Haunted by Photos of the Dead 2

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I am haunted by my memory of the picture of my dead baby sister.

As a child I took it to school one day. I had peeled out the photo from the corners of the grey family album. There were two almost identical pictures, side by side. I hoped no one would notice the space left behind.

‘She’s dead,’ I said. I held the photo out to a group of girls in the playground. My grubby fingers had smeared the photo’s shiny surface. The children peered at the image. They wanted to stare at the picture of a dead baby. Not one of them had seen a dead body before, and not one of them had been able to imagine the stillness of the photographic image without life, without breath that I passed around on the asphalt playground that spring morning in 1962 when I was ten years old.

I did not show my teacher. Even at the time I thought there was something wrong in this method of gaining currency, this way of getting attention from my classmates, attention I would not normally receive. I hid it from my sisters and brothers, as well.

I have the photograoh still – my dead sister who bears the same name as my older sister, still living. The dead one has wispy fine black hair. In the photo there are dark shadows underneath her closed eyes. She looks to be asleep.

If this dead sister had lived then none of what happened to my older sister would have happened, or so I imagine. In that sense it would have been different for me too, the third rather than the second daughter. I would not have my mother’s name, the name given to the second daughter and my living sister would not have had her maternal grandmother’s name, the privilege of the first born girl. Everything would have been topsy-turvy. And my mother’s sad story of her ‘lost little angel’ would not be etched in my memory.

It started during the Honger winter of 1945; well after the Germans had invaded Holland and stopped supplies. The people in the cities were starving. My mother had two children by then, a son named after his paternal grandfather, Jan Christiaan and a daughter, named after her maternal grandmother, Gertrudis Maria.

The boy at eighteen months was healthy enough though thin, with a constant cough that bothered my mother but there was little she could do. The girl on the other hand was thin beyond belief. My mother’s milk had dried up along with her menstrual blood. There would be no more babies during this war.

At five months of age, the girl was the size of a newborn, with a head of wavy black hair, black like her mother’s, only finer. You could see through it to the pink of her scalp.

The baby had been listless all day long, my mother told me. She lay in her bassinet staring vacantly above her head, seeming not to notice the green of the trees when my mother took her out for a stroll, not to notice the blue of the sky, or the light from an overhead lamp, or the red of her mother’s lips.

The baby smiled feebly at times when my mother made a great show to rouse her from her lethargy but she could not sustain these smiles for long and then resumed a dull expression, as if something inside had switched off and she had moved over to the other side of life, the other side with the angels.

‘Take her to Heilo,’ the doctor had said to my mother after she told him that a cousin who lived there had asked a neighboring family in possession of a milking cow whether they might help this family from the city with their sickly baby.

The neighbors agreed and my mother traveled the 35 kilometers on foot, pushing her baby in the pram. By then the baby had lapsed into a coma.

The local doctor came in the morning and told my mother that the baby might come out of it and if she did then my mother was to offer a little warm boiled water, nothing more and call for him.

My mother was alone in the house – the children of the house were away at school, and their parents were away at work. My mother sat with her baby from eight in the morning till two in the afternoon, watching her. She had boiled water in readiness and had waited for it to cool. She tested it with the tip of her elbow, eased it in, that sensitive part, then tried it on the inside of her wrist, the place that people choose when life becomes too much and they want to hack their body open and drain out the blood.

The water’s temperature was perfect. My mother filled the bottle to the three quarter mark and waited for her baby to wake from the coma. Her baby stared at the ceiling, not in the direction of the light from the window, but directly up at the ceiling that was marked only by a bare bulb hanging there. Her eyes were fixed.

My mother half dozed, and saw the baby flutter her lashes and then lift her head from the pillow.
‘She recognised me, I’m sure of it,’ my mother told me later. ‘And I thought, oh now she comes out of it. But, no. She slumped back and I knew she was gone’.

My mother lifted her baby from the crib and took her into her arms. On her lap the baby felt light, like a feather pillow, only angular and sharp. She could feel the ridge of her baby’s backbone, the tiny elbows, almost without flesh, almost a skeleton. She knew she was dead but held out false hope in her baby’s last flicker of recognition.

My mother has repeated this detail to me again and again. At the time, that sudden surge of life in her baby’s face almost discounted the possibility of her death. My mother told me that even as she knew her baby was dead, she could not believe it.

She swept up her daughter in her arms and ran next door to her cousin’s house.
Her cousin took one look.

‘The poor little one has gone,’ she said and then urged my mother to sit down while she washed the baby and dressed her in a white christening gown. My dead baby sister wears this gown today day – an infant Miss Haversham in photographic form.

