May 29, 2010
It starts with a birth and finishes with a death. That’s the usual way, the only way, really. And for my mother, Bonnie Gandstetter, it was almost a short story—a life six-weeks long, coming to a near-end in a snow shower outside a bar in Reading, Pennsylvania.
My grandmother, Billie, was twenty when Bonnie was born. Bonnie was a fine baby: round head, wide green eyes, an inscrutable gaze. She was content to loll on the braided rug with the dogs, two liver-colored pointers who would lick the dried formula off her face. Sometimes she’d give a whistling holler and whir her arms and legs like rotors. The dogs watched her tiny limbs as if they were humming birds, and often Billie wondered how many minutes she’d have to leave the room before a dog snatched one of those humming birds in his mouth.
The rule in the house was that you don’t pick up a kid and cuddle it. If it cries, you let it cry. You feed it one bottle every four hours for six weeks, at which point you drop the night feedings. Never kiss the child and never talk to it in anything other than a voice as flat and firm as a sheet of aluminum. The last thing Billie had wanted was a spoiled child. And the last thing my grandfather, Otto, had wanted was a child who was not a boy.
Otto had little use for girls and women, although he had always been fond of Billie who was female but not frilly in any way. Billie wore slacks at a time most women were in dresses. She had a delicate, simple face, but her backbone was as rigid as her temperament. My grandfather liked to say that Billie was as unbreakable as an iron rod.
A month and a half after my mother was born, while Billie was still recovering from the delivery, Otto decided that he and Billie needed to go out for a drink. Instead of taking the truck, Otto took the convertible Buick Century with the top folded down like a giant accordion into the nook behind the opera seat. It was cold out, about forty degrees, with a sky as clear as glass. Otto had read the almanac that morning—it was sitting next to the toilet where Billie had left it for him—and it said there’d be no more snow in Pennsylvania until next December. Otto, like most people, considered the almanac a solid prophecy of the weather, certainly more reliable than the old Pennsylvania Dutch women who thought they could tell you anything by simply scraping their claws along the bark of an elm.
Otto placed baby Bonnie, nestled in her white wicker basinet, on the opera seat of the Buick. Billie told me that she remembers looking down at Bonnie for a second, noting with distaste the way she pursed her lips as if she’d just bitten into a lemon. Then she sat in the front seat without glancing back again.
Otto stood outside the car, his head tilted as he looked at the baby.
“I’ll tell ya Billie,” Otto said, and he laughed at what he was about to say. “If I hadn’t seen you change a diaper, I’d swear this was a boy, ‘cause this is one goddamn ugly little thing!” He tugged down the pink patchwork quilt that covered his daughter and examined her. Bonnie was bound so tightly in her receiving blanket that she resembled a cocoon with a face. Otto pulled the quilt back over Bonnie, up to her chin, then patted the blue crochet cap on her head that Billie had made when she was pregnant.
“Well let’s hope she’s not that ugly by the time she needs to get married,” Billie said.
“Let’s hope she’s not that ugly by the time she starts talking to me!” Otto swung open the giant, wide door and got into the car. He listened to the thrum of the engine for a moment before he shifted into first gear and, releasing the clutch smartly, pulled away from the curb.
As they cruised down the nearly empty road, Billie looked out at the bare trees, the dirt-brown grass in the fields between houses, the bald smudge of sun lowering on the horizon. I imagine she pulled her silk scarf tight around her neck then tucked the tail into the front of her blue wool coat. The wind had a bite in it sharp as a thistle, but Billie knew better than to ask that Otto put the top up on the car. Otto always said, if he had wanted to ride around with a roof over his head he wouldn’t have bought the damn thing.
