Mike with his dog Brownie.
Mike playing in the dirt.
My latest book, HALLEY, awarded 2015 Jefferson Cup Honor for Historical Fiction, awarded the Moonbeam Silver Medal for Young Adult Fiction, and awarded the 2016 Frank Yerby Award for Fiction. Available at: NewSouth Books: www.newsouthbooks.com/halley and Amazon.
I didn’t find out what caused babies until the summer of my fourteenth year. I happened up on a Reader’s Digest article at my Aunt Hilde’s house: “How To Tell Your Child The Facts of Life.” It was a revelation that explained a lot of mysteries. So when my mother got pregnant for the fifth and last time, I knew how, but I sure didn’t know why.
There were plenty of reasons for why not. We were so poor that Mama and I only had one pair of shoes between us. Only one of us at a time could leave the house. Mama had only recently left the sanitarium where she had been committed because a “nervous breakdown” following my father’s alcohol-related near death experience. We barely had anything in the way of furniture or clothing, because our previous rental house had burned to the ground, taking everything we owned except for the clothes on our backs and Daddy’s clunker car.
After reading the Digest article, I was able to figure out that Daddy wanted another baby (He enjoyed babies until they were old enough to become work). Every time we had a visitor, he was bound to say, “I know what would take care of all the old lady’s problems—she needs another little’un.”
About like she needs a hole in the head, I would think, and Mama seemed to agree. She would usually mutter in a sarcastic tone, “Yeah, that’s all I’d need all right.” So I thought Mama and I were of a like mind, at least on this subject. Then one bitterly cold day she and I were doing the weekly laundry by hand when she broke the news. We had hand-scrubbed and rinsed and were now hanging laundry on the clothesline. The clothes were freezing almost as fast as we could secure them with clothes pins.
“Well,” Mama said, her eyes on the ground, “I’m going to have a baby.”
I was stunned, so my words tumbled out uncensored. “My God, Mama. You and Daddy can’t provide for the four you already have!”
Mama never welcomed criticism—especially when it was loaded with truth. “It’s none of your business if we have twelve,” she said. Since I barely had a change of clothing and the elastic in all my drawers was so shot that they only stayed on thanks to safety pins taking up the slack, I felt it was my business, but I was smart enough to leave this unsaid.
I was angry and embarrassed at my parents—deliberately adding to an already too large family. But I knew enough to nurse my anger in silence. After a while, Mama figured out a way to reconcile me. She told me that my sister and I could name the baby. In spite of myself, I was drawn in. Jean and I decided on “Elizabeth” for a girl and “Michael” for a boy. Then, a couple of weeks short of the due date, Mama had a brainstorm. “George would love to have one young’un named after him. ‘George Michael’ is what we’ll name a boy.”
“Mama,” I wailed, “you promised we could could call him Michael.”
“You can,” she said. “The first name’ll just be on his birth certificate.“
I knew it couldn’t be that simple. “Daddy will want to call him George. We’ve already got three Georges in the family. I don’t want ‘Little George’ added to the crowd.”
“Your daddy won’t care what the baby’s called,” Mama argued.
But, of course, he did. “This is Little George” he would announce to everyone who came to see the baby.
“Michael,” I would hiss. “We’re calling him Michael.”
That was the only battle with Daddy I ever won. After about three years he quit calling his youngest “Little George.” But, in a way, Daddy still won—he started calling him Mike, and now that is what everyone calls my youngest brother.
And when I laid eyes on Mike for the first time, I forgot that I hadn’t wanted him. He was the most beautiful baby I had ever seen, or ever will see. And he was infectiously happy and charming. Mama would get irritated at me for carrying him all the time. “You’re going to spoil that baby, and then we’ll see if you’re willing to keep toting him around.”
She was wrong. I don’t remember ever getting tired of it, and when I left home to go to college four years later, leaving him was the hardest thing I had to do. Who was going to read to Mike, take him for walks in the woods, and play games with him? For a couple of months at Berry College I cried myself to sleep every night.
Mike survived. Against the odds, he turned out fine. And he has a place in my heart forever.
Turns out, Mike was what the whole family needed. Perhaps me, most of all. I still love you, baby brother.