Peevish Pen

Ruminations on reading, writing, rural living, retirement, aging—and sometimes cats. And maybe a border collie or other critters.

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Location: Rural Virginia, United States

I'm an elderly retired teacher who writes. Among my books are Ferradiddledumday (Appalachian version of the Rumpelstiltskin story), Stuck (middle grade paranormal novel), Patches on the Same Quilt (novel set in Franklin County, VA), Them That Go (an Appalachian novel), Miracle of the Concrete Jesus & Other Stories, and several Kindle ebooks.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

January 17, 1941

At 3:00 p.m. on January 17, 1941, my brother—Robert Lee Smith—was born. I arrived four and a half years later, but I never knew him. He was what was then called a “blue baby”; he had a heart defect. He died at 7:00 p.m. the same day he was born.

Decades later, a cousin told me that the Smith males were prone to heart defects and high blood pressure. My grandmother lost a son in infancy; so did her oldest daughter. My father, the only surviving male child in a family of girls, died of a stroke in his mid-sixties. He had high blood pressure.

My mother never got over losing her first child. Recently, I came across her scrapbook among items in one of the multitude of boxes John and I moved from her attic when we sold her house in 2002. These boxes, which I’m just now getting around to looking through, yield secrets of her life that I hadn't known much about.

Mama saved the birth certificate, the death notice, and all the cards she received when her son was born. A few cards, no doubt sent as soon as word went out about his birth, congratulated my parents on becoming parents. Later the senders sent their condolences. All went into her scrapbook.

On one page, she handwrote this:

Never, as long as I live, shall I forget the feel of it—that feeble breath stirring against my heart. Always there will be that sick emptiness, and the sound of a tiny broken wail whispering in my ear. For that was all I ever had of my baby. It died that night there, where it had been born. May God bless it and keep it from all sickness, sin, and sorrow until we meet again.

Mama was confined to the hospital for days after the birth/death, so she missed her baby’s funeral—a home burial on the Smith family farm. I remember she once said that Aunt Lucy, her oldest maternal aunt, bought a burial outfit. My father dug the grave beside that of his sister Myrtle’s son and buried the last male bearer of the Smith name in that branch of the family.

Clyde Wesley Pasley (left) who lived for a few weeks in 1924;
Robert Lee Smith (right) who was born and died on Jan. 17, 1941.

For years afterward, every January 17, my mother had a memorial notice placed in the Roanoke World-News on her son’s birthday. I was about six or seven when the last one was published. In her scrapbook, I found some memorials that she handwrote and some that she clipped from the paper.

In 1943, this appeared in the paper, “In loving memory of our dear baby, Robert Lee Smith, who died two years ago, January 17, 1941”:

Farewell little “Bobby,” a sad farewell.
Your loss on earth no tongue can tell;
Your stay on earth was short but sweet,
I hope in Heaven we shall meet.
Our life has never been the same,
Our home is lonely still.
We sometimes cannot understand
Why such should be God’s will.

When I was a child, Mama always called him “Little Brother” whenever she spoke of him. I have memories of visiting his grave when we visited the farm—sometimes Mama brought flowers from home to put on his little grave. Once she planted lily-of-the-valley which lived for a few years. When she was in her mid-80s, she wanted an angel for his grave, so we bought one. The last time she was able to get up the hill to see the grave was the day we placed Bobby’s angel in front of his tombstone.

My mother died April 17, 2004, a bright Saturday morning. She held onto life for as long as she could even though she was in extreme pain. She hadn’t lived in reality for a while at that point and didn’t know who I was. I had no experience with human death; I certainly wasn’t experienced in helping anyone cross over. I held her hand and encouraged her to go to the light but, always afraid of the unknown, she resisted.

Finally I said, “Bobby your baby is waiting for you. Go to the light and you’ll see Bobby.” She started to babble, “Bobby my baby, Bobby my baby,” over and over. And then she was gone.

Happy birthday, Little Brother. Thanks for being there when I needed you most.

On January 17, 1968, in First Methodist Church in Newport News, John and I were married. This January 17, we celebrate our 40th wedding anniversary.




Blogger Amy Tate said...

Oh Becky, what a touching story. Now I know where you received your gift of writing. I couldn't help but notice the date - that happened a year before the attack on Pearl Harbor. What a difficult time in your mother's life. What a precious memory that you have of her death. The mental picture of you holding her hand and then your brother taking her other is beautiful. What a wonderful post! By the way, Happy 40th Anniversary!

2:46 PM  
Blogger Sally Roseveare said...

Well, I cried when I read this. It was sweet, sad, and loving. I'm so glad you wrote about this and included some of your mama's writings. And on a happy note, a great big HAPPY ANNIVERSARY to you and John.

3:09 PM  

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