Pamela Gwyn Kripke
As a child, my mother fell asleep listening to the adults at the end of the hall. It was the 1940s, when relatives visited each other in the evenings and sat up and talked. They spoke about the baby, sometimes, the baby boy who arrived a few years earlier than she did, with blue eyes and his mother’s skin, pearly and light.
He slept in the hospital nursery, as all infants did then. The nurses brought him to my grandmother at feeding time, delivered on a cart with the other newborns, in a row, swaddled up. Weighing nearly ten pounds, he was positioned on the end, where there would have been more room.
After a few days, he didn’t come. Instead, doctors asked my grandfather to give blood. They didn’t tell him why, even while the tubing ran from his arm. Soon after, they said that the baby was dead. Without warning. Without reason. Your baby is dead. Your just-born healthy baby boy is dead. My grandparents begged, wailed, pleaded, but no one said anything. Not ever.
From her bedroom down the hall, curled up in evening’s grainy haze, my mother heard the rise and fall of voices, the careful words, the jittery words. The theories. She heard what her father came to believe but could not prove, that the baby rolled off the end of the cart to the floor. That he rolled off the cart, and no one was there to catch him.
During the course of a routine conversation when I was eight, so routine that I cannot place its day or time or location, my mother told me the story. She said she didn’t know for certain what had happened, when it happened, if the infant had a name, even. But the voices sailed through the hall and into her consciousness. The voices said the baby was robust and pink, but then he was dead.
Maybe there was no room in the middle of the cart for a baby of ten pounds, or maybe the nurses thought he’d push one of the smaller ones off the edge, what with his strong big-baby arms. There were no sides to the cart, no wall to roll into on a fast trip, a swervy trip, a careless trip. It was like a cart in a library, I imagined, or something from a restaurant kitchen. Maybe they used it to distribute meatloaf and peas when they didn’t pile babies on it, when they didn’t press them arm to arm like hotdogs in cellophane. Like cigars in a box. Anyway, my mother said she didn’t get out of her bed and ask the people about her brother, and she didn’t even say that he was her brother. He was the baby. The dead baby. Hush. Don’t say anything. Don’t repeat this. Don’t ask a soul or say that you know. It will only make Grandma Lilly upset. Again. We don’t want to upset her again.
There was no lead-up to the story, no situation that needed explaining, no rationale for the tale to be told. We could have been talking about vegetable soup, or dancing class. We could have been baking a cake and cutting it into shapes and turning it into an elephant, following the directions in the blue booklet, with the drawings of the lions and bears. We could have been saying or doing exactly nothing.
It’s entirely possible that my mother simply said, So, You know what happened? Grandma Lilly had a baby and the baby died, and Papa Sam chased a nurse down the street, right down the street to ask her why. But she ran away, she ran away fast, so fast that he never caught up.
It’s entirely possible that my mother said that, that she looked at me with her deep brown eyes and in a swoop, flung open a curtain, snapped up a shade, revealed a world that I didn’t know existed, or could exist, so close to my family. So close to me.
The number of U.S. ground troops in Vietnam peaked in 1968. My dad turned on the television every night after dinner, and I saw the war footage. Soldiers, in black and white. Trenches, smoke, helmets. I remember the helmets. The guns, the reporters shouting over the noise. My parents let me watch, even though I was only in second grade. Maybe because I was in second grade. Not a toddler, not a teenager, but old enough, important enough. No sheltering here.
Bad things happened, I knew, from watching the screen, from hearing about wounds my surgeon dad sewed up at night while we slept. But they happened elsewhere, where there were jungles and enemies, or where Presidents had motorcades, or black pastors stood on balconies, defenseless. They didn’t happen on Rolling Way.
The 1960s was around us, the suburban barbecues, the go-go boots, the air raid drills. We sat under the curved staircase on the lower floor of Ward Elementary, a hundred kids cross-legged on the terrazzo tile, the yellow fallout shelter sign on the wall above us. We weren’t told exactly what it was for, but the whirling black triangles didn’t mean a fire or a bad storm. They didn’t signify something familiar. So, we sat under the staircase, protecting ourselves from something different, something from far away, something that could reach us in our classrooms but not under the stairs. Watch out. Duck and cover.