The neighbours’ children came home from school at the end of the day and brought the flowers still visible in the photograph. They spread them around the baby. In the photo these flowers look almost translucent, their whiteness a match to the baby’s pale skin.

The undertaker headed the funeral procession. He walked with the small coffin under his arm. My father and mother followed. They walked slowly through the town of Heilo. There was no traffic and everywhere people stopped, the women with bowed heads. Men took off their caps.

In the church there were white flowers on the altar and a white cloth draped over the coffin. The schoolchildren sang the Mass of the Angels.

My mother cannot remember the burial and did not return home to Haarlem, immediately, though my father went back to the war.

‘I had dysentery,’ my mother said, ‘and had to stay with my cousin and her husband.’ After she had recovered, she walked home, she told me, ‘all the way to Haarlem with an empty pram and an empty place in my heart.’

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34 Comments on Haunted by Photos of the Dead 2

  1. Anthony Duce
    February 20, 2010 at 12:07 am (8 years ago)

    So very sad. The writing was wonderful though, the imagery in the words will haunt for a while. Thank you for sharing.

    Reply
  2. Glimmer
    February 20, 2010 at 2:45 am (8 years ago)

    My God, you have broken my heart with this. Telling it hard and true, without flourish or sentimentality, is devastating. I am awestruck by your ability to tell something like this without flinching.

    Reply
  3. Ces
    February 20, 2010 at 2:48 am (8 years ago)

    Oh Elisabeth> I feel so sad. I feel for your Mother. God bless her! How sad.

    You write so beautifully. You infused each word with great reverence for our dead baby sister and captured the humane nature of your mother. The was as the background made me imagine an image in sepia tone. Your poor poor mother going home with an empty pram and she had dysentery.

    I keep thinking how different things are today. Today when a baby is listless we resuscitate the baby, rehydrate her and do so many aggressive and invasive procedures sometimes. Preparing a deceased baby's remains was always the most difficult part of my clinical career. In fact I decided to quit the day after I prepared a baby's remains for viewing by her mother. As a young married woman I told myself that if I stayed in that ER Trauma area, I would have never had children.

    I also like the way you described yourself taking the photograph and showing it to your classmates. I somehow know that feeling of attracting attention from doing something that you know was best not done.

    Reply
  4. Kass
    February 20, 2010 at 2:51 am (8 years ago)

    Such tender sorrow.

    We are all fascinated by death at an early age. I remember being spellbound as my grandmother talked about her infant sister that died. She had a little gold pin that she wore that had "BABY" etched in it. I loved to look at it and imagine what it was like to see a baby so still. I was in awe of my own sadness.

    This account brings it all back. So effectively written!

    Reply
  5. Ann ODyne
    February 20, 2010 at 2:55 am (8 years ago)

    oh Elisabeth I had to stop reading too early in your sad story.
    Despite the privilege of being a 5th generation Australian, I am very aware of the dreadful time Europeans endured, before during and after WW2.
    A mother will endure anything for a child's benefit, and because I have had too many experiences myself, I know for sure that losing a baby is truly the worst thing that can happen to a woman. Bless your dear mother. *tears*

    Reply
  6. Conda V. Douglas
    February 20, 2010 at 3:02 am (8 years ago)

    What a tragic story. Anthony is right, it is haunting. It reminded of the sad photos of the Victorian dead–so often the only photos the family had.

    Reply
  7. Gina
    February 20, 2010 at 4:08 am (8 years ago)

    What a powerful and moving story, Elisabeth. In this antiseptic age, you have reminded us of death coming to the family home. Since I live far away from most of my relatives, I only recently saw a photo and heard the story about my grandmother’s brother who died in childhood. My grandmother was a very private person and never talked about her past. But this photo of her dead brother was sent electronically to me just a few years ago by a relative. The child is in some kind of christening dress, supported by dining room chairs with pillows. For me, it is heartbreaking and hard to look at the image. Thank you for sharing this sorrowful story.

    Reply
  8. Annotated Margins
    February 20, 2010 at 7:25 am (8 years ago)

    Wow. What a powerful, emotional story, written so well that at the end I bowed my head and offered a prayer.

    The photo, a sad thing to have, a treasure to hold.

    Reply
  9. vazambam
    February 20, 2010 at 8:13 am (8 years ago)

    Such a heart-rending account written superbly and courageously; I had a younger brother who died when he was five or six months old during the terrible years of the German Occupation of Greece but I have no memory of him–only what I remember my mother saying: He died because there was no penicillin available to help him fight what was a minor respiratory infection.

    1941-46: Such terrible years for Greece.

