November, the month of culinary feasts, in spite of it gala inheritance sometimes wears a mournful mien. Cloudy skies and raw winds can completely erase its air of thankfulness and leave in their stead a low and depressing temperature. Bare trees, too, are less cheering than boughs burgeoning with fragrance, and promise seemed to be absent without leave in Springfield that fall. October’s painted leaves, crisp and dusty, flew in the faces of average pedestrians, while their brothers and sisters clogged the rainpipes, and littered the lawns of Main Street.
Thanksgiving in Springfield had none of the sparkle and gayety that accompany our northern celebrations. There were no relatives coming in to share turkey. Only Mother’s mince pies are remembered with a thrill. Mother’s recipe was supposed to be Queen Victoria’s own formula, and she made thirty pounds of it each fall. A perfectly fluted pie, decoratively punctured in leaf design, and sprinkled with granulated sugar, had graced many a teacher’s table, and aroused hopes in my breast that she would think kindly of me during school hours. Otherwise November was like any other month. This year, however, was different. Looking forward to a baby in the family gave a lift to it and I speculated diligently as to how long we’d have to wait before the expectation became a reality. It had been darkly intimated to me that the new member would probably arrive before Christmas and I never thought of asking a direct question as to the date. In well-ordered Christian families it just wasn’t done. Instead I busied myself learning to crochet sacks and booties for ‘it’ and was inflated with pride at my accomplishment. I even talked down to Lilly who had mastered the art. There were few subjects in which I could demonstrate superiority over her and I made the most of them. Once, before she was married, Lilly had decided that she would add music to her accomplishments and interviewed me on the matter.
“Una, do you think you could teach me to play the piano?” She had inquired after watching me attack a new piece.
“I don’t know,” I had said honestly,
“I could try.” (The doubt referred to me – not to my talented sister.)
“Then if you are willing, I’d like to begin at once.” She said seating herself at the piano. Lilly believed in quick offensives.
It was difficult for me to think in terms of a beginner, and as soon as Lilly put her hands on the keys I realized that she was a beginner. In fact she was on a lower rung of the ladder than I could ever remember having occupied. When I tried to place her fingers each one on an ivory, they either crumpled up like a baby’s or galvanized into sticks of steel. She mastered the notes quickly and was mentally stimulated in attacking a new art; that is, she was for the first lesson or two. When it became a matter of disciplining her fingers and reading from a score simultaneously, it was a horse of a different color. The process was so slow in fulminating that the achievement lost its magnetism and since I could not locate any concealed genius, we decided to shake hands and let music go her way while Lilly tried painting with better luck.
During pregnancy the doctor for reasons of safety, because she was so little, had put her on a rigid diet and Mary and I watched her assiduously. It was at a time when Mother Hubbard dresses were in style. They were made like wrappers, with fullness shirred on to a yoke. Children and grownups alike work them. One day Maynard said to Mother, “Mommy, are all the women in Springfield going to have babies or what has happened to them that they wear these balloon-shaped womaces [bodices]? And he gestured appropriately with his hands.
“Oh no, it’s the style; that’s all,” Mother replied and I never stopped to wonder at the remark.
Mary and I kept inviolate the secret of the baby’s coming. We looked forward eagerly to the day when we could announce to the world that we were aunts. It had never occurred to us that others would know in advance of that date. On a Monday morning as I was eating breakfast, Ben rushed in to our house.
“I think you better get the doctor,” he said. Mother looked at me with my fork poised in the air.
“Una, run down to Dr. Clements office as fast as you can,” she said and without a word I grabbed my coat and hat and started. It was a cold day the first of December and a good five blocks to the office but I made it in practically no time at all. I ran most of the way for this was an exciting time. I hadn’t been told that the baby was due, but I had eyes, ears and suspicions, and they were all on a twenty-four hour schedule.
The doctor was in his office when I rushed in completely winded.
“Mama, wants you quick!” I gasped.
“Mama or Lilly?” The doctor asked.
“I don’t know, Lilly, I guess. Anyway Ben said to come,” I added.
The doctor needed no prodding. He grabbed his bag, took a nip, and we hurried downstairs and climbed into his phaeton. I usually hated the odor of liquor, but today I didn’t mind so much if he would get us a baby. The route by which the infant was to arrive was still Greek to me so I had no fears for Lilly. My concern was the baby. I didn’t want it marked up with strawberries, or to have a pig’s snout or cat’s eyes.
By noon, the young son was duly born. Mary came home from school for dinner and was so excited she didn’t care whether she had food or not. Many of the Central School teachers were classmates of Lilly and all the way to school, Mary literally crowed, thinking what a juicy bit of news she had to pass around among the teachers. As she went up the stairs to her classroom she saw Maggie Murphy standing at the door.
“Miss Murphy, I’m an aunt,” she said.
“Lilly has a baby boy.”
She had fully expected Maggie to gasp or turn pale. All she did was smile and say, “So I heard.”
Mary made her rounds with the communiqué but Maggie had beaten her by a good half-hour. She went to her class but she brooded over the episode all afternoon. Maggie had punctured her bubble of anticipation.
As for me, I had grown old waiting my opportunity to give the baby a rigid going-over, when Aunty Miss tiptoed me into the room. I had thought a great deal about babies since I had heard that Lilly was in the market for one, and I was more or less critical. I had probably never seen a brand new one, and when I looked at him I was completely crushed. He was very underweight, according to the doctor’s orders. He was wrinkled like an old man, and bald as a billiard ball. All this I grudgingly accepted. It was when I saw his ears that the billows rolled over me. They were thin to sheerness, and the tops of them were folded over as neatly as if they had been ironed that way. I didn’t wait to see his feet. I rushed out of the house and over to the spare room and shut the door. Bitter tears of disappointment fell on the white counterpane and when I heard Maynard outside the door say, “Gee, Mommy, what a good looking baby.”
