|Being released on May 19, 2011|
The scream of a newborn is one of irritation. Every time a new brother or sister joined the family, his or her scream sounded as if he or she were complaining about the brightness of the light and the chill in the air – as if the world were not adjusted to his or her liking. The new baby’s cry was no different. I sighed in relief, certain everything was fine now that he or she had joined us in this not-quite-what-we-expect world.
After tucking all the younger children in – even my sister Penny, who was only a year younger than me – I tiptoed down the stairs hoping to catch a glimpse of the new baby. Peeking around the banister, I spied Mamma Perdita crying at the door to Mamma Barbara’s room, the baby already in her arms. I knew something was wrong: the baby should, by all rights, still be with the mamma who had given birth. When Perdita spotted me, she held a finger to her lips as she indicated I should go back upstairs with a tilt of her head. I climbed back up the stairs and into bed as quietly as I could. Pulling my blanket up to my chin, I wondered what terrible thing had happened.
Penny, who had not fallen asleep yet, whispered, “Did you see the mammas?”
I shook my head.
She closed her eyes and I soon heard soft snores from her bed. I don’t know how long I lay there before I heard footsteps on the stairs. I padded across the floor and opened my bedroom door. Father was down the hall, quietly pulling the door to Ulmer and Elmer’s room shut. He saw me and waved me over, a sad smile on his grizzled face. I hugged him tightly.
“Sweet Irene,” he cooed. “You are a prize beyond measure. Was it you who took care of the others last night?”
“Is Mamma Barbara okay?”
He shook his head sadly. “She’s very ill. We’re all worried about her. But don’t you worry too much. Mamma Una is taking good care of her, and if anyone can help her, she can.”
“What about the baby? I heard it crying earlier.”
He chuckled. “Healthy lungs on that one, eh? Yes, he’s fine.”
“What’s his name?”
“I haven’t decided yet. I’m hoping Mamma Barbara will wake up so we can discuss it.”
“She’s sleeping? That’s good right?”
He looked down at me with sad eyes. “I hope so.” He glanced at the clock on the wall between the rooms. “What time did you get them to sleep?”
“Not until the sun rose. Everyone was so scared.”
“Understandable. Go back to bed, Irene. No classes today, I’m afraid.”
“I can’t sleep, Father. May I go downstairs instead?”
He nodded and hugged me again. I walked down the stairs and into the kitchen, where I found Mamma Wanda humming and stirring oatmeal for the breakfast meal.
“Good morning, my darling girl,” she said, smiling.
“Good morning, Mamma.” Her cheerful demeanor made me wonder if Father was too worried about Mamma Barbara. Mamma Wanda was a skilled herbalist, having studied the many books Father brought to her from his trips into town. If anyone could cure Mamma Barbara, I was certain my mammas would be able to. “Can I help you with anything?”
“You could set the tables for us.”
“The children just fell asleep a little while ago.”
Mamma Wanda frowned. “Why weren’t they asleep all night?”
“None of us could sleep for fright! Mamma Barbara’s screams—”
She looked surprised. “I wasn’t thinking! I didn’t realize you children could hear that ruckus, or I would have come up to check on you.”
“Weren’t you with Mamma Barbara?”
“No. There’s nothing I can do for a woman giving birth – nothing can remedy that kind of pain. I stuffed my ears with cotton and went to bed after dinner. I should have brought cotton up to you kids.”
“Have you seen Mamma Barbara this morning?”
She shook her head. “Mamma Una insists on caring for her herself. Besides, Una says she’s sleeping. I don’t want you to go bothering either of them, okay?”
“Well, since the children are sleeping, just set the table for” – she stopped and counted on her fingers – “six. You can eat with us this morning.”
A warm happiness flowed through me as I set the table. It was the first time I’d ever eaten at the adults’ table, and I was thrilled to be there – even under such unhappy circumstances.
Before long, Mamma Perdita wandered in and sat down, followed by Mamma Sheena, Mamma Una, and Father, who cleared his throat as he pulled out his chair. Mamma Wanda ladled the hot cereal into bowls that I carried in and served to the other mammas and Father. Mamma Wanda and I then carried our own bowls in and joined them. I spooned brown sugar into my oatmeal before adding a pat of butter, which quickly melted when it touched the bowl’s contents.
None of the adults spoke for several minutes. Everyone was intent on their meal and no one even looked up for quite some time. When I sneaked peeks at their faces, everyone looked somber, like when Mamma Barbara lost her babies. Even Mamma Wanda wasn’t smiling now.
Finally, Father cleared his throat again and asked, “How is the baby, Perdita? Were you able to feed him?”
“Yes,” she answered, her voice a little higher and squeakier than normal. I thought I could hear a warble as well. Mamma Perdita always seemed a little nervous around Father, but the nervousness was pronounced today. “He was a little slow to latch, but once he caught on, he ate plenty.” She giggled; Sheena patted her hand.
“Una, how is Barbara?”
“She’s still sleeping. Her fever hasn’t come down, and I’m having trouble stopping the bleeding completely.”
“Wanda, do you have anything that could help?”
“Nothing she can take while she’s sleeping. Can you wake her up?”
Una shook her head.
“That’s a shame.”
I glanced up at Mamma Wanda and realized she was glad Mamma Barbara was ill.
I watched as Mamma Sheena slowly fell asleep, her spoon full of oatmeal drifting back to the bowl before it reached her mouth.
“She really can’t afford to stay up like she did last night,” Mamma Una commented. “With her affliction, a lack of sleep cripples her even more.”
“I tried to get her to go to bed,” Perdita whined.
“No one blames you, dear.” Una smiled at the youngest of Father’s wives.
“Of course not,” Father agreed. “Sheena can be bullheaded – everyone knows that.” He pushed back from the table with both hands and walked around to where Sheena, her chin against her chest, sat. He put both hands on her shoulders and said her name by her ear.
Mamma Sheena’s eyes popped open and her head came up as if it were on a spring. “Did I nod off?”
“Yes, I’m afraid so, my dear. Come,” Father said, helping her to her feet, “I’ll help you to your bed.”
“Thank you, Rex,” she answered. They disappeared toward the bedrooms.
“I think she fakes it,” Mamma Wanda said irritably.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Mamma Una admonished. “Why would she do that?”
“To get attention from Rex, of course.”
“Rex is more than fair with the amount of time he spends with each of us.”
“She did say she wanted another baby,” Perdita mused, the quiver gone from her voice.
“I thought three were enough for her.” Wanda dropped her spoon in her bowl.
“Wanda, you know we want every child God will provide to us.” Una calmly stirred her coffee.
I had never seen my mammas like this. I remembered watching my sisters fight over a doll, each one jealous and convinced the other had played with the doll longer than she had. I knew right then I never wanted to share a husband with another wife.
“I’d love to have another baby, but he never wants—” Mamma Wanda stopped herself abruptly, focusing on me. “Irene. Are you done eating, dear?”
I wasn’t, but I knew that wasn’t what she wanted to hear. “Yes, Mamma.”
“You’re excused then.”
“Thank you, Mamma.” I pushed away from the table, leaving half a bowl of oatmeal and the fascinating argument behind.