    Reply
  10. Elisabeth
    February 20, 2010 at 11:09 am (8 years ago)

    Thanks Anthony. I'm pleased I was able to create images in the mind of you, an artist. It's a different process of course.

    Glimmer, thanks to you too. My mother told me the story often. She also wrote about it in her own memoir. I know the story well by now. And although it does not distress me as it did when I was a child, it still makes me sad. Needless to say, I wish my oldest sister still lived.

    Gosh, Ces, thanks for telling us about your experience as a nurse. I had not realised how bad it must be.

    It is surely a most heart breaking area in which to work. No wonder you chose to leave. I'm not sure I could bear it ether. Thank you for your kind words.

    Reply
  11. Elisabeth
    February 20, 2010 at 11:17 am (8 years ago)

    Kass, it's amazing how many people have memories of dead siblings whether their own or those of a parent or grandparent.

    The dead babies stay with us in our memories. Thanks.

    I'm sorry to have stirred up unbearable pain for you, AnnODyne. I understand your stopping midway.

    Sometimes it is just too painful, but thanks for commenting. You're right – a mother can never forget her lost baby, her lost child, her lost unborn child. They stay in our memories forever.

    Thanks Conda. The frequency with which babies died during Victorian times – babies and mothers – must have made their take on the loss of a child very different from our perspective these days. They had the additional help of more enthrenched religious views I suppose, but I imagine even then, mothers and fathers too never really overcame such losses. Thanks.

    Reply
  12. Elisabeth
    February 20, 2010 at 11:27 am (8 years ago)

    Thanks, Gina for sharing the story of the person who would have been your great uncle. It is so sad tat so many people have bottled up their pain in the way your grandmother did. Perhaps it felt better for her to do it this way, but maybe to have been able to shared the pain would have helped. who knows.

    I always try to remind myself, I must remember not to judge the past by today's standards. Things were different then. And even today, they're not homogeneous. We all experience things differently. One person keeps her pain to herself, another is desperate to share it.

    Thanks, Mike. The photo of my dead baby sister is a treasure. I will keep it near me always. I feel privileged to have it and to be able to use it as a prompt to memory.

    Thank you, Vassilis for reminding us that these years were terrible for others too, not just in Western Europe, but in many places including Greece. How tragic for your mother to have lost a son who could have been saved if only there were the right medication available.

    Sadly such terrible and unnecessary losses continue today in places where people cannot get the necessary treatment. The world is so dreadfully inequitable. I can barely let myself think about it.

    Reply
  13. Gretta
    February 20, 2010 at 12:03 pm (8 years ago)

    "an infant Miss Haversham" – great line

    Reply
  14. Reader Wil
    February 20, 2010 at 2:01 pm (8 years ago)

    To lose a child is the worst one could experience. I always cry when I read such a story like yours or see sick and dying children on TV. Your story is written well! Thanks for sharing.

    Reply
  15. The Weaver of Grass
    February 20, 2010 at 2:42 pm (8 years ago)

    That generation had so much to bear, didn't they? And yet they got on with life. My sister lost twin boys and never mentioned them until she was dying, when she gave the date of their birth as her birthday – and we knew that it had been etched onto her mind for sixty years.

    Reply
  16. LimesNow
    February 20, 2010 at 5:29 pm (8 years ago)

    Beautifully written piece of deep, great heartbreak, Elisabeth. My resonating story is about a baby cousin, but that's an unimportant difference. These dead who were not with us very long certainly throw a long shadow across our lives.

    You know I sometimes come in "sideways" on things and I'm going to do that now. I became tearful thinking about YOU and your thread in the tapestry of the dead baby sister. This post told me you are almost precisely my same age. I know you were Catholic, so I know the guilt you'd have felt about acting as attention's lightning rod. Young Catholic girls of our era were force-fed plenty of guilt and shame. And yet, I think of you in that long line of children – you were sixth – and I think of how badly you probably NEEDED attention. Being ashamed to ask for our needs in a straightforward way is a terrible burden.

    Your post has made me very pensive. I thank you for it.

    Reply
  17. Beth Niquette
    February 20, 2010 at 7:01 pm (8 years ago)

    Powerful, haunting…something I will not forget.

    I remember when my cousin Shariann died as a baby–I remember how sweet she looked in her coffin. She seemed to be only sleeping.

    I was around eight years old.

    When we were visiting our cousins in the country. We went to the graveyard where ShariAnn was buried. There was nothing to celebrate her resting place.

    As I remember it, we stole all the trappings off the other graves to festoon hers. It seemed right at the time.