I sat up and was comforted. Apparently there were others who shared my concern. Just what we could do about it I didn’t know, but at least there was solidarity in our household.
The baby was named Howell Worth Murray which pleased Father immensely and he informed the new father that he would like to give his namesake a carriage. It was a nice big rattan affair. When it arrived it had a big white card tied on a white ribbon and was addressed to the newcomer. There were nice wishes that he could cut his teeth easily, have money enough and troops of friends and make the world better for having been in it. Then Father quoted the words of an old Persian adage on the birth of a babe.
“O little one, you come into life with a cry while those around you are smiling. So live that when you go out you may go with a smile while those around you are crying.”
I think the baby must have misunderstood his grandfather’s quotation for he found it difficult to stop crying after being born. He was a colicky baby and every one of us took turns soothing him. Our house was practically untenanted through the day. Doctors hadn’t discovered the benefits of ‘burping’ in the ‘nineties.’ They advocated catnip instead and peppermint. We laid the poor baby on his tummy and gently squashed the gases about until from sheer exhaustion he fell asleep. When the milder doses failed to mute him we brought out the bottle labeled ‘Carminative.’
‘Carminative’ was one of those sledgehammers that reduced the lustiest yeller to ineptitude, obnoxious but preferable to pain. It smelled like a garlic patch and it was comical to smell the baby’s breath and rush to the window to dispel the odorous whiff. In spite of his physical discomforts as a baby, Howie throve, and by the time Aunty Miss and her squeaky voice had departed, the disturbing wrinkles had ironed out and a few spears of hair when well oiled were visible on his rosy scalp. Even the discomforting ears were conforming to a conventional pattern. In almost no time he became a pretty baby so dainty and sweet that I thought no baby could hold a candle to him.
Like every other home invaded by an infant, Lilly’s household was tuned to the baby. The high chair became the highest chair of state and his wants took precedence over everything. We all vied with one another in original offerings. Uncle Dave’s took the brown derby for being most unique. It was a pair of infinitesimal overalls made of dark blue denim with suspenders of striped bedticking. Large pants buttons were so placed that as the baby grew, the ‘galluses’ could be extended. Uncle Dave had sewn them himself with a big darning needle and in heavy cotton thread had attempted to embroider the baby’s initials on the front tab. The letter which accompanied the offering reminded the baby that all our great presidents had worn similar garments before being allowed to take office.
Ben and Mayne brought presents to the baby every few days. One time they each walked in with a long-handled brush of bright-colored cut, tissue paper – the kind used at carnivals to whisk in people’s faces. They were gay and Howie shrieked with delight when they were brushed over his face. Finally he had to hold one over his eyes when he went to sleep.
The central room of the cottage was the dining room. The bedrooms and the parlor were grouped around it. It had windows facing front and rear and a porch separated it from the kitchen which was a later addition built on. The room was carpeted with Chinese matting on which a room size rug rested. Where the widths of matting were joined a row of small brads nailed to the floor held them together. The baby slept in his carriage most of the time, and when other ruses failed, we wore him out by pushing the carriage back and forth over this row of nails. The rackety jolting was quite to his liking and he hummed a song and pulled the frou-frou of paper over his face until sleep and he joined forces, his little cheeks were wet with perspiration. It was a horrible way to treat a baby but he seemed to relish the excitement of it.
Christmas took on a new meaning for us all that year. I remember seeing Maynard (now a public official) riding a stick hobby horse around the public square late Christmas eve. We loaded a tree with gifts suitable for a child of three though the baby was less than a month old, and in sheer gladness made merry in the little cottage. Christmas for us had become an orgy once more.
Howie cut his teeth and crept through the tedium of our lives, joyously stopping long enough to try his first words on us. I was free at all times to play with him. It was easy for me to be his age and we laughed at each other and had a grand time. He would ‘patticake,’ ‘bye-bye,’ and spell ‘B-O-Y’ then yell with delight. I was his stage manager and he laughed at everything I did and I adored him. I believed that the first word he tried to say was my name. He sort of exploded it in a stage whisper when I hove into sight. “Tn-Ta,” “Tn-Ta,” he’d repeat and wave his hand excitedly. The sound bore no relation to ‘Una’ (phonetically speaking) but there was no mistaking its intention, and I was thrilled at the sound. I dreaded the day when he would cease to howl at my departure, and was tempted to teach him words that only he and I could understand.
Now that school did not engross my time, music became increasingly important and with the coming of adolescence a different set of values were shaping. I still had two wretched pianos at home and lessons at only sporadic intervals. Our church had bought a new piano however and one of my pleasures was to go early to the Christian Endeavor meetings and have a chance to play on it. I was having a fine time one evening enjoying excerpts from the operas of ‘Faust’ and ‘Tannhauser’ when an ultra pious matron broke into my mood with the remark, “I trust those are religious numbers you are playing, Una.”
That comment summarily ended my improvisations. I took no more chances with holy instruments.
In spring Lilly took up her duties as society editress again and succeeding in bagging another newspaper job for Mary and me. On Fridays we collected news and devoured the donations of food offered inquiring reporters in exchange for a free flow of hyperbole in Sunday’s society columns. Then conjointly we wrote up the prosaic small town parties, read proof, and collected our weekly stipends. Like a little exclamation point the baby punctuated the writing of our columns, and under his benignant spell, the ‘crooked were made straight and the rough places plain.’