At some point growing up, I became aware that before giving birth to my five brothers and sisters and me (the youngest), Mom and Dad had had another child. Her name was Mary and she had been stillborn after the umbilical cord had wrapped around her neck.
I never thought much about Mary until I became older and started having friends who were pregnant, or who had lost their own babies. How horrible it must have been for my mother, in the early 50s when these things weren't proper topics of conversation -- or even public grieving -- to go into the hospital to have a baby and come home alone. People would have seen her pregnant and then later, childless. I'm sure they wouldn't have said anything to her face, but whispered among themselves, "Poor Margaret!" And Mom would have felt ashamed and guilty, regardless of the fact it wasn't her fault. On top of it all, the doctors told her not to have any more children, which would have been crushing for a woman who wanted so much to be a mother. (Luckily for me, and all my siblings, Mom continued to ignore the doctors' orders. Or perhaps she didn't have a choice, being Catholic and all and no approved birth control in sight.)
I don't even know Mary's birthday, though I seem to remember it was in August, like mine. Did Mom think of her on that day each year? Or did she get so wrapped up in her ensuing six children that she pushed the tragedy aside in her mind, like so many other women must have?
Not long before my dad died last summer, I asked him about Mary. He told me how, at the time, he and Mom were living in their first apartment, upstairs from their landlord. And how at Christmas, the landlord's wife had noticed the third little stocking tacked up on the faux fireplace that my dad transformed his desk (now my desk) into every year. That would have been my dad's doing, I believe. I imagine my mom, who wouldn't have been showing, I don't think, putting her hand to her belly and being embarrassed but proud and happy, and also maybe a bit superstitious about someone finding out so early in her pregnancy.
Dad also told me something I had not known -- they hadn't named the baby. In fact, I don't believe Mom ever got to see her or hold her. It was Dr. Forman, who delivered all of us, who named the baby Mary on the death certificate, after my maternal grandmother.
Today, I was thinking about my screwed-up family and wondering how it would have been different if Mary had lived -- because with today's technology, she would have. They would have been able to tell, most likely, the danger of the umbilical cord, and performed a C-section or something in time to save her.
Mary would be about 55. I picture her like my Aunt Lib was -- proper and stern, with short gray hair and glasses that would hang on a chain around her neck. Maybe she would have kids. But I doubt it somehow. I think of her in a 50s-era navy blue wool suit with white gloves. She and I would have a special bond, because with the big age difference, she would have fussed over me as a baby and felt a motherly attachment for me from then on. But she wouldn't let me get away with anything -- she would call me on my crap.
And instead of my oldest brother and sister -- S&S -- being appointed executors of my parents' wills, it would have been Mary and another sibling. No-nonsense Mary would have sniffed out the beginnings of our ever-changing, ad hoc alliances and petty grievances and administered a virtual slap on the hand as needed. No one would have walked away with a cent or any item from Dad's house until she had agreed it was fair. With a seventh child, we could have had a tie-breaker.
And now, I would be able to search pictures and other documents for clues to the lives of a man and woman with whom I got the shortest amount of time. And I could see pictures of their parents, who all died before I was born, and begin to fill in some missing pieces of exactly who I am, where I came from and where I'm going.
Below: Mom holding me, the last of the bunch. Love the checkered tablecloth. Whose big head is in the way??