About twenty minutes later Otto pulled into the parking lot of Buck’s Inn. He and Billie hadn’t been there since Bonnie was born as Billie hadn’t been up to going out and Otto, when he left the house without Billie, always met up with his five brothers who liked to drink at the local Redding bar. As usual, Otto parked the car away from the other vehicles whose owners might ding the sides of the burgundy Buick while drunkenly opening their doors. When he got out of the car, he stretched and surveyed his surroundings as if it were all his. And in a way it was all his. Otto owned a beer distributing business, shipping beer from Maine to the Mississippi river (with a stop at Buck’s Inn along the way). He was one of the richest men in town, a fact he never had to prove, as Reading, back in 1939 was a relatively small town.
Billie got out of the Buick without waiting for her husband to open the door for her; she walked across the dirt and gravel parking lot toward the inn. Otto paused, glanced at the baby in her basinet then looked up at the sky that had turned the color of a fresh bruise. He decided that Bonnie would be fine, wound in her blanket like a spool of thread, under the patchwork quilt and the scrappy red maple that bowed toward the car. Billie was waiting for him at the open door of Buck’s Inn—he jogged to catch up to her.
“You had that baby now, didn’t ya?” Roy asked, when Billie and Otto walked in. He was the bartender, a big man with a nose as red and round as a cherry tomato.
“Yup,” Billie said, settling onto a wooden stool. “A girl.”
“What’d’ya name her?”
“Bonnie,” Billie said, peering behind Roy to see what kinds of liquor he had lined up back there.
“She’s an ugly thing!” Otto shouted, as he sat beside his wife. Roy and the few other men hunched on their barstools let out bold, honking laughs.
“Well here’s to your ugly little girl!” Tom Kunkle said, lifting his mug. He was at the end of the bar, but everyone was talking loudly enough for the whole, small, murky room to hear.
It was dinnertime but neither Billie nor Otto was hungry. They were drinking scotch and when that got too heavy for Billie she changed over to scotch with a bit of milk in it. Roy put out a jar of six pickled eggs. They ate them all without thinking, tasting, or even taking note that they were actually eating. When Roy didn’t refill the jar, neither Billie nor Otto asked for more.
At ten p.m., a few more people stumbled into the bar, men who had been drinking at Earl’s down the street. Earl closed his doors early, his wife liked him in bed with her, he told his customers, and this fact made her seem sexy to everyone in town. Billie looked at Otto, her head wobbling the way Bonnie’s did when Billie picked her up.
“I think six weeks without a drink has made me a little intolerant,” Billie said.
“You suddenly getting light-weight on me?” Otto said. He rarely asked a question with the intention of getting an answer.
“Maybe we should take a room and let me sleep this off,” Billie said, and she wobbled off her stool and staggered toward the stairs leading up to the hotel guest quarters.
“Roy!” Otto shouted. “Do you have a spare room?”
Roy was wiping clean the glasses that were stacked beside the sink. He reached for a key hanging on a board of hooks above the cash register.
“Number seven,” Roy said, tossing the key over the bar to Otto. “If Mary wakes you up in the morning, just tell her Roy said you can sleep in as long as you’d like.”
“Put the room on my tab,” Otto said, and he staggered up the stairs behind his wife.
My grandmother told me that the next morning when she woke up, she sat up straight and looked toward the window that was like a sheet of glaring white light. She gasped as if she’d just received a blow to the stomach, then choked for a second. It felt like something might actually come up.
“Otto.” She would have yelled but there wasn’t breath enough in her to do so. Billie pushed my grandfather on the chest, then staggered out of bed. She hopped on one leg as she tried to pull up her slacks with quaking arms.
My grandfather woke up. Looked at my grandmother. Her eyes were wild, her movements exaggeratedly spastic.
“JESUS CHRIST!” he said, and he flung the covers back, got out of bed and had his khakis on before Billie had finished shoving her bra and underpants into her black clasped handbag. They stumbled down the stairs together, Otto buttoning his flannel shirt, Billie struggling into her blue wool coat. The bar was empty, and the unlocked front door easily pushed open as they ran out.
The sun was so bright it was like a spotlight on their faces. And yet, it was snowing. A faint, powder-dry mist seemed to fall in slow motion, as my grandparents raced across the snowy gravel.