    I have lost a brother–but he was 42. Dad lost his little sister when she was around the age of yours…Life is hard.

    Looking back, it is hard to fathom the life which has been lived…

    You are a gifted writer. I would read any book you might publish. Powerful, poignant wonderful writing.

    Reply
  18. steven
    February 20, 2010 at 9:38 pm (8 years ago)

    elisabeth – i read this story aloud to myself to really hear the words and feel them physically. when a child flies away it echoes through a family in a way that is hard to explain. it seems obvious that there is sorrow but there's so much more that is about absence and especially about the presence of absence. i'm grateful that you shared this here. steven

    Reply
  19. Gretta
    February 21, 2010 at 12:58 am (8 years ago)

    For better or worse, Lis, I've posted a poem in response to this discussion. Not sure if you've ever read it.

    This better not set me off – I'll blame you entirely!

    Reply
  20. Elisabeth
    February 21, 2010 at 2:19 am (8 years ago)

    Thanks, Reader Will. there is something heart wrenching about the death of a child as you say, and as the poetry I've just now posted suggests, it's the second worst thing.

    Yes, Lesley it has occurred to me that you and I are the same age, and therefore although we live on different sides of the world the milieu into which we were born would have contained similarities.

    And you are right, finding a voice, having a say, being heard is central to my struggle, as I expect it is for many bloggers.

    Others of course might prefer to listen. I think we need both, to listen to one another and to be heard. Thanks for your kind words here, Lesley and for looking in sideways.

    Reply
  21. Elisabeth
    February 21, 2010 at 2:27 am (8 years ago)

    Beth, thanks for sharing your childhood story about little Shariann's forgotten gravestone.

    Once my husband and I and our then much younger children went to Bega in New South Wales, to visit the dwelling place of his ancestors and there in a grave yard in a place called Kameruka, we came across the grave stone of a little Lydia H who died at two years of age from scalding. The memory has long stayed with me. It's so sad in graveyards to see signs of all the children who have died.

    You're right about how much we can make of an absence, Steven. We can turn an absence into a presence.

    I have been so aware of this dead sister whom I never knew. Had she lived, I suspect our relationship might have been very different.

    We tend to eulogize the dead. That's not such a bad thing. I suspect again it's a way of coping with the absence. Thanks, Steven.

    Reply
  22. LimesNow
    February 21, 2010 at 2:32 am (8 years ago)

    8/24/52, my sister. And an apology: I don't credit you frequently enough with what a stunning writer you are. I go almost 100% to the common, shared feelings. You write them beautifully, while I sometimes bathe in the shared feel of it all rather than express that it is ALSO beautiful writing. I apologize for that. I'd like to hit all my marks every time, but I don't. I'm imperfect.

    Reply
  23. Bonnie, Original Art Studio
    February 21, 2010 at 12:56 pm (8 years ago)

    An achingly beautiful and haunting tribute to your mother's devotion and the too short life of your sister. So beautifully written Elisabeth.

    Reply
  24. John Ettorre
    February 21, 2010 at 5:52 pm (8 years ago)

    Heartbreaking. Now I think I'm finally beginning to understand you a little, Elisabeth.

    Reply
  25. Jim Murdoch
    February 21, 2010 at 6:16 pm (8 years ago)

    It’s interesting what we do to gain kudos. This is probably one of the few occasions where one might properly use the expression ‘morbid curiosity’. I can see how the photo made the existence of your sister more real, more so than if you’d just been told the tale. The nearest I can come to understanding this is looking at photos of my mother’s family, uncles, aunts and nephews most of whom I have never met. I’ve never even seen a photo of any relative on my father’s side. This hasn’t troubled me and what few scraps of facts I can remember about my paternal grandfather have been enough. I’m sure I was told more but I’ve forgotten it all even why Dad broke contact with his family. I’ve certainly no desire to trace my family tree.

    I don’t feel connected to the people in the photos I’ve kept. My brother, sister and I divvied up the photos – every one found a home – but I don’t think I’ve looked at them since that day. It just seemed wrong to toss them. I scanned the ones where more of us wanted a copy, posted them to my brother and sister, and that was it. I suspect that the fact that my parents’ relatives were not a part of my life has a lot to do with my own lack of interest in family. I found it strange with my first wife to find myself absorbed into a large extended family; it wasn’t unpleasant but it felt odd.

    Your mother’s story is a very sad one but purely from a writer’s perspective I have to say that last line knocks the feet from under you when you read it. Well told.

