Heirlooms

"2 : something of special value handed on from one generation to another " – Merriam-Webster Dictionary

of loss~

on June 24, 2013

Most of my life, I knew that grandma and grandpa would never buy gas at a Shell gas station. The mere mention of Shell gasoline would set them off. They would become highly agitated and fume about how Shell stations would mix water in their gas and it would freeze in the gas lines. Something had happened to them a long time ago, to be certain, but I never really understood this irrational anger until very late one night in 2000. Sometimes, often, enlightenment can be painful.

One weekend, I came home from Chicago for a visit and set aside time to go through some things with grandma that she kept in her bedroom. We sat in her bedroom while we went through this old trunk. And, as my family all knows, there was very little space in that tiny bedroom– just enough room for a person to squeeze around the edges of the bed with furniture packed against every inch of the surrounding walls. The trunk was too heavy to move on my own so we pulled in a small chair for grandma and a footstool for me. I spent that evening at my grandma’s knee, looking up into her beautiful face. I would reach into the trunk and hand the next item to grandma. She would pause for a moment and then begin talking, softly most of the time, because it was late in evening and it was an emotional intimacy that we were experiencing there, a sacred pause of remembrance.

Filled with artifacts of lives lived in more rugged and uncertain times, we found treasures that grandma had forgotten she had. She gasped audibly when we unfurled her parents’ marriage certificate. We found her high school diploma and an album full of photos from the roaring 20’s. We found a panoramic family reunion from 1916, in which grandma was just 4 years old. We found memories, and loved ones, and time.

And then–

We came across a tiny news article, an obituary, a small slip of paper that could have been easily lost in the piles of papers still to be sorted through.

Patricia Ann Conn's obituary, dated January 3, 1937.

Patricia Ann Conn’s obituary, dated January 3, 1937, in grandma’s hand.

The story that spilled gently from grandma’s heart nearly broke mine on the spot. Her voice became softer still as she pressed the obituary against a book in her lap. I sat at her feet as she opened her heartache to me, in a voice so quiet and so calm, a voice that must have taken her decades to find to share such pain.

I always knew there had been a little baby girl named Patty. She was the third child following two boys, my Uncle Donnie and Uncle Dick. Patty was not a strong baby, however. She was not thriving and healthy and solid. She was a weak and frail baby but she was loved and treasured.

Grandma and grandpa had been visiting some family in Churubusco or Blue Lake at the holidays with the kids. As they headed home to Logansport, they gassed up their car at a station along the way. It was late December and there was water mixed in with the gas and it kept freezing in the lines. The car would stall and sputter along. It was a bitterly cold winter night. Patty fell ill. By the time they finally made their way to Logansport, many, many hours longer than it should have taken them to travel that distance, they took Patty straight to the hospital. For the next several days, grandma and grandpa watched and prayed and waited.

Patty had contracted influenza and at the delicate age of 7 months, the illness easily morphed into a fatal spinal meningitis. Grandma told me that she would watch Patty during the day and grandpa would take the night shift. Patty was running a dangerously high fever the entire time and, on the night of January 2nd, when grandma left the hospital, Patty was suffering horribly. They could not hold her. They could not comfort her.

The meningitis had already seized and damaged Patty’s brain stem. Of course, grandma and grandpa did not know this at that time. They could only watch helplessly as their baby girl, with her back arched and tiny legs rigid, would spin in small circles of agony in the hospital crib. She had not eaten for days. Grandpa held a desperate vigil that night.

In the morning, just moments before grandma arrived with great-grandma Herron to relieve grandpa, Patty’s fever broke. She relaxed and was limp and severely weakened from her battle. As soon as grandma arrived, grandpa told her that the fever had broken and, convinced that the worst was behind them, he ran out to the store to get some bottles for his baby girl. She must be so hungry.

What they did not know, what they could not understand, was that it was too late. The disease had defeated her tiny body and the damage was irreparable. The nurse came in and explained this to grandma and told her that there was little time left. There was a hasty baptism, performed by grandma and great-grandma Herron, there in the hospital room. By the time grandpa had returned, Patty was gone.

Grandma had never told me that story before that night. And now I understood why grandma and grandpa would never again buy Shell gasoline.

I knew there was a baby girl named Patty. I knew that grandma and great-grandma Herron baptized her together at the hospital. I knew that grandma worried for decades about whether or not her baby was saved in that desperate, improvised baptism without an ordained pastor there to perform the rite. This was one of the first questions she asked Phil as he completed seminary. His response affirmed all that she learned about a God of grace, love and compassion, but a mother’s heart can carry worry in a way that it becomes a persistent, nagging prayer.

I found this poem, written in grandma’s hand, in a box of with other photos and clippings:

"Prayer", found among grandma's things

“Prayer”, found among grandma’s things

Prayer

Please, Father, take her by the hand

And lead her safely thru –

Until she gets acquainted

Please let her stay with You.

And when she goes to Golden Park

Where Baby Angels play

Please choose an Angel Mother

to be with her day by day.

It’s so lonely here without her

Please help us understand and see

That Baby came from Heaven

and God needs her more than we.

I don’t have any photos of baby Patty. I don’t know if any ever existed. But I do know that she was carried in love in their hearts forever.

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8 responses to “of loss~

  1. Julie Kimsey says:

    A wonderful memory!! And so well-written!!

    • pattyo1984 says:

      Thanks, Julie~ it has been so helpful to have a creative outlet to get me through these last few stressful school months. Hope I can produce as well without the work pressure. Grandma and grandpa had such a love for their children and every grandchild. They understood just how precious every child is!

  2. Kathleen R says:

    What an amazing story. There are so many stories waiting to be told, but at just the right moment, if we have time to listen, they will flow out. Glad you had this moment with your grandmother.

  3. Michael Brandt says:

    Wow, Patty, what a great story and

    What a great story-teller you are turning out to be!

  4. […] performed. She visited the graves of her beloved family: Hazel, Merl, Milda, Alfred, Sarah and baby Patty. I am sure there were others, too, but these family members comprised her most frequent visits. I […]

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