The knock came long after the family had gone to bed. Dr. Waller answered the door nonetheless—in those days, doctors were on call 24 hours a day. Standing on the porch were two swarthy men with long black hair, wide sleeves, intricately stitched vests, and knives. Come with us now, they commanded. The doctor nodded, reached for his medical bag and left the house with one of them on either side.
My grandmother never saw my grandfather leave with the gypsies. She was his second wife and was not yet married to him when the gypsies came. Nonetheless, at family gatherings when she told this story to me, she always said she could somehow see the knives in the men’s hands glinting under the porch light.
The men took my grandfather to their campsite and, still in lockstep, marched him to within a circle of women attending to one of their own. I don’t know that the gypsies had princesses, but this woman’s scarlet head scarf, now discarded, was studded with gold coins, and her gold necklaces, bracelets and rings were heavy.
She had been in labor for many hours. She was gray with pain and close to death.
In my imagination, my grandfather stands still for a moment. He has already lost one woman in childbirth. He shudders. And then he takes a deep, calm breath, looking at that moment exactly like the sepia photograph of him that, after his death, my mother always kept on her bureau. Carefully, he sets his bag down on a blanket next the woman and kneels beside her. He washes his hands in a pail of water. He goes to work.
Some hours later, the knives are put away. It is not necessary for a gypsy to threaten this white man to make him do his best for a dying woman.
I know that the gypsy princess lived. I know this not because I remember the end of the story I’m telling you. I don’t remember the end of the story. But I do remember what my mother told me about her father:
In a career spanning four decades, most of that time as the only doctor in Angola, Indiana, my grandfather delivered thousands of babies. He drove a horse and buggy, or later on a Ford Model T, to outlying farms where births were often already in progress by the time he could be summoned and arrive. He delivered babies with frightened husbands or children as assistants. He delivered babies in antique bedsteads, on scrubbed kitchen tables, even on un-scrubbed floors. He delivered babies with no more equipment than would fit in the same kind of medical bag you now see only in old movies. Despite all that, my grandfather lost only one woman in childbirth.
The woman was his first wife. The child was my mother.
In my imagination, the circle of gypsies opens. My grandfather sees the amount of blood on the woman’s skirts and on her blankets. He stands very still for a moment, grief slicing through him like a knife. Then, he takes a deep, calm breath. Life. Only life. This woman will not die. His pain will be with him forever, but this woman, and her child, too, will live.
When he goes to work, his mind is clear, and his hands are strong and steady.
A version of this memoir was published previously as the featured essay in the online bioStories and in the Winter/Spring 2014: Volume 4, Issue 1 print version of the magazine.