    Reply
  26. Elisabeth
    February 22, 2010 at 11:09 am (8 years ago)

    Thanks again, Lesley. Mine's 5/11/52 – your sister and I are close in age. I'm glad we have so much in common, at least in the blogosphere. Who knows how we'd match up in real life? Thanks too for your kind words about my writing.

    Bonnie, as I wrote to you in my most recent post (I'm writing out of order here), you know about these sorts of sufferings as well – you with your particular background. We write into our pain and come out of it less pained.

    Reply
  27. Elisabeth
    February 22, 2010 at 11:24 am (8 years ago)

    Thanks, John. I'm not quite sure what you mean by 'understanding me a little better now', but I'm glad for it. Maybe one day you could elucidate.

    Thanks, Jim. This business of gaining 'kudos' can get us into all sorts of trouble, but the need to be attended to is hard wired at birth, otherwise we die.

    At school the nuns used to have a go at the noisy kids. They called them 'notice boxes'. It was an expression that troubled me.

    In my mind's eye I could see red pillar boxes, the sort into which we slipped our mail for posting.

    These noisy kids – boys mostly – did not remind me one bit of Her Majesty's pillar boxes.

    We have a large box of unsorted pictures from my husband's childhood and from before his birth, unidentified pictures. We will most likely never get to know who's in them, but like you we'll never destroy them.

    Maybe one day after we're dead they'll wind up in sorting boxes in second hand book shops.

    You probably have them too in Scotland. Boxes of old photos, black and whites mostly that people, particularly writers like to sift through for inspiration.

    You can always find some use for a photograph even if you don't know the source or its meaning.
    Thanks, Jim.

    Reply
  28. LimesNow
    February 22, 2010 at 8:36 pm (8 years ago)

    Oh, Elisabeth, I'm sorry. I stated that poorly. I was calling YOU my sister because we're so close in age. The 8-24-52 is my birthday. So you're only 3 1/2 months older. I don't have a sister. Only my tragic brother, Gary. Sorry to confuse.

    Reply
  29. Elisabeth
    February 22, 2010 at 10:17 pm (8 years ago)

    Don't stress, Lesley. I should have realised what you meant.

    I've seen it elsewhere, this affectionate sisterhood in the blogosphere. I should have twigged. Still I'm pleased to be so connected. I have three 'real' sisters. It's lovely to have another
    'virtual' one.

    Reply
  30. ALeks
    February 28, 2010 at 3:54 am (8 years ago)

    Elisabeth,you write so beautiful,im really deeply touched and moved as I recognize a lot in your story from the heart braking stories from my family and some of my Dutch friends who's parents knew the hunger winter as well. I can clearly picture it,you with your dead sister's photo,and touch the loneliness in your writing.Beautiful!
    Love,light and peace,Aleksandra
    Groetjes uit Nederland !

    Reply
  31. Elisabeth
    February 28, 2010 at 5:06 am (8 years ago)

    Thanks Aleks. It is true, the 'Honger' winter was terrible.

    I think of the tough winter people are having in the northern part of the world now and it reminds me of how hard it must have been then. At least these are not war times in most places now.

    I enjoy your visits to William Micahelian's blog, Aleks. You two seem to have a special bond and it's lovely to read about your shared love of poetry and William's portraiture.

    I'm very pleased to see you here on my blog as well. Thanks.

    Reply
  32. ALeks
    February 28, 2010 at 3:26 pm (8 years ago)

    Elisabeth,it feels fine to read this and also I wanted you to know,if I felt not so insecure about my written English(very important to me)I would,probably, comment more often and than,after all, I find myself actually feeling good by just being silent reader not only at your wonderful place,I have met more life giving spirits,warm people with their loving blogs and there Im silent too,it feels good that way. And,yes,William is a special to me,
    close trough numerous aspects of our life's,he believes in me even when I loose my faith,never done me wrong by refusing me on count of my believes,sharing compassion and warmth of a dear friend what I miss the most in my life. I hope to finalized his portrait in the near future so I can give back just a little to him and his loving family!And as I go on reading your writing,i discover more and more of beauty,you are like a raw diamond to me that I start to recognize trough the darkness of my lonely search for friendly fire.Hmm,you see.I try to do as Im clever with words but Im not,so I'll leave that to you and other well read and spoken people.Thank you,love,light and peace,
    veel geluk en liefde,
    Aleksandra
    Phfu….I did my best…. :O)

    oh,how nice,my word verification is delyla…..

    Reply
  33. Moira
    March 1, 2010 at 1:16 pm (8 years ago)

    Sad but beautifully written.

    Reply
  34. Maggie May
    March 4, 2010 at 3:42 am (8 years ago)

    I've read through this twice.

    Thank you.

    Reply

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