Still, despite the mixed signals and vague explanations, I felt certain that nothing would fall on our heads at Ward Elementary, not a bomb from the Soviet Union, not a rocket ship from Mars, not the roof from a hurricane. There was unrest in places, but in my neighborhood, my house, my bedroom, I was safe.
It was in town that Papa Sam recognized the nurse, months after the baby died. Was he there alone? Was he with my grandmother? Did he turn to her and say, “Lilly, Stay here. Don’t move.” Did he take her with him by the hand, her charm bracelet sensing the pace? Or did she say, “Sam, Don’t run. Leave it alone, let it be?”
The story my mother heard claims that he got close enough to ask a question, to project it down the Belle Harbor sidewalk, but that it dropped to the pavement, unanswered. Seeing him coming towards her, weaving through pedestrians, maybe, picking up speed, maybe, feeling desperate, maybe, the nurse fled, turned a corner, lost him. That, alone, was confirmation, the voices said at the end of the hall in my mother’s house. That, alone, proved that something had gone awry, the people claimed, their assertions whooshing across her room and into her ears. A compassionate nurse, a person who knew a man had endured an excruciating loss, would embrace the man, would see him coming and hold out her arms. A nurse who was not aware of something to conceal would not run. A nurse who was aware of something to conceal would not have run, unless she panicked. Nothing about her actions on the street in town gave solace to my grandfather. Nothing about her response led him to think that his infant died a natural death.
I found a baby bunny in our backyard. At the end of the lawn, our property rose up into The Hill, an expansive, tiered incline. We didn’t hike it every time we were in the yard or plan ahead to make the journey. The urge came without warning, finding us between whacks of the badminton birdie or pendulums on the swing. Exploration, conquest, the pull of the wild. My older brother Ben and I felt the lure of nature, of flora and fauna, even if that lure was confined within the property lines behind our split-level in New Rochelle, New York. Our suburban expeditions up the hill, scaling pachysandra, stone, and soil, were monumental treks, to us, feats of daring and strength. I ran inside to put on socks, as Mom had planted low-lying shrubs with prickers.
The hill was terraced, the levels marked off horizontally with walls of gray rock, about a foot high. We began at one end of the yard, near the fence that separated our lawn from that of our neighbors, the Brants. Methodical kids, we traversed the width of the hill, pivoted at the end, and proceeded onto the higher altitude, weaving our way like yarn in a loom. It was not often that we hopped levels, unless Jimmy Brant accompanied us skyward. Jimmy Brant pushed the limits.
The bunny was by itself near the bottom of the hill, no family in sight. I picked her up and pulled her to my stomach. She was small, no more than six inches long, brown and gray and soft. Her ears stood straight up, and her eyes were sweet and bright, ringed in white fur. She didn’t try to get away.
I carried her across the yard to the steps that led up to the kitchen door, and from the bottom, I called to my parents. In the garage, my mom found a cardboard box, into which I placed grass and twigs and leaves, lettuce, carrots, water in a dish. Ben and I had wanted a dog, but my parents rejected the responsibility of that, thinking that we were too young to take care of a warm-blooded being and not wanting the chore themselves. So, we had goldfish and turtles, animals in bowls that we could not caress or talk to face-to-face or walk on a string, animals in bowls that required a sprinkling of food, and not much else. Knowing this, defying this, I put my hand into the water anyway, attempting to make contact, to create a bond, to love my pet and be loved back.
The bunny was a cuddly mammal, as close to a dog as I’d gotten, and it entered my life willingly. And crazily, in retrospect, as my parents didn’t object. City folk–and city folk who did not grow up with cats or puppies in their homes–my mother and father had little rapport with the Kingdom.
The next day, we went to the pet store and bought a cage for my wild animal. It had an aqua metal base and chrome slats. I put the bunny through the door, along with her water and vegetables. She explored her home, and I sat on the garage floor and watched as my new friend adjusted. This was going to be fantastic.
