Aunt Betty and Uncle Eddy visit me in the maternity ward four days before Christmas. My mother is going home to the six kids she can’t afford, but I’ve come early, I’m under five pounds, I’m staying a while. Betty and Eddy get paid to foster other kids, but she’s thinking, this baby is family. This tiny little delicate thing.
In the new year, they ask the priest to the house, and I’m in Aunt Betty’s arms. Uncle Eddy, in the suit and tie he wears to the car lot, leans on his elbows. He has a cigarette going. Aunt Betty has laid a plate of banana bread slices on the oilcloth. She knows how to hold babies so they just quiet down.
The priest listens to the question Eddy puts to him.
“Betty and I think we should take this one,” he says, pointing the cigarette at me. I don’t even know my life hangs in the balance. “She’s my sister’s seventh. We’re looking after her anyway, seems the right thing, but what do you think Padre?”
This is southwestern Ontario, 1961. The priest gives one mass a week in Latin. I screamed when he held me over the baptismal font, and again when he held me on the altar for a picture. I wore the Strub gown—sewn from my grandmother’s wedding dress. Aunt Betty had taken it out of her linen closet, ironed it on gentle with a little bit of starch in the water, and then threaded pink ribbon through the sleeve cuffs and through the neckline.
The priest smokes too, and sips on his coffee. The eat-in kitchen is warm from the oven, and blue with smoke, though Aunt Betty has cracked the window over the sink an inch. Uncle Eddy is watching the dense grey sky. He can see the snow he piled along the sidewalk. He’s thinking about the car sales he needs to cover Christmas and he’s adding up the cost of another child. Bonnie is already eight years old; Betty hasn’t had to get out of their bed in the night to tend to her for a few years. Brian, the oldest, is twelve. David, the ten-year-old, has taken a shine to his baby cousin. Gets mad when the dog tries to lick her face.
Eddy thinks of his sister Mae. He has helped already, saying nothing when Betty watches the youngsters, and every Sunday Mae brings her brood for dinner. He carefully parcels out the roast as he carves it, pours gravy on a heap of mashed potatoes and carrots on his own plate. Monday Betty makes meatloaf, and he eats half the pan.
“What does the mother say?” The priest looks down at me, starting to wiggle and fuss. The smoke.
Now the snow is deep, it’s late January. I’m consecrated.
“We haven’t mentioned the idea to her yet,” admits Eddy, watching a foolish squirrel that should be in hibernation but is rooting in the snow. “She’s in over her head, now, Father. The baby’s here every day.”
The priest closes his eyes, resting them from the smoke. Aunt Betty gets up and refills his cup from the percolator on the stove, expertly jiggling me in the crook of her other arm. Like riding a bike, she thinks, you never forget. No more of their own, her and Eddy, but all children belonged to God, and this tiny one, well she had something of Eddy, something of the Strub in her, didn’t she?
Mae told them it was Don’s baby, but that was just wishful thinking. He’d driven her to the hospital and Mae said he offered to sign the birth certificate, but Betty knows that’s a lie too. Don’s an American, married. He knows math. He’d have figured it out, even if she came earlier than expected.
Betty thinks Don’s affection for her sister-in-law is real, but not so deep that a baby would tip the scale. Men only make sacrifices if it suits them. Eddy agreed to talk to Father, but she can hear how the words he’s saying don’t fit his mouth. Words she whispered to him in bed, out of earshot of the children. Told him Bonnie would love a sister.
“The mother, she’s Catholic.”
“Raised same as me, Father, by the sisters out in St. Agatha.”
“And she’s not asked you to take the babe from her?”
I’m beginning to twist and squawk. Eddy squashes his cigarette out in the big glass ashtray on the table and frowns to Betty.
“Maybe Mary needs a change?”
Uncle says this the same way he gets my aunt’s attention at mealtime. “Might it need a little more salt?” “Any pickle relish in the pantry?”
Aunt Betty rises from the table, lifting me away from the eyes of these men. In her room she lays me on her chenille bedspread, kisses my cheeks and pins dry flannel to my bottom. The men are done. Father snaps rubbers over his big black shoes and lifts his coat from the hook. Eddy salted the front steps before the priest came, but he still says, “Watch your step on the way down there, Father. Need you at work tomorrow, good and strong.”
“Can’t beat the treachery of those church steps,” Father laughs. “Can’t keep ourselves in salt.”
Uncle Eddy hands Father an envelope which he puts in his inside pocket.
“Sure I can’t drive you?”
“Thank you no, I need the walk. Betty, always a treat, your baking.”
“You’re welcome, Father.” Aunt Betty is bouncing me a little up and down, though I’m quiet.
We watch near the front window as Father steps gingerly down the icy sidewalk. Uncle Eddy reaches around us to turn on the television, the volume low from the console’s front grill. He plunks himself into the bigger wingchair, opposite her smaller chair.
“Not while the mother is alive,” Uncle says. “Just do the best you can to help.”
MJ Malleck is a first-generation university graduate who wrote a business blog before returning to storytelling. She grew up on the Canadian side of the US border and still likes her weather report in Fahrenheit degrees. Her work has appeared in The Temz Review, Entropy, Wrongdoing, Agnes & True. She is writing a collection of shorts and her first novel. Twitter @MJMalleck