I was born two months premature in 1943, sixteen years before neonatal intensive care. In telling the story of my birth, my mother said the medical staff at the hospital inspected me–no fingernails or toenails, almost no suck reflex–shrugged, and ignored her questions. She said everyone at the hospital acted as though I was expected to die.
I was parked in an incubator for a few days, and when I didn’t die I was discharged. Nobody ever gave my mother instructions as to what special care I might need. She was told only one thing, and that by the nurse who wheeled us out of the hospital: “Doctor says you’ll have to bottle feed her.”
The long trip home was difficult, Mama said. It was November, and even in Florida that means 40-degree weather. The car was elderly and unheated. It was raining. There were floods. By the time Daddy was able to get mother and baby into the house, everyone was cold, damp and exhausted.
Thank goodness for my Gramma and for Nan, my Great Gramma.
The house had no central heat, but it did have a fireplace. As Mama tells it, she carried me from a cold car into a living room made warm by a crackling fire. Gramma and Nan had started the fire, attached a clothesline to the ceiling in a semi-circle in front of it, and hung blankets from the clothesline to the floor. They had brought out my bassinet and put it between the fire and the blankets. Gramma took me from Mama’s arms and laid me in that warm space.
I remained next to that fire for weeks. Daddy had to go back to the war, so in addition to all the manual household chores that in the 1940s were necessary to keep a family fed and clean, the three women chopped and brought in wood and kept that fire going. And each woman took an eight-hour shift with me seven days a week, not leaving me alone for even a minute.
Until I was strong enough to suck, Mama used a breast pump to extract her own milk. I was fed that milk in an eye dropper, drop by drop. To keep me awake long enough to swallow, Gramma or Nan tapped the bottoms of my feet while Mama administered the milk.
I stopped breathing three times. The first time, everyone except Nan panicked. Nan calmly fetched the bottle of whiskey and the eye dropper and placed one drop of that appalling substance on my tongue. The shock brought me back to the living, choking and coughing. Thereafter, the whiskey sat next to my bassinet.
Almost a month from the day I was born, I opened my eyes for the first time and looked at my world. All three women cried.
I was told about my birth when I was a teenager, Mama laughing about how she didn’t know what tired was until sometime in the third week of that ordeal. It was only when I grew much older, however, that I came to fully appreciate the effort these three women, my mother, my grandmother and my great grandmother, made to keep me alive.
Three generations of women, all mother.
[Published previously by Mothers Always Write, August 2018]