On a fall Saturday in the early 1930s, my mother, my sister, Mary, age nine, and I, eight, are walking along one of the main shopping streets of the mid-size industrial city in Massachusetts where we live.
We have just emerged from Child's Shoe Store where Mary and I have been fitted for new school shoes. We are each carrying our bag of shoes, which bags also contain bolo bats given us by the kindly shoe salesman. These are flat plywood paddles with rubber balls attached by long rubber tethers to the center of the paddle so that, holding the bat parallel to the ground, you can strike the ball high into the air and see how many times you can hit it again as it bounces back down. We can hardly wait till we get home to try out our new toys.
Our anticipation is interrupted by a woman's voice calling "Ruth!"
"Hazel!" our mother exclaims. We look up and a woman we recognize from church — or is she from our mother's book club? — and our mother are engaged in animated conversation. Mary and I look at each other and sigh. This often happens when we're out shopping with our mother. She'll meet a friend and they start to chat and it can take awhile before we're on our way again. We turn to the shoe store display, picking out our favorites. "I like those black shiny ones."
"They're okay, but I like the ones with the jewels around the edge."
Then I hear it. I have heard it before. My mother and her friend have turned in our direction. The friend is saying, "Which is the one who was sick?"
Our mother beckons to us. "Girls," she says, as we move toward her, "you remember Mrs. Morris." It is a statement, not a question. My mother puts her hand on my shoulder. "This one," she says.
Mrs. Morris is smiling at me. I muster a smile in response.
"We almost lost her," my mother says
For the moment I have forgotten about the new shoes, the bolo bats, forgotten how eager Mary and I are to get home. I am transported back to the hospital. I am watching through the trees for my mother to come. She is coming. I see her! Every day she comes. She stays all afternoon. My father comes, too, in the morning on his way to the office.
Other times when we have been out with our mother, some friend has come by and they start to chat. Or two friends in church will be talking with my mother and father and I see them looking toward Mary and me. I know what is coming. One of them (it is usually the woman) asks, "Which is the one who was sick?" My mother will reach out her arm and draw me close. "This one," she says softly. My father, too, puts his hand on my shoulder. I lay my cheek against his hand.
"The one who was sick." The words sound in my ears. They will echo in my body, in my psyche, in my soul, for all my life.