Haunted by Photos of the Dead 2

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.’

Haunted by Photos of the Dead 1.

In order to spare people great lumps of text I’ve broken the following into smaller sections which I shall eventually post in full but in pieces.

My mother, now in her ninetieth year, told me yesterday that she had hurt her hand. She had been walking through the hallway to her bedroom when she accidentally knocked it against the doorknob. She must have hit it hard because the top layer of skin came off and it was bleeding. When she looked at it more closely she realised that not only had she knocked off the top layer of skin but also the wound was deep. She could see her tendons down to the bone. She took herself to the office in the home where she lives in the hope that a nurse would be on duty.

The staff took one look at my mother’s hand and called an ambulance. My mother thought this unnecessary. She would have happily called a taxi. Still the ambulance came and took her to the clinic where they patched her up. They could not give her stitches because the skin on her hand was too thin. ‘It would tear,’ they said. Instead they pulled a series of tiny strips across the wound, and then bandaged it tight.

‘It hurts a little when I move it in particular ways,’ my mother said, ‘but I can tell it’s healing.’

I had rung to ask my mother a question about the past. I wanted to ask her about the photo of her dead baby, her first-born daughter who had died during the Honger winter of 1945 in Heilo, Holland. I was curious to know how the photo had come about.

My curiosity has been flamed by two books, Avery Gordon’s Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination and the other, Jay Ruby’s Secure the Shadow: Death and Photography in America, a transcript on the nature of post-mortem photography in America, which includes several photos of dead people. A friend recommended the first book; the second, I found by accident in a used books shop. I could not leave the photographs behind.

Gordon is interested in the notion of the things behind things, the things that lie beneath. She takes notice of the thoughts that haunt her even as she is trying as a sociologist to do research on something concrete and ostensibly evident. Whereas Ruby is concerned to ask questions about why we have become so afraid of death, at least in the western world that we no longer take photos of our loved ones after death as mementos, or if we do take photos, they are kept private, not shared with the public, for fear that the owners might be considered ghoulish. (Ruby, 1995, p. 161)

I struggle to understand why so many things have become unspeakable, that it gets harder and harder to remember. But these days my mother’s memory for certain past events has a sharpness and clarity it never had before. My mother’s thin skin is a sign to me that soon she will be gone and with it her voice, I must catch her memories before it is too late, even as her memories are full of gaps and shadows. I will hitch her memories to mine and look for signs in between, look for the haunting to uncover something of her past.

I follow in Gordon’s direction. She describes how one day she was on her way to a conference to present a paper. She does not spell out the topic but how she had found herself distracted away from her topic by thoughts of a woman whose image she had discovered as ‘missing’ from the photo of a conference group in Berlin several years ago. According to Gordon’s research, the woman, Sabina Spielrein should have been present in that photo, but she was not there. Spielrein is a little known psychoanalyst from Freud’s day, little known despite the fact that she was the first to hypothesise on the nature of the death instinct.

My mother is describing her wounded hand and I cringe at the thought that her skin is so thin it cannot withstand a simple knock, the sort of knock that would leave most of us with a red mark, at best; a bruise, at worst.

‘They peeled the skin back over the hole,’ my mother said. ‘It had rolled itself up and they dragged it back over the wound.’ The image left me squeamish. Why do we wince when people describe their injuries, their own or another’s injuries in graphic detail?

In time I asked my mother the question that had prompted my phone call. She could not remember who took the photo, but she suspected it was the neighbour of her cousin in whose house she had been staying. She told me again the story she has told me many times before, always at my instigation. When I was little I wondered that she could stay dry-eyed in the telling. She seemed so calm, when I had imagined that were I the mother of a dead baby I would find it hard to go on living.

‘It is harder’, my mother said in this most recent conversation to lose an older child. ‘When a child dies so young, you have fewer memories. It takes far less time to get over it.’

For my mother, memories keep the idea of her lost child alive but given that this baby was only five months old, her life so short, there are few memories attached to her.

Still there was a catch in my mother’s voice as she spoke to me over the phone, as if she were re-remembering the feeling of her loss all that time back.

As long as I can remember my mother has checked herself; kept her tears to herself; put a full stop onto her feelings by offering some trite homily, some staving-off comment:
‘Well, that was that. No use dwelling on these things.’