First Born

by Jeanne Althouse

I was born in a hallway.

My pregnant Mother had lovely brown hair curled in the style of Ingrid Bergman in the movie Casablanca. She defined her lips with dark red from a stick, her nose with loose white powder she stored in a gold case and her ears and throat with pearls the size of large peas. Everyone said my mother dressed up to mail a letter. Childbirth was no exception.

It was May 5, 1945 and the overcrowded Evanston, Illinois hospital, out of rooms, resorted to cots in the hallway for expectant mothers. Adolph Hitler had fallen, ending the Nazi earthquake which had split the world at its core. Aftershocks would continue for months. Five days earlier, Joseph Goebbels, the German Reich Minister of Propaganda, and his wife committed suicide after murdering their six children with cyanide. The war was not over in Asia until September 2, 1945 after Little Boy and Fat Man, code names for the first atomic bombs, killed over 100,000 people.

Months before my birth, my father had been sent home to recover from extreme battle fatigue; a later generation renamed it post-traumatic stress disorder. Mother spent the war in a windowless warehouse retrofitting B-17 aircraft with ball turrets for machine guns.

They wanted to forget. They wanted to move on. In the midst of these seismic waves of death and destruction, the birth of their first child was a miracle.

In her later life Mother wore blue velvet, a full-length, fitted gown she called her “opera dress” though she no longer left the retirement home in the evenings and dressed up only to watch Inspector Morse, the British detective series based on the books of Colin Dexter. Like Chief Inspector Morse she loved classical music, could knock back a few whiskies, and had a nose for crime.

I have the velvet dress in a bankers box in my garage with a printed label: “Grandma Lois, Opera Dress, SAVE.” I also have my father’s gas mask from the war he never talked about. When I was eighteen and leaving for college, he kissed me goodbye and I turned away, in a hurry. He died the next weekend in a car accident. I cherish a pre-war album of his black and white photographs of the Rocky Mountains he signed “Love forever, Dave.” Mother would die in 2009. She bashed her head against the base of a brass floor lamp when she fell getting out of bed in the middle of the night. She might have suffered all night, frightened, alone in her room, but we told ourselves—my brother, my sister and I—that she died in her sleep, dreaming, curled up on the floor.

When her labor began, the hospital staff did not notice in time to move Mother to the surgery. My father, with the other men, was banished to a waiting room on another floor; he was not there to hold her hand. In the hallway that smelled like dirty socks, decaying flowers and baby formula, on a cot that squeaked as she tossed back and forth, next to a red-haired woman with twins who cried constantly, I achieved life.

I burst out, red as a beet, scattering blood everywhere, howling like a demon. A daughter: the first child, the first grandchild, the first born.

If there is one single thing that influenced me all my life, it was that: Being the first, and everything that position in the family did to craft me, good and bad.

Most newborns search for a breast; I reached up and grabbed the pearls. I did not let go. I am still holding them.


Category: Fiction, Short Story, SNHU Creative Writing, SNHU online creative writing