by Jane Louise Newhagen
Sarah was my sister Louise’s child.
Louise tried for years to have a baby, but they were all born prematurely and died. When she
finally carried one to term, she bled to death after giving birth. Her husband, Glen, looked for
comfort at the bottom of a bottle of rum. He was so drunk the morning of Louise’s funeral my
Harry had to steady him to keep him from falling into the grave. That afternoon he came to
our kitchen door and stood at the bottom of the stoop with tears rolling down his dirty cheeks.
He held out the wailing child.
“Please,” he whispered.
What could I do?
I’d just lost a baby of my own, a premature birth like so many of Louise’s. The difference was
that my pregnancy had been an unwelcome surprise since Harry and I had hoped not to have
more children. Money was tight and we hardly ever lay together any more.
I put little Sarah to my breast and her howling was replaced by noisy suckling that was painful
in its strength. I wondered when she’d last been fed. I viewed taking her in as my last gift to
my sister. Harry had a temper and he protested loudly, but I was determined to keep the
child and raise her as my own along with Phyllis, who was seven and Belinda, who was
two years younger. Our house on Olivia Street was already crowded, but I kept her in a
padded basket the first year and she was easy to tuck into a corner. I realized the poor little
thing didn’t have a legal name, so I went to the town hall and registered her birth as Sarah
Schaffer. Sarah was our grandmother’s name and Schaffer was her father’s surname.
Phyllis didn’t care for the child at all, while Belinda thought the new baby was fun and played
at washing and dressing her. Sarah was a quiet child even when she was small. I often
wondered what was going on inside her head during those early years. She attentively
watched everything around her, but after she learned to talk, she never complained or
commented on what she saw. She didn’t know she wasn’t part of our natural family until
she went to school and had to spell out her name. She came home crying because she wrote
Howell and the teacher made her write Schaffer instead. I felt terrible, because it had never
occurred to me to tell her the details of her birth.
I took care of the house and the girls. Harry worked at the docks. He always smelled of fish
and sponges, even after his weekly bath. He was a good man in spite of his temper and I think
he tried to be a good father, although he didn’t find much to interest him in our trio of girls. He
didn’t begrudge their keep, either. He’d just go down to the docks when he wanted male
Sarah favored her mother and me. She was dark-haired, short, and nimble with heavy-browed
green eyes that gave a deceptive impression of innocence. She was quite a contrast to my
blue-eyed, blond, sedentary Howell girls who took after their father. When she was old enough
to be instructed about human reproduction, I tried to explain conception by talking about
flowers and bees. One day she confided in me that she knew she wasn’t like Belinda and
Phyllis because of the differences in the loam of her mother’s womb and mine. They had
grown inside me; Sarah’s seed had sprouted elsewhere. She forgave all involved because her
differences were obviously due to a force of nature.
As they all grew older, Phyllis increasingly showed an undercurrent of jealousy and suspicion
toward her stepsister. Sarah was the one Phyllis pointed at when something went missing -- a
pencil or ruler or hair ribbon, or when a nickel for milk at school was no longer in the pocket
where it had started the day. At first, I didn’t think Sarah had anything to do with the losses,
but as time went on, I wasn’t sure. The child began to look a little guilty when she was accused
of these petty thefts and I never knew whether to believe her denials or not. As a result, nobody
was punished. Through it all, Belinda smiled and treated both her sisters as friends.
I hope you enjoy this selection from Chambered Nautilus.
© Jane Louise Newhagen