Sometime in the early spring of 1957, Mattie Thomas birthed a baby girl in the basement of her Sixteenth street, two story, old, white wood, Victorian home. She did it as casually as she did all her other chores that day, and although she did it discretely, she placed very little significance on the act itself. Miscarriage was an occasional occurrence, somewhat welcome now. Childbirth was not new to Mattie; she had eight children, all boys.
Five of the boys: John and Albert age seven and eight, Wesley and Harmon age nine and eleven, and the oldest, Eddie junior age twelve, were in school. Two of the boys: James and Buddy age five and four, were outside playing tirelessly, racing old red painted scooters up and down the sidewalk from corner to corner. The baby, Jack was fourteen months old. He was confined to his crib, noisy and rebelling his mid-morning nap.
The first twinge of confirmation that a miscarriage might be on its way had happened earlier as Mattie pulled the big black skillet out from the cupboard to cook the usual pancake breakfast for her family. It was a small momentary cramp, but it was meaningful. She had noticed, when she woke up that morning and used the bathroom, that her undergarments had a few, small, pinkish stains in them.
The cramping had been minimal but timely consistent, resembling more like a live birth labor than like the cramping of past miscarriages. She attributed this to the fact that she could be a little more pregnant than she had been in past miscarriages. Her body usually aborted by the eighth week if it was going to do so. She guessed she could be as much as four months into a pregnancy. She never got pregnant or had periods when she nursed a baby. Baby Jack had nursed a year. It had been almost four months since he had been weaned and her menstrual cycle had not resumed. It could be either one.
Carrying a large wicker basket of laundry down the basement stairs, she felt a warm gush of water run down between her legs and wondered just how big a fetus in a miscarriage could have gotten by four months. It could be much bigger than a large clot on a Kotex pad. It might, almost, even be shaped like a real baby. The plumbing in the old house was not very good; it might even be big enough to clog up the toilet.
The left side of the basement floor was a cement slab and partitioned off into a laundry room. The middle of the basement, where the big coal burning stove sat, had a loose brick floor and beyond that, to the far right, where the coal shoot was, the floor was dirt.
She sat her laundry basket down by the washer and went over to the area of dirt floor. It occurred to her that in the nine years she had lived in the house she had never actually set foot in that area, it was an obsolete area now that they had gas heat upstairs; yet a small pile of coal and a coal shovel remained. It was a dark area. She could not see the dirtiness of it, but she could feel and smell it. Unconsciously she wiped her hands on her apron and reached for the shovel; it would be okay to dispose of the afterbirth here. She would not be touching anything. She would be careful not to raise any dust that could bring germs up into the air and risk infection. She dug an off square hole about a foot deep and a foot wide and spread flat the dirt to one side. Then, after scrubbing the black coal dust from her hands, she returned to her laundry task while waiting for the cramp that would dispel what had begun to form in her womb; it was not the only chore she had all in a day's work.
Her time came just as she was putting her last load through the wringer from the rinse tub. She had been fighting the familiar pressure in an effort to get the clothes up and drying on the line. She knew once she had aborted she would have to lay down a couple of hours to keep down excess bleeding. But bearing down pains became too insistent to ignore and as much as she fought them, her body had control. The estimated four month miscarriage simulated all the properties of a regular term birth.
Bent over, she slowly walked to the edge of the cement floor while removing her apron and dress. They had to be off as not to touch the dirt floor. She dropped them at the edge of the cement floor. She would put them back on when she returned upstairs. Her undergarments, she removed and wrapped around her neck so as to keep them out of contact with the dirt. She would need them to put between her legs when it was over. They would not go upstairs. They would be washed out in the laundry tub when she cleaned herself up afterwards.
She squatted over the hole she had dug, allowing only one hand to touch the dirt in an order to keep her balance. It was much more difficult than she had anticipated. She pushed for the first time and nearly lost consciousness as a blinding burst of pain ripped through her body. Beads of sweat formed on her forehead as she waited for the next moment she could push. When it came she held back, fearing the pain of it being as the one before had been, but only for a moment because to push was to be over and done with it quicker. She pushed; the pain was bearable and ordinary. For a moment there was no discomfort at all. It was as if her body had gone numb. That did not bother her. She had experienced this reprieve in previous real births. It would not last long. What did bother her was the sound. She could hear blood dripping into the hole beneath her. She had never birthed a child in a squat position before, she was not sure if her blood loss was normal. Suddenly the urge to push was there again and she took a deep breath and held it while pushing in her greatest effort. Pain ravaged through her lower back and genital area as her body began to violently shake; then, there was instant relief as she felt the passing. It made a plopping sound as it dropped into the liquid filled hole.
Her body kept trembling and she felt very cold. She did not feel that this was entirely abnormal. She had experienced this in childbirth before. In spite of her cautions about the filth of the environment, she moved to one side of the hole and knelt on her knees; squinting through the dimness, she tried to see the size of the fetus. It was small but it seemed to have entire shape. With her clean hand she reached into the hole and felt the shape in the warm pool of blood. It seemed to be face down so she moved it and felt the umbilical cord as the tiny body slipped around face up in her hand. She reached up and pulled a hair pin from the bun in her hair; then, opened the pin with her teeth, and holding it open with one finger, she reached down and felt for the cord. Manipulatively, she clamped the cord with the hair pin, not really thinking about why she felt the compulsion to do that, Again, squatting over the hole, she passed the afterbirth. Again she reached in and felt the fetus. It was warm but still, very still, without pulse.
She stood slowly, feeling very dizzy. She reached for the shovel and stopped as a wave of maternal feelings briefly swept over her. It had been a baby. Of course a fourth month fetus could not live but it had been more than a miscarriage, it had almost been a real baby. The moment of remorse passed and curiosity dictated that the hole not be covered yet. She had birthed eight boys and she wondered if, this child might have been a girl. She touched it lightly between its limp legs. It seemed to be a girl and not another boy; unless it was too young to have developed. Birthing a girl was difficult to believe.
Not far from where she stood, there were several cardboard boxes full of old rags and newspapers. She dumped one out and turned it upside down directly over the hole. She would come back later with a flash light for a closer look before burying the tiny, little body. Placing the undergarments between her legs, she tried to get over to the wash sink without trailing too much blood, but the bleeding was heavier than she had expected. She unhooked a hose and washed herself and the cement floor. Blood continued to run so profusely that cleaning the floor continued until she folded two towels and held them in place between her legs. Knowing she had to lay down and rest very quickly, she put all the wet and blood soaked clothes into the big coal burning stove where she could keep them secret and retrieve them later to wash.
Naked, she went upstairs and laid an old blanket under the sheets before getting into her bed. She felt weak and tired. The clock on the wall told her it was one o'clock. The older boys would not be home from school until two-thirty. She would have to put off sleep until then. She could not leave the four and five year olds, Buddy and James unsupervised outside. She wished those little ones would come in soon. Perhaps she could make them lie down and take a nap for a while. Vaguely she heard her fourteen month old son, Jack crying from his crib in the next room. Perhaps she could risk getting up just long enough to get him a bottle and some crackers........
"We're hungry," the two young boys complained at their mother's bed side when they came in from outside. Mattie opened her eyes and saw peanut butter and jelly smeared across their faces, The clock on the wall said two o'clock; just thirty minutes more and the older boys would start coming home from school.
"Get the baby a bottle of milk," she whispered. "Please......"