I was five years old when my mother asked one day "Would you like to come
with me to see Uncle Paul and Aunt Martha's baby?"
I loved babies and welcomed any chance to hold one. I knew how to support the baby's head so it would not wobble and keep the feet covered so the baby wouldn't catch a chill. If someone set the baby over my shoulder I could even burp a baby and I knew several lullabies -- Rock A Bye Baby, By Baby Bunting, How Much Is That Doggie In The Window? and Sleep, Baby, Sleep While Jesus Watches The Sheep. If there was a baby to be held I was ready.
Best of all, my favorite cousin, Becky -- just eight months older than me -- was Uncle Paul and Aunt Martha's daughter.
"Yes, I want to go see the baby! I want to play with Becky!"
"We're not going there to play. We're just going to see the baby," my mother replied. "Are you sure you want to go?"
I was sure. I figured there would be some time for playing.
So after supper I had a bath and put on the dress my mother had laid out on my bed. It was a church dress and since we weren't going to church I knew we were going to a party. Maybe there would be cake. I loved going to grown-up parties like bridal showers, weddings receptions and baby showers.
"Is the baby a boy or a girl?" I asked on the way.
"They had a little girl," my mother answered.
I was glad -- I favored girl babies.
We didn't go to Uncle Paul and Aunt Martha's house, but to someone else's. In one of the rooms several rows of folding chairs had been set up. Becky was sitting on one of them.
"I'm going to find Martha," my mother said. "You can go sit with Becky."
I went over to Becky and sat down beside her. "Do you want to play?" I asked.
"I can't play today," answered Becky. "Do you want to see the baby?"
I said I did and she took me over to a bassinet. It was draped in rows of white lace ruffles. The baby girl was dressed in a long white lacy dress.
I looked at the baby sleeping so quietly. Not even moving a little bit. Not even a little bit. . . . Was this some kind of trick?
"That's not a real baby," I said. "She's not even moving! It's just a doll."
"It is a real baby!" Becky answered. "She's not moving because she was born still."
"Maybe if we pick her up and rock her she'll wake up," I suggested helpfully.
"She can't wake up; she was born dead," Becky said.
I don't know why my mother did not explain to me about the baby before we went to see her. Perhaps she did and I just did not comprehend.
I wondered what they were going to do with the baby. Would they keep her in the bassinet all the time? Would Aunt Martha hold her sometimes? I hoped so.
When we went home my mother said the funeral was the next day and asked me if I would like to come, but that I didn't have to if I didn't want. I was not exactly sure what a funeral was, but I said I wanted to go.
I figured my mother had forgotten to buy a present for the baby. I knew you were supposed to bring a present for a new baby. So I went through my toys and chose a tiny, cherished pink terry cloth bunny. Bunny had spent quite a lot of time in mud puddles and the sandbox and was a bit bedraggled and the worse for wear from trips through the washing machine. If love makes real, terry cloth is as real as velveteen. I put Bunny in my purse.
At the church the baby was in a little white box on a table at the front, surrounded by flowers. After the service we went up front to see the baby again. Uncle Paul and Aunt Martha and Becky were standing beside the baby. I opened my purse and took out Bunny.
"I brought Bunny for the baby," I said.
Aunt Martha made a strangled sound and turned away.
Uncle Paul took Bunny and said, "I'll put Bunny right here," and laid the mud stained stuffed rabbit in the little white box with the baby.
From the church we went to the cemetery. There was more talking about Heaven and angels Then they put the little white box in the ground -- the little white box with the baby in it!
What were they doing? I was shocked and confused and horrified. How could they do something like that? She would get cold! She would be sad all alone with no one to hold her and sing to her!
"Why are they putting the baby in the ground" I asked my mother. "If they don't want her we can take her home! She can sleep in my doll bed-- she's little."
My mother hushed me. "The baby isn't there anymore. The angels took her to Heaven."
I thought this was like a magic trick -- they put the baby in the box and said ABRACADABRA! and the baby disappeared and went to Heaven. But were they sure?
On the way home I asked my mother if they were sure the baby was gone.
Of course my mother thought I meant "dead" when I said "gone" and she answered that "The baby never took a breath -- she was still born."
"No, I mean -- are they sure she's gone out of the box?"
"What are you talking about?" my mother asked.
"You said she wasn't in the box anymore, that the angels took her to Heaven. Did anyone look in the box to make sure she was really gone?"
"She is really gone to Heaven," my mother insisted. She didn't want to talk about it anymore.
For months I cried over that tiny girl, often seemingly out of the blue, sometimes waking from nightmares about a small white box. This was my first encounter with death, my first realization that a child could die.
My mother and I never spoke about it; I sensed that it was a subject forever closed with her. Sometimes, though, when Becky and I played house we pretended that one of us had a baby that the doctor thought was born still, but when we held the baby and sang, love made the baby wake.
Emily Hart has appeared in publications such as Denali, A Room Of One's Own, Bluepepper, Fireweed, Groundwaters, Storyhouse and others. Currently she makes her home in Southern Oregon, weeding star thistles, baking bread for the birds who come to her balcony, gazing at the sunset through the haze of smoke during the forest fire season and writing, always writing.