Present Tension and Imperfect Past: Rewriting My Story (Part Two: What We Lost)

When I found my cousin Carmela via a Facebook search, I connected with my last relative. We spent late summer Sunday afternoons, week after week, chatting from my house in Boston to her house in our family’s hometown of Cisternino, near Bari, in Italy. We rehashed family history and revised the facts: Grandpa’s heart attack in 1964? Well, there was a big family brawl and a weapon may have been drawn; Our gay uncle? We all knew about that but it wasn’t a big deal. Plowing through topics long-buried clarified some hazy details. Still, there was one story that frustrated me, an unfinished puzzle forever missing a piece. Carmela held the clue to that mystery as well. 

My parents married in September 1956 after a brief courtship. When they found out they were expecting shortly after, Mum and Dad set up the spare room in their new home as the baby’s room. They added nursery rhyme-themed linoleum, crib, bathinette–a hideous 1950’s contraption for washing babies. Then, they waited.

My mother’s labor began a few weeks after her due date, a detail that doesn’t seem quite right in 2021. When the contractions stopped, the doctor brushed off my mother’s concerns. The baby wasn’t moving. Again, the doctor insisted that my mother was overreacting. She waited at home as her body began to reject what was now dead inside of her. It was July 4th. Was the doctor just too busy celebrating to care?

The baby called “Marie Frances,” the name they would recycle for me a year and a half later, somehow arrived by a vaginal birth on July 5th. I can only imagine my mother’s suffering. While she was in what she referred to as a “twilight sleep,” she remembered confusion in the room when the baby was born. She also remembered being “knocked out.” When my mother awoke hours later in the maternity ward, she found herself surrounded by moms and their crying babies. When the doctor informed her of the stillbirth, the news destroyed her, changing her forever. 

Mum never saw her baby, which was customary in that era, but she always had questions about her. According to the story, my father didn’t see the baby either. Only one person, my mother’s Uncle Dario, bravely assumed the task. In his thick Italian accent, he reported back with a description–“Beautiful. Thick black curly hair. Perfect. An angel.”

Although she never held the baby in her arms, my mother spoke frequently about my sister, making her presence in my life. I was curious but I also knew the subject of the baby could cause my mother to fall apart. My Uncle Dario was the only person who had the answers I sought.

When I was young, I begged my uncle, “Please tell me about the baby again.” 

But his version of a perfect baby never changed. It was the only narrative I knew. 

For years, my interest in my sister lived in my psyche along with a peculiar form of jealousy focused on a dead baby. My mother’s obsession irritated me. I competed with “the first Marie.” I endured my mother’s tearful review of events. She regretted never holding her baby.  More importantly, she had no idea where the baby was buried. I listened for years as Mum bemoaned never visiting her grave. For a long time, I sat and half-listened but, at some point in my early forties, I listened and took up the cause. I wanted to find my mother’s baby for her.

Mum believed that her baby was buried in some unmarked grave in the nearby city cemetery. It was the story she had been told by my father. Without her knowledge, I contacted the cemetery office. Yes, dead babies were buried and there was a record of these burials. After flipping through the book from 1957, the clerk announced, “There is no record of the baby being buried here.” Armed with this disturbing information, I told my father. He feigned shock and told me to never mention this news to my mother. Mum died soon after my investigation and this conversation with my father. I never pressed my father for more information. I sensed the topic was verboten.

When my mother died eighteen years ago, I asked the undertaker about the handling of stillborn babies. He worked at the same funeral home that allegedly handled the baby’s interment. He dismissed me.

“They didn’t keep good records back then.” The conversation ended. I abandoned my search.

This past summer, when I broached the subject of my mother’s first baby with Carmela, I didn’t expect her to know very much more than I did. A few years older than I, she was a kid at the time. Nonetheless, Carmela knew the truth. The baby‘s extensive physical deformities indicated her demise was the only possible outcome. She described the baby as having “a head twice the size of her body.” In my mind’s eye, I pictured an alien-like creature. I instantly flipped back to the angelic image I knew best. Still, I was grateful for the truth. 

Carmela and I discussed the possibilities; her guess is that the baby, at our uncle’s suggestion, might have been donated for medical research. Uncle Dario had been a medical student before studying engineering and he believed the baby’s profound deformity begged investigation. We assume our uncle and my father made the decision to donate the baby for research and probably conspired never to tell my mother. 

I accept now what happened to the baby may never be uncovered but I am intrigued by her cause of death. I reached out to the state to see if I could get a copy of the death certificate, specifically the fetal death certificate. I needed closure, pure and simple.

When I contacted the Registry of Vital Records a few weeks ago, the clerk, Marie, (how weird is that?) rebuffed my efforts, but after an email exchange, she softened to the request. At first, I sensed she didn’t want to help me at all. I’m guessing she assumed I wanted the information for litigious reasons. Since most, if not all of the participants in this tragedy, are long dead, who the hell would I sue? From Marie’s correspondence, I learned that the records of fetal death are protected. Only qualified parties are privy to the information. Marie eventually sent the list of what I needed: my parents’ death certificates, my father’s will naming me the executrix, my personal identification, and “the form.” Marie didn’t promise she could produce the document but her willingness leads me to think she might have done a little background work and the records do exist. This week, I completed the forms and sent them to the state. Dead ends haven’t deterred me so far, just forced me to be more clever and creative. If this research yields nothing, my investigation ends here. I have exhausted my best resources: funeral directors, cemetery clerks, and anyone else who might have answers. With the help of Carmela, I was able to initiate the last piece of my search for my sister. Documentation of her will provide validation of her existence, a connection to her as my parents’ child and my sister, and a visual artifact that completes our family constellation. I don’t know why I need this closure but I do.

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