PART ONE – 1968
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 had 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, the doctors asked my grandfather to give blood. They didn’t tell him why, even while the tubing ran from his arm. Soon afterward, 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 had 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 had happened, if the infant even had a name. But the voices sailed through the hall and into her consciousness. They said that 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 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 together, arm to arm like hotdogs in cellophane. Like cigars in a box.
Anyway, my mother told me she didn’t get out of her bed and ask the people about her brother; 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 upset Grandma Lilly. Again. We don’t want to upset her again.
She gave me 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—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 nothing at all.
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 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 watched the war footage. Soldiers, in black and white. Trenches, smoke. Helmets. I remember the helmets, and the guns, and the reporters shouting over the noise. My parents let me see it, 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 could happen, I knew, from watching the screen, from hearing about wounds my surgeon dad sewed up at night while we slept. But they happened elsewhere, in places where there were jungles and enemies, or where Presidents had motorcades, or where black pastors stood on balconies, defenseless. They didn’t happen on Rolling Way.
The 1960s were all 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 we knew the whirling black triangles didn’t mean a fire or a bad storm. They didn’t signify something we had experienced. 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 some places, but my neighborhood, my house, my bedroom were all safe.
It was in town that Papa Sam recognized the nurse, in the weeks or months after the baby died. Was he there alone? Was he with my grandmother? Did he turn and say, “Lilly, stay here. Don’t move.” Did he take her with him by the hand, her charm bracelet marking 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 toward 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 something had gone awry. The assertions whooshed across my mother’s room and into her ears. A compassionate nurse, a person who knew a man had endured an excruciating loss, would embrace him, would see him coming and hold out her arms. A nurse who was not aware of something to conceal would not have run. Even a nurse who was aware of something to conceal would not have run, unless she’d panicked.
Nothing about her actions on the street gave solace to my grandfather. Nothing about her response led him to think that his infant had 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 up it every time we were in the yard, or plan ahead to make the journey. The urge would come 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 knew 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 to a higher altitude, weaving our way up like yarn in a loom. We rarely hopped levels, unless Jimmy Brant accompanied us skyward. Jimmy Brant pushed the limits. He would later become a music industry executive.
The bunny was by itself near the bottom of the hill, no family in sight. I picked her up and held her against 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 kitchen door and called to my parents. In the garage, my mom found a cardboard box, in 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 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 would 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, similar to a dog, and it entered my life willingly and—crazily, in retrospect—without parental prohibition. City folk, who had not grown 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-colored 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 through the air into her room decades earlier.
But that had been accidental, while my mother chose to reveal the information to me. I couldn’t understand why she told me not only about the fact of the death but also 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, and then warn me to keep it one—not to tell my grandparents that I knew, as she had done. Why load me up at eight years old with the scary death of a person who could have been an uncle, who could have looked like my mom, or me, who could have painted and sewed as we did, who could have crossed his arms that way, our way, when he walked? Did I need to know about him for some reason, a reason that she didn’t understand herself? Was she trying to make sense of the death, after so many years, by saying it out loud?
She had probably been the same age as I was now 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 cage and carried her around our property. She didn’t seem to want to jump away, but still, I didn’t put her on the grass. 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 because that wouldn’t have been 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 it got 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 that age, in those times, was dictated by feel, but we also made decisions. We weighed pros and cons, we considered what we knew our parents would advise, for or against. We did not intend to be mischievous, nor did we view our freedom as an opportunity to be disobedient or reckless. Maybe my parents knew this and trusted that we’d manage the choices we encountered during our adventures. They exerted pressure when it came to school, but in our leisure life they believed 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, the 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, 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. Horrified. Guilty. Panicked.
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 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. Then she went back to the kitchen.
I was an obedient child. I would have said, Okay, I’ll let the bunny go back to the hill. I would have been disappointed, but I would have understood that it was where she came 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 scoured 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 cage on the shelf over the hood of her car. It sat on the edge, among beach chairs and winter boots. Every time I went into the garage, I saw the chrome bars flash as the electric door rose, pummeling 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.
At the Seams is the story of an infant’s mysterious death in a New York hospital in the 1930s and the impact of the loss and its concealment on two generations of mothers to follow. The baby’s parents never discover why he died. They don’t investigate or contact authorities. All talk of the incident is kept quiet so as not to upset the devastated young mother.
Thirty-five years later, her second and only child reveals the story to her own daughter, who is just eight. Inquisitive and persistent, Kate tries to make sense of the death, confronting obstacles, confusions, and tests of loyalty along the way. Eventually, she gives up her search for the truth. It isn’t until she is a mother with a child of her own that she resumes the investigation, this time with skills developed as a newspaper reporter in North Carolina. Newly divorced and triggered by her own fears of maternal loss, Kate discovers details about the death that force an overdue confrontation with her mother, elicit revelations about another family secret, and unearth an intergenerational pattern of repression.
At the Seams is told in two parts. The first, which comprises about two-thirds of the book, encompasses Kate’s childhood and teenage years, when her grandparents are present in her life. The second takes place when she is nearly forty and trying to uncover what she can about her family’s past. The book is a tale of motherhood, sacrifice, and our need to protect those we love, as best as we can. It is based on true circumstances. The baby would have been my uncle.
Pamela Gwyn Kripke, a New Yorker, lives in Phoenixville, Pennsylvania. Her short stories, essays, and feature pieces have appeared or are forthcoming in Folio, The Woven Tale Press, The Barcelona Review, The Concrete Desert Review, Doubleback Review, Brilliant Flash Fiction, The New York Times, The Chicago Tribune, The Chicago Sun-Times, The Dallas Morning News, Slate, Salon, Medium, and other venues. She holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in English from Brown University and a Master of Science degree in Journalism from the Medill School at Northwestern. She was accepted to the Kenyon Review Writers Workshop for Summer 2022.
Embark, Issue 16, April 2022