrs. Swanson, shaking her finger. “Do you know how lucky you are? To live in this age of modern medicine? You’ll never have to know that kind of torture.”
Mrs. Larson pranced around the coffee table in elfin-like steps to pat Eileen on the shoulder. “That’s true! I don’t remember a thing. Not a blessed thing!” She smiled and sliced the remaining wedge of angel cake into slivers for the ladies’ seconds.
“I felt nothing but joy,” concurred Marietta, “when I finally opened my eyes and they brought him to me. My Norman. My sweet son! They removed him by Caesarean, just one neat incision, and they lifted him right out, easy as pie from the oven. The doctor couldn’t believe that a woman of such narrow frame” –here my mother-in-law paused to fold her hands and place them neatly on her lap between her slim hips – “could bring such a big, strapping baby boy into the world.”
Becky Sundlist said, “I’ve got to get home. We’ve got a math test tomorrow, and my mom is helping me do flashcards.”
“Flashcards!” exclaimed Mrs. Iverson, as if this was something new-fangled and marvelous.
“I’ll walk you, “ Eileen said, and I felt my neck heat up because I knew they were going to talk about me, once they headed down the sidewalk together. The party was breaking up, the church ladies also taking their leave, and I suddenly felt like I might start to cry. Mrs. Larson was at the door saying her hostess goodbyes.
I sat on the sofa as long as I could, still wearing my paper plate crown.
Yesterday, I remembered, sitting on that canvas sofa at the brewery, waving to my grandson on the lawn with his friends as they threw giant sponge darts at a Velcro target, sweet and beautiful and perhaps terrified. I took a breath, readying to push myself up from the low-slung sofa with as much grace as I could muster at my age, and just in that instant, I remembered:
How I’d steadied myself with my hands on the hugeness of my stomach, feeling my baby suddenly take a turn inside. The front door was wide open. I could see old Mrs. Swanson stepping slowly down the driveway to her station wagon with her car keys clutched in one hand, and Marietta following behind carrying her Tupperware with the leftover Jell-O. There was nothing else for me to do then. I took a last slow breath, getting ready, and followed them through.
About the Author:
Leslie Johnson’s fiction has been broadcast on NPR, selected for anthologies, and published in numerous literary magazines including The Threepenny Review, Glimmer Train, Colorado Review, Third Coast, december, Cimarron Review and the current issue of The Flexible Persona. Winner of the 2017 Pushcart Prize, her work appears in the “best of Pushcart prose” anthology, Love Stories for Turbulent Times (Pushcart Press, Jan. 2018). Leslie teaches at the University of Hartford and conducts workshops for the Connecticut Office of the Arts. She is a recipient of the CT State 2018 Literary Arts Fellowship Grant.