When my mother told me about the baby who died, I was confused, but mainly frightened. I had become accustomed to her unconventional nature, her breaking of rules, but this was different. I felt thrown, the way she probably had, when the voices sailed the air into her room decades earlier. But unlike the way she found out, my mother chose to reveal the information to me. It wasn’t an accident. I couldn’t understand why she told me not only about the fact of the occurrence, but also what were thought to be its violent details. Why did I need to know? Or why, more likely, did she need to let out the story, to hear it said, in her own hushed voice, like a secret, only to warn me to keep it one. To not tell my grandparents that I knew, as she had done. To load me up at eight years old with a scary death of a person who could have been an uncle, who could have looked like my mom, or me, who could have painted or sewed, as we did, who could have crossed his arms that way, our way, when he walked. Did I need to know about it, about him, for some reason, a reason about which she was not aware? Was she trying to make sense of it, after so many years, saying it out loud? She was likely the same age when she found out. Did she want me to have the identical experience? The identical horrible experience? My mother had friends, colleagues, many other grown people with whom she could have shared the story. But she told it to me. Why me?
On my bunny’s third day, I took her out of her aqua cage and carried her around our property. She didn’t seem to want to jump away, but I didn’t put her on the grass, just to be safe. In my mind, she was mine. I had made her mine, determined that she would stay with me because I wanted her to. I didn’t put her down, just to be safe, safe for me, for my emotions, which had become entwined in possessing the rabbit, in dictating her whereabouts, her activities, her relationships, her very life.
We had freedoms as children. We rode our bikes until dark, wherever we wanted to go, except for the big streets. No Quaker Ridge Road. No Victory Boulevard. We went outside to play and returned hours later, having visited our neighbors’ houses, gone to the school playground, run through sprinklers. I suppose that a lot of what we did at this age, in these times, was dictated by feel, but we also made decisions. We weighed pros and cons, we considered what we knew our parents would advise or advise against. We were not mischievous, and we did not view our freedom as an opportunity to be disobedient or reckless. Maybe my parents knew this and trusted that we’d manage the choices that materialized during our adventures. They exerted pressure when it came to school, but in our leisure life, they believed that we should make our own fun. So, we scaled the hill, hid under the Brants’ willow tree, caught wild rabbits. Caught wild rabbits.
On the fourth morning, I went into the garage to check on my bunny, to feed her fresh lettuce and fill up her water bowl. Still in my pajamas, I pressed open the electric door and walked to her cage, morning light spreading across the floor. She had been awake when I arrived on the previous days, roused by the rumbling of the door or more likely by an innate internal clock. She had looked at me and sniffed through the bars. This day, she lay on her side. I dropped to my knees on the cement. Her body was still. I called to her, afraid of what she looked like. I was horrified. Guilty. Panicked. All of it.
I screamed for my parents and ran inside to find them. My father had left for the hospital, and my mom was in the kitchen making breakfast. She followed me to the garage, picked up the aqua cage and took it away, disappearing around the side of the house. I stood by myself, sobbing, shaking. When she came back, she said something about keeping a wild animal captive, how it wasn’t a good idea, and she went back to the kitchen.
I was an obedient child. I would have said Okay, I will let the bunny go back to the hill. I would have been disappointed, but I would have let the bunny go back to the hill, and I would have understood that it was where she was from and where she needed to be, that somewhere on the hill, her mother was waiting. I would have understood that and wanted to return her. I would have scrounged the hill for her mother, brown and gray and just a bit bigger, a bit fatter. I would have swept aside the thorny bushes, peered between layers of rock. I would have made it my mission to reunite the wild animals, and I would have done it, or done something close. But no one told me it wasn’t a good idea to capture a wild rabbit, and no one told me he was sorry when she died.
My mother put the aqua cage on the shelf that ran the width of the garage, holding beach chairs and winter boots. Each time I got into her car, I saw the chrome bars flash as the electric door opened behind us, pommeling me in the stomach, making me wince and look away. One day after school, I dragged a cooler over to the shelf, stood on top of it holding a broom and jabbed the cage until it was out of view.
Pamela Gwyn Kripke
Pamela Gwyn Kripke’s essays, news and feature stories have appeared in many publications, including The New York Times, The Chicago Tribune, The Chicago Sun-Times, The Dallas Morning News, The Huffington Post, Slate, Salon, Medium, New York Magazine, ElleandD Magazine. Her fiction and creative nonfiction have been published or are forthcoming in Folio, The Concrete Desert Review, The Barcelona Review, Brilliant Flash Fiction, Book of Matches,The Woven Tale Press and Doubleback Review.