“Godammit!” Otto said, when he approached the car. He looked back and forth between the baby, whose face looked like a frosted glass plum, and the creamy leather seats now sparkling with white dust.
Billie made a sound like a rabbit’s guttural squeal as she pulled Bonnie from the basinet and tried to warm her against her chest under her wool coat. It was an impulse propelled by instinct, Billie told me, she couldn’t have reacted differently.
“Hurry up now,” she said, to Otto, as he took a few seconds to wipe the snow off the seats before starting the car. Billie could feel Bonnie’s lungs beating open and shut like flapping wings. The child was as silent as the sky.
They drove straight to Reading General Hospital, the wind and snow biting Billie’s face as she hunched over the baby against her breast. Again, Otto parked the car a good distance from any neighboring vehicles.
“Stay here, clean the seats and put the roof up,” Otto said. He took the baby from Billie’s arms, tossing away the snow-dappled quilt, then trotted into the hospital and up to the third floor where Bonnie had been born.
“My wife went to check on the baby,” Otto said, as he handed off Bonnie to a plump, red-cheeked nurse, “and found her like this.” Otto swore to me that he remembers every detail of these moments, even that the nurse wore clip-on gold earring that seemed much too fancy for a hospital.
The nurse put the back of her fleshy hand against Bonnie’s cold, purple cheek, gasped and rushed the baby away.
A few minutes later Dr. Whiteford came out to waiting room to talk to Otto. He was a few years older than Otto, but deferred to him out of the simple fact that his father, brother and aunt all worked for Gandstetter Beer Distributing. Otto and the doctor sat side by side on thick, wide wooden chairs.
“Were the windows open in the room?” the doctor asked, and he looked down at Otto’s knees.
“Probably,” Otto said. “Fresh air is good for them.”
“Crib right next to the window?”
“I don’t know,” Otto said, impatiently. And he tried to picture where her crib was in the room, as if the story were true.
“She must have kicked her blankets off,” the doctor said. “It was just like she was sleeping outdoors.”
“Is she dead?” Otto asked, and there was a thump in his belly as if someone had a hammer in there. He had never thought much about Bonnie and wasn’t surprised that he’d slept through the night without remembering that she was in the car. And Billie, well, give the woman a few drinks and she’d forget her own name. But whatever he felt about the child, he surely didn’t want her to die–not like this, at least; not because they’d had more than triple their share at Buck’s.
“She’s not deceased yet,” the doctor said, and he dropped his head as if he were repenting.
“Thing was as blue as a punched eye,” Otto said. “Never seen anything like that.” The hammer in his gut thumped two more times. If he had been alone he would have hunched over with the spasms.
“No, it’s not something you see very often.” Dr. Whiteford glanced at Otto.
“So how are you going to fix her?” Otto’s eyes were like darts.
“Well, she’s breathing, and her heart is beating, but her lungs are filled with fluid—the cold air, and she’s got a fever that would have killed a grown man already.”
“How could she be freezing and have a fever at the same time?” Otto scratched the back of his neck, squinting at the doctor.
“Her temperature was too low when you brought her in, but as she warmed up, her fever spiked—trying to kill the infection in her lungs.”
“Jesus Christ,” Otto moaned, “first she’s too cold, now she’s too hot. What am I going to tell her mother?”
“I’ve got a friend in Philadelphia and he’s sending over some penicillin.”
“Penicillin,” Otto repeated. He had never heard of it. Few people had heard of it. The drug had only
recently been developed and what little there was, was being stockpiled by the government in case the U.S. was to become part of the war overseas. Dr. Whiteford didn’t know if this new drug could be used on an infant or not—he wasn’t even sure if it could be used on an adult without killing him. But since the baby seemed as close to soulless as you can be while still breathing, there was little to lose.
“I’ve never given it to anyone before,” Dr. Whiteford said. “We might as well try.” The doctor stood and stuck out his hand for Otto to shake. My grandfather looked down at the hand and wished there were a scotch in there for him.