A year and a day after they married in an all-Polish mass at Holy Cross Church, Rosa gave birth to her first daughter—my mother. But the story I grew up with let me know that I should never have existed if it hadn’t been for Rosa’s stubborn strength…and the fact that Stanislas positioned the bureau’s mirror in such a way that allowed Rosa to see the wood burning stove in the kitchen–next to the sink. Let’s listen to my mom as she told the story to me more than 60 years ago, remembering that this account is a third-hand retelling:
“Your grandmother’s labor didn’t move swiftly. It didn’t go quickly, either. Between the time the midwife finally showed up, a lot of time and a lot of blood had passed. Finally a small, skinny baby girl was born.
“That was you, right, Mom?”
“Yup. But it wasn’t a happy time for your grandma.”
I’d heard this story many times but I didn’t want her to stop.
“Even after a long labor and a long delivery she was strong, stronger than she’d ever had to be before. Because when she looked at the reflection in the bureau’s mirror, what she saw next to the stove was the midwife and a very blue baby. She was pumping water into the sink and holding the infant’s head underneath it.”
“To wash the baby, right?” I said. I knew that wasn’t the answer but I wanted to prolong the story.
“Not to wash; to drown. An infant that was born with the cord wrapped around the neck was called a ‘blue baby’. They rarely lived at the hands of peasant midwives who lacked the education to perform CPR. So the general practice was to kill the infant and then tell the mother that the baby was stillborn.”
“Where was the doctor? Where was the ambulance?” I asked, again knowing the answer even before I asked my questions.
“Remember, this was in 1917,” my mom answered. “Fast medical help just didn’t exist yet, certainly not on the northern edge of Minneapolis. And even if it did, very few houses had telephones. So, your grandma somehow got out of bed, shouting all the while at the midwife. She grabbed a towel and she grabbed her slippery newborn and screamed with all the strength she had left, “Get out of here! Now! This baby will live!”
And that, except for questions that are no longer answerable, is all that I have. Was the midwife trained? I’d been led to believe that she was merely a neighbor lady who delivered babies for a fee. Her self-proclaimed expertise came from nothing more than practice. Plainly that infant—my mother—lived, or I wouldn’t be here now to replay that scene. And even if my story isn’t 100% accurate, after all this time I am still
awed by the inner strength of women whose